BY LE LE MAC
I was intrigued by Man of Tai Chi as it is a multi-lingual, co-production between China, Hong Kong and the United States. In short, I wanted to see what a “hybrid” film can produce for the Asian and North American perspectives. Interestingly, it was also featured at TIFF 2013. Let’s just say I’m glad I didn’t wait in line to see it at TIFF.
The story follows Chen Lin-Hu (Tiger Hu Chen), a conscientious student of Ling Kong Tai Chi and a delivery man in Beijing by day. He enters the Wulin martial arts contest in an effort to prove that tai chi is a credible martial art worthy of competition against other traditional disciplines. Chen’s strength in these competitions captures Donaka Mark’s (Keanu Reeves) attention and Donaka recruits Chen to be a prize fighter in his underground fighting ring. This fighting ring is interesting because the fights are filmed for a reality show that only audiences outside of China and the Chinese elite can access. It’s obvious that this is an appropriation of Asian culture/Asian consumption, and perhaps the filmmakers are poking fun at this issue.
The plot thickens when Chinese authorities threaten to demolish Chen’s 600-year-old tai chi temple where he trains with his master, which leaves him with no choice but to accept Donaka’s offer and use his prize earnings to help preserve this temple. We witness Chen’s demise into the dark world of money, power, fame and corruption.
Chen is the leading character in this film, and his flat persona makes it difficult for the audience to empathize with him and to root for his redemption. He’s about as charismatic as a pebble. The antagonist, Donaka, another one-dimensional character, is as intense and scary as a yam. The audience is supposed to root for the female, Hong Kong police officer Sun (Hong Kong actress Karen Mok) who works hard to crack down on the illegal fight ring, but her onscreen presence just served as a side story, which left no time for the audience to connect with or even to care about justice and righteousness.
The film should be commended for making a good effort in trying to convey the underlying theme of the conflict between modernity and tradition. For instance, Chen and tai chi represent tradition and mixed martial arts and the underground fighting ring represent modernity. The conflict of Chinese authorities trying to tear down the 600-year-old tai chi temple is an obvious display of the clash between tradition and modernity. However, this effort to convey this theme doesn’t come across as compelling because it wasn’t executed well enough; it lacked convincing acting and drama.
Tiger has a total of 10 lines, and Keanu Reeves was trying to be a badass but he wouldn’t be able to scare a five-year-old girl. The action scenes couldn’t even save the film because as a viewer, Tiger looked sloppy and Keanu trying to bring some Matrix moves into the film was just awkward and out of place. Good effort, but not enough.
Le Le Mac’s passion in film started when she would watch several Chinese films a week so that she could learn how to be more fluent in her mother tongue. Her passion then led her to study film and the Asian diaspora in Canada in graduate school. She is currently writing film reviews as a hobby. She is a big fan of Radiohead and tea. She has 40 different types of tea in her collection, and will often host tea parties. She currently lives in Toronto with her husband.