HKMDB Daily News

July 15, 2013

Man of Tai Chi (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , , , — dleedlee @ 4:09 pm

Man of Tai Chi

7/12/2013 by Clarence Tsui
Keanu Reeves makes his directorial debut with a multi-lingual China-set fight film starring “Matrix” stuntman turned front man, Tiger Chen.

HONG KONG – The Chinese title of Keanu Reeves’ directorial debut is Tai Chi Xia. It’s a phrase seemingly fraught with contradictions: While the titular martial arts school has been marked for its emphasis on self-defense, slowness and harmony, the third Chinese character refers to fighters active in perpetuating justice through close combat – a label applied in Chinese names for Western superheroes such as Batman (“Bianfu Xia” in Mandarin), Spider-man (“Zhizhu Xia”) or Iron Man (“Gangtie Xia”).

This parallel between Man of Tai Chi and these U.S. comics-turned-film-franchises might be more than just a marketing ploy. Opening in China last week and slated for a release in the U.S. by Radius at the end of 2013, the film adheres to the presently de rigueur interest in tackling the inner schisms of a powerful protagonist struggling with how he is to utilize (and capitalize on) his powers, a psychological conflict heightened by the circumstances the film’s hero has to engage with in 21st-century, cosmopolitan China — a country thriving on speed, with its go-getters defining the country’s moral parameters through their capitalistic drive.

With its toned-down, near-claustrophobic depiction of its leading character’s moral passage through bone-crunching blows, Man of Tai Chi — a project heralded by its major backer, the state-owned China Film Group, as a prime exemplar of a foreign star coming to the country and making an authentic “Chinese” film — actually runs against the upbeat, celebratory ethos which has ruled the roost in Chinese cinemas for the past few months.

Adding to its lack of high-octane blockbuster production values and an established top-billed star — Reeves is more a supporting presence on screen as the villain — its box office traction in China has stalled, and chances for the film to attain mainstream international success are limited. But stuntman-turned-star Tiger Chen’s scintillating execution of Yuen Woo-ping’s action choreography should generate interest among martial arts aficionados around the world hankering for a film filled with po-faced, skull-cracking fights underlined by philosophical musings about the rationale of violence and its discontents.

Those who expect great things from the reunion of this Matrix triumvirate — Reeves befriended both Yuen and Chen for the Wachowskis film series — will not be disappointed by the action on offer; and it’s a very diverse plate too, representing the different “paths” a martial artist could walk down. Ranging from the fluid physical moves which Reeves and Yuen adapted from Tai Chi, to the hair-raising bare-knuckle close encounters the film’s protagonist endures with fighters from around the world — including an unfortunately short sequence from Indonesian actor Iko Uwais of The Raid fame – the fights are ceaseless, relentless and nearly always brutal: imagine a modern-day take on Game of Death, in which mirrored rooms and characterless bunkers replace the Korean pagoda, and one gets close to describing the ambience in which the violence unfolds.

The central question being posed here is what a martial arts expert is fighting for — and how those from a newer Chinese generation should look at what they do, amid the clash and clamor engulfing their earthly existence. It’s this complexity which makes Chen’s character – a version of himself, Chen Linhu, with his given name means “tiger in the woods” – interesting: when not practicing his Tai Chi moves with his aged master (Yu Hai) in a far-flung, rundown temple, Linhu lives in a cramped flat in a Beijing tenement block, braves the Chinese capital’s horrid traffic jams as a delivery man, and tries to improve his English by listening to the radio.

It’s a life he has had no qualms about. He’s shown himself to be more a man of the world, as he admits to his master of his discomfort in holding his energy back with his Tai Chi routines (his school, invented by Reeves and his team, is called Ling Kong, or “emptying your spirit”). He later tells a TV reporter after a martial arts competition that his aspiration is to show the world how Tai Chi “is not just for exercise.”

As Linhu struggles to contain the vigorous beast within himself, the opportunity to get out of his torn-between-two-worlds conundrum arrives in the form of a job offer from self-proclaimed multinational security services operator Donaka Mak (Reeves). Whizzed to Hong Kong by limousine and then private jet, Linhu discovers he is actually being recruited to take part in illegal fights in the city with big financial rewards. Initially rejecting this break, Linhu soon relents to what seems to be a development beyond his control, as he suddenly needs some quick cash to renovate and save his master’s decrepit temple from the State’s urban planners and their bulldozers.

But what Linhu has considered a short-term vocation slowly lets out the dark side of his psyche. Quietly liberated from the no-holds-barred nature of the clandestine contests he participates in at night, his personality by day begins to change, as he talks back to his boss at work, spends his now inflated earnings on (product placement alert!) posh cars and electric appliances for his family, and — perhaps most devastatingly — begins “letting the beast out” (as Donaka urges him to do) in televised public martial arts showcases.

This is perhaps what Reeves, through his on-screen alter-ego Donaka, means when he describes what he’s offering with Man of Tai Chi: a chronicle of how “a person evolves and changes” when placed in drastic life scenarios. Indeed, for all the breathtaking acrobatics shown in the fighting sequences, the film is actually more perceptive when examining, up close, Linhu’s dilemmas in choosing between sticking to his principles and letting his instincts run amok. While Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker and Tony Stark might have, at one point or another, stared at their superhero suits and reflected on the burden they embodied, Linhu’s struggle is the other way round: His decision to break from his meek past is symbolized by his final glance at the gaudy windbreaker he has to wear as a uniform for his deliveryman job.

Rather than being simplistic, Reeves could be charged for being too ambitious in his attempt to add too many layers to his long-gestated directorial debut. Taking a cue out of the paranoia-infused universe of The Matrix, the first-time director attempts to provide a Big Brother/The Truman Show sheen to Linhu’s story by having Donaka’s team produce a running 24-hour broadcast of his new charge’s life as a streaming online show; this critique of cyberspace is undercooked and only exposes how much Reeves and his team are left wanting in their grasp of arguments against Internet technology, mediated culture and simulacra.

And needing to portray the law as eventually gaining an upper hand over the baddies — this is a state-sanctioned mainland Chinese production, after all — the narrative is supplemented by a group of Hong Kong detectives (led by a sergeant played by Karen Mok) trying to close down Donaka’s fight-club operations. Both threads turn out to be superfluous to the proceedings and only serve to distract rather than enhance the main narrative.

The need to appease censors with constructive, politically correct denouements notwithstanding, Reeves has delivered a film that rejects Orientalist cliches; in fact, Man of Tai Chi — penned by Irish screenwriter Michael Cooney — could even be read as a mockery of occidental fascination with Chinese kung fu, with Donaka being the embodiment of the sinister Western svengalis trying to cash in on exotic entertainment featuring a culturally different protagonist. Reeves himself has inoculated himself from this criticism by refusing to give an excessively mystical spin to Tai Chi.

Meanwhile, the setting of Linhu’s every-man, everyday routines as a working-class individual in an ordinary modern metropolis is also crucial: rather than taking place in a caricatured land of kung fu warriors dressed in dragon-emblazoned attire — something Donaka would make Linhu wear in his fights — Man of Tai Chi, at the end of the day, offers a look at the universal struggle faced by a David in the land of Goliaths.

The film is clearly no simple vanity project for Reeves. While weighed down by digressions and contraptions, Man of Tai Chi is an adequate and ambitious effort from a first-time director, who could have enhanced his on-screen philosophical arguments with a bit more depth and done with a touch less of the admittedly riveting man-to-man melee.

Production: China Film Group, Wanda Media, Village Roadshow Pictures Asia, Universal Pictures, Company Films
Cast: Tiger Chen, Keanu Reeves, Karen Mok, Yu Hai, Simon Yam, Ye Qing
Director: Keanu Reeves
Action director: Yuen Woo-ping
Screenwriter: Michael Cooney
Producers: Lemore Syvan, Daxing Zhang
Executive Producers: Han Sanping, Zhao Fang, Ellen Eliasoph
Director of photography: Elliot Davis
Production designer: Yohei Taneda
Music: Chan Kwong-wing
Costume designer: Joseph Porro
Art directors: Fu Yingzhang, Miyuki Kitagawa
Editor: Derek Hui
In English, Mandarin and Cantonese
Running time 105 minutes
THR

July 9, 2013

Man of Tai Chi (Variety review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , , — dleedlee @ 1:07 pm

Man of Tai Chi

Maggie Lee

There’s little in the way of drama, character depth or mise-en-scene to distract from Tiger Chen’s technically dazzling display of human combat in Keanu Reeves’ helming debut, “Man of Tai Chi.” As a vehicle for Hollywood action choreographer Chen to show off his prowess as a gullible tai-chi student lured into underground fight clubs, this China-U.S. co-production is the real deal for hardcore chopsocky fans, and will slot easily into genre ancillary. But Reeves’ workmanlike direction doesn’t boast enough style or originality for this actioner to significantly cross over to the mainstream.

With no confirmed date for a Stateside bow, the Beijing/Hong Kong-set pic premiered in China with only a 12.7% screen occupancy, facing stiff competition from the likes of the phenomenally successful teen drama “Tiny Times” and Johnnie To’s “Blind Detective.” Opening day B.O. produced a lame $872,000, half of what To’s action-comedy earned when it was released a day earlier.

The original idea for this project reportedly sprang from Reeves’ desire to pay tribute to his friend and trainer, Chen (aka Chen Hu). The Sichuan-born martial-arts champion is a protege of esteemed action director Yuen Woo-ping, and was largely responsible for the action choreography on “The Matrix” series, “Kill Bill” and “Charlie’s Angels,” among others. With Yuen taking the reins in “Man of Tai Chi,” Chen provides a thorough overview of martial-arts schools and combat techniques, but as an actor, he doesn’t possess Jet Li or Donnie Yen’s charisma. Similarly, the crew — consisting of American, Hong Kong and mainland Chinese collaborators — does professional work, but delivers neither the spectacle expected of a Hollywood blockbuster nor the quirky charm and kinetic energy of classic Hong Kong actioners.

The theme and storyline are utterly generic — the corruption of a noble spirit by his thirst for winning. It begins with a scene of brutal man-to-man combat in a cell, where fighter Chi-tak (Jeremy Marinas) thrashes his opponent; when he refuses to “finish him off,” as ordered by an unseen game master, he is stabbed by a man (Reeves) in a mask. Led by Hong Kong police superintendent Suen Jing-si (Karen Mok), a SWAT team raids the premises but finds nothing. Jing-si appeals to her chief (Simon Yam) to help locate Chi-tak, who’s actually her mole, but the case is unceremoniously closed.

The masked man turns out to be Donaka Mark, a financial high roller from the U.S. who runs a covert fight club in Hong Kong. In search of a replacement for Chi-tak, he chances upon the TV broadcast of a Chinese national martial-arts championship. Chen Linhu (Chen), sole disciple of the Lingkong School of Tai Chi, impresses him not only with his innovative moves, but also his innocence. Although he holds a stressful, low-paid job as a courier in Beijing, Linhu declines the offer to compete in Donaka’s underground matches, deeming it dishonorable. However, when the temple guarded by his master (Yu Hai) faces demolition unless costly renovations are made, Donaka’s offer of quick cash suddenly becomes easy bait.

To the credit of Reeves and scribe Michael G. Cooney, the film respectfully avoids exoticism or oriental mysticism in its portrayal of its martial-arts milieu, only slipping in small, tolerable dose of Taoist and Qigong philosophy. The fighting never feels repetitive as it alternates between proper Chinese kung fu and a fusion of no-holds-barred, MMA-inflected styles. With its rapid-fire, virtually nonstop mortal combat, the film recalls Gareth Evans’ Indonesia-set “The Raid: Redemption,” although “Man’s” less callous, more humanist approach toward violence is what will prevent it from achieving the same sort of cult success. (“The Raid” star Iko Uwais even makes a guest appearance here as Linhua’s opponent, but his role is squandered, as what should be the crowning showdown is cut short for a less exciting settling of the score with Donaka.)

Chen, who possesses extraordinary strength and agility, convincingly expresses his character’s loss of inner balance and growing bloodlust through body language, moving from the graceful formalism of tai chi to ugly, predatory moves as his opponents become more intimidating. The drawback is that lenser Elliot Davis’ stark framing and unswerving focus on the action tends to give short shrift to the identities and personalities of the other fighters.

Considering how basic the plot is, Derek Hui’s brisk editing keeps the story moving along smoothly enough, but the characters’ interactions are too superficial to engage. When he’s not kicking ass, Chen is wooden around the other thesps, and especially with the vacant Ye Qing as Linhu’s love interest. Only Yu’s sage countenance and dignified poise transcend the elementary martial-arts philosophy espoused here; a revered martial artist who had a memorable role in the seminal “Shaolin Temple” series that propelled Jet Li to stardom, he contributes some of the film’s most magnificent tai chi demonstrations.

As the demonic figure who brings out the dark side of Linhu, Reeves is stiff and expressionless, never really registering as a catalyst for the good-vs.-evil conflict that should have formed the film’s dramatic backbone. As the cop who uncovers Donaka’s nefarious dealings, Mok is given little to work with, but she still shows some spunk and agility when one least expects it.

Famed Nipponese production designer Yohei Taneda gives some of the sets a surreal look reminiscent of “The Matrix’s” cyberworld; others, such as the fighting arenas, remain minimalist and functional. Except for some panoramic shots of Hong Kong’s skylines at night, the city emerges with scant distinct color; by contrast, the Beijing locations feel more authentic, avoiding touristy sights in favor of congested highways and lived-in neighborhoods. The concussive score, mixing techno with Canto-rap and sometimes just blasts of noise, is in keeping with the bombast typical of so many Hong Kong composers. Other tech credits are pro.

Reviewed at Sanlitun Megabox, Beijing, July 5, 2013. Running time: 104 MIN. Original title: “Taiji xia”

Production
(China-U.S.) A China Film Group/Wanda Media (in China)/Village Roadshow Pictures Asia (in Australia)/Radius-TWC (in U.S.) release of a China Film Group, Wanda Media Village Roadshow Pictures Asia, Universal, Company Films presentation of a China Film Group, Wanda Media, Universal production. Produced by Lemore Syvan, Zhang Daxing. Executive producers, Han Sanping, Zhao Fang, Ellen Eliasoph.

Crew
Directed by Keanu Reeves. Screenplay, Michael G. Cooney. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Elliot Davis; editor, Derek Hui; music, Chan Kwong-wing; production designer, Yohei Taneda; art directors, Fu Yingzhang, Miyuki Kitagawa; costume designer, Joseph Porro; sound (Dolby Digital); action choreographer, Yuen Woo-ping; stunt coordinator, Chan Siu-wah; line producers, Johnny Lee, Sharon Miller; assistant director, Fei Wong; second unit director, Lee Peipei; second unit camera, Dai Runguang; casting, PoPing Auyeung.

With
Keanu Reeves, Tiger Chen, Karen Mok, Yu Hai, Ye Qing, Simon Yam, Sam Lee, Iko Uwais, Jeremy Marinas. (English, Mandarin, Cantonese dialogue)
Variety

October 21, 2009

October 21, 2009

14 Blades poster

(cri.com)

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Terri Kwan, Oceane Zhu Xuan

Cheng Pei-PeiKarena Lam, George Lam, Daniel Wu, Kenneth Tsang and wife

Prince of Tears Hong Kong premiere - slide show (28) (Sina.com)

(Sina.com)

THR: Chow Yun-Fat to star in Jiang’s ‘Bullets’

CRI: Chow Yun-Fat Joins “Bullets” Cast

… there were no less than ten options for the ending of the movie. The director and Chow came up with the final version when they were drinking and chatting…

The 11 major male roles will go towards assembling a Chinese “Ocean’s Eleven”, according to earlier reports.

Investment in the movie has hit 150 million Hong Kong dollars, or about 20 million US dollars.

Michelle Yeoh goes back to gongfu

In Jianyu Jianghu, loosely translated as Rain Of Swords In The Martial Arts World, she will play an assassin.

Co-directed by acclaimed Chinese director John Woo (Face/Off) and Taiwanese film-maker Su Chao-pin (Silk), filming for the movie will start in China next week.

Emi Wada: A many-hued Oscar

The world knows Emi Wada for her Academy Award-winning costumes for Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, but most Chinese know her as the brains behind the techni-colored wardrobe of Zhang Yimou’s 2002 Hero (Yingxiong).

Astro Boy’s Huge Comeback

Deng Chao’s Astro Boy haircut

Deng Chao as Astro Boy

THR: Golden Harvest promises rebirth

New managers vow to resurrect storied HK studio Golden Harvest

Benny Chan’s New Shaolin Temple won’t be like the Jet Li version. Filming begins in December and will feature Nic Tse, Fan Bingbing, Andy Lau, Jackie Chan, and Wu Jing. But the female lead has not been cast yet. Fan Bingbing replaces Zhou Xun who was originally announced but had a schedule conflict. Script is by New Police Story’s Yuen Kam-Lun. Filming will take place at the actual Shaolin Temple then move to Hengdian Studio. (Xinhua)

Keanu Reeves will act in producer/investor capacity and ’spiritual pillar’. He will not star, as previously reported, in Kung Fu Hero. Keira Knightly is slated to guest appear. Ning Ying will direct.[An odd choice as she is noted for harder hitting films like On The Beat and Railroad of Hope.] Beijing launch ceremony photos below. (Sina.com)

Tiger Chen Hu

Chen Hu, Lin Shen

Director Ning Ying

Three leads - Chen Hu, Jiang Mengjie, Lin Shen

Brandy Yuen, action director

October 15, 2009

October 15, 2009

Filed under: News — Tags: , , , , , — dleedlee @ 12:27 pm

14 Blades - Sexy Kate Tsui

Debut screening scheduled for Golden Rooster

CRI: Golden Rooster Film Fest Opens on a Sour Note

Variety: Astro Boy review

Screen Daily: I Come With The Rain

Feng Xiaogang leading rehearsals

Reprise: Aftershock/Tangshan Earthquake stills

The Keanu Reeves - Tiger Chen Hu martial arts collaboration is back on track. The Li Xiaowan production ‘Kungfu Xia’ is slated to start up this month, likely with multiple directors: Yuen Wo-Ping, Yuen Cheung Yan and Chen Hu. Lucy Liu, a Chen Hu student, is likely to be cast for the North American targeted film. In 2007, Chen Hu and Keanu Reeves scouted locations near Sichuan, especially scenic Mount Emei. Han Sanping is also one of the producers and Keanu Reeves is providing investment. (Sina.com)

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