Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Man of Tai Chi

I've been thinking a lot about the devil lately.

I've never been a big fan of Christian-based horror fiction because it tends to make horror punitive, but I love the idea of the Devil. I love the idea of a monster that seduces and corrupts rather than simply causing havoc. It's subtle and more fraught with tension. Any psycho can stick a knife into someone, but it takes a special kind of monster to take your spirit. How many pieces of yourself can you give away before you're no longer you?

As cool as the idea is, the payoff never worked for me. There's a passage in Neil Gaiman's Sandman: Seasons of Mist storyline where the devil bemoans the ideas people have that he goes around collecting souls like a fishwife at market. A soul is too abstract and meaningless of a prize. The devil needs something concrete.

In Man of Tai Chi, the amazing martial arts film from Keanu Reeves, there's a moment when Keanu Reeves's sinister manipulator Donaka Mark is watching surveillance footage of Tiger Chen. He focused the camera on Chen's face, smiles, and says, "innocence." It's a chilling moment. Up until that point I'd assumed Keanu Reeves was a garden variety crime boss whose main business involved hosting deadly fights for rich perverts. The second he targets something as ephemeral as innocence he becomes something darker and more menacing.

Tiger Chen certainly doesn't lack for innocence. When I first saw the trailer, I wasn't sure I'd buy the actor as an action star. His body is too slight and he looked more like a teenager than a stern kung-fu warrior. He starts the movie with a sort of naive impatience. He's admirably centered in the face of his thankless delivery job, he's a loving son to his parents, and he trains with a wise old man living in a gorgeous temple. His sifu's talk of meditation and centeredness eludes him. While a nice guy, it's clear early in the film that he's got a serious case of Brown Belt Syndrome, the peculiar affliction most martial artists go through when they feel a burning desire to test their skills in a real fight.

Spotted at a kung fu exhibition by Donaka Mark's recruiters, he's invited to a mysterious job interview. Silent men pick him up in fancy cars and he's flown to an anonymous gray building. He's escorted to a room, left alone for a few unsettling moments, and suprise-attacked by a brutal Muay Thai fighter. Chen overcomes the man, gets paid a significant amount of money, and invited back.

The rest of the film follows Chen's descent into hell. The first dozen fights involve opponents using different styles and fights in the same anonymous gray rooms. As Chen's skill and bloodlust grow, he's brought into boutique fights on boats off the mainland, where he's forced to descend into new levels of savagery to overcome a pair of skilled opponents. Finally, when Chen has sunk to his nadir, Donaka Mark asks him to break his final taboo: kill his opponent.

By that point in the film, I wasn't sure that Tiger Chen wouldn't take Donaka Mark up on it. His later matches show him in complete control and he doesn't so much beats as dominates his opponent. He'd been kicked out of mainstream kung fu tournaments for excessive brutality, he became edgy and impatient with everyone, and he challenged his sifu to a rage-fueled match at the temple. The latter was a spectacular scene and it felt like a child furiously rejecting the teachings of the father. Unlike a lot of martial arts films, where the practitioner is almost saintly in their morality, Tiger Chen has fallen dangerously close to damnation.

But Tiger Chen does hesitate when told to kill his opponent. So Donaka Mark, clad in a black suit and obsidian mask, steps into the ring and snaps the man's neck. The way Mark looks up at Tiger Chen with wrathful eyes behind his expressionless mask reminded me of the inhuman Michael Myers from the Halloween films. By that point, I had no doubt that Donaka Mark was one of the most effective depictions of Lucifer I've ever seen. He'd recognized something inside Tiger Chen, cultivated it, and turned it in a darker direction. The best seducers understand exactly where you're weak and get you to believe that it is a strength.

One of the most interesting aspects of the film is the ending fight between Donaka Mark and Tiger Chen. I'd never previously thought of Keanu Reeves as a large person, but he positively towers over his opponent. Unlike a lot of the previous fighters, who attack with blindingly fluid swiftness, there's something stiff and methodical about Mark's fighting style. He comes off as unstoppable, again drawing a comparison to the unkillable Michael Myers. The fight ends and we're left with some ambiguity. Did Tiger Chen's sifu's philosophy sink in? Was Donaka Mark's corruption of Tiger Chen complete? The man who stares off into the temple valley at the end of the film seems sadder and more wise. Maybe he's won, maybe he's lost. Once you shake hands with the Devil, you can never come clean.

There's so much good stuff in the movie. Reeves turns out to be a surprisingly good action director. He tailors his directing style to the characterization of the fights. Fights were Tiger is in control are smooth exercises, whereas fights where he's confused or afraid are chaotic without getting lost in American-style shaky camera. There's a fantastic subplot where a female police officer attempts to shut down Donaka's fight club, and she's portrayed as both skilled and fearless. The legendary fight choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping creates nothing less than a martial arts ballet, where disparate styles clash together elegantly. The script is strong, the performances are spectacular, and there's a lot of smart stuff about purity versus corruption. Most martial arts films I've seen lately are simply contests of the body. Action films in general are examinations of the body in motion. Very few are about the soul at war with itself.

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