Tiger Chen goes from stuntman to leading man

(The Philippine Star) - July 22, 2013 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - Keanu Reeves says that he was motivated to direct his first film Man of Tai-Chi because the story was close to his heart and vision.

“The origins of the story date back nearly 15 years ago, to when I met martial artist Tiger Chen Hu while working as part of the stunt team for The Matrix. Our friendship developed over the course of the trilogy of films, with Tiger eventually assuming more prominent stunt roles, impressing me with his work ethic and imagination. I had to do kung fu training with Tiger, and he would tell me stories about his Tai-Chi master and his unusual training methods,” Reeves recalls. 

Chen Hu believes that his character’s struggle is something that most audience will be able to relate to, even if they have no experience with martial arts or the underlying philosophy of taiji. 

“It’s easy to get trapped by the idea of money and power,” says Chen Hu. “Young people like money, smoking, drinking, but all that stuff is excess in the world.  But you can’t just say, oh, I’m forbidden to know so I will just stay in my temple of purity. If you want to be completely Taoist, you have to go taste that. You have to go through the journey, to see it through, otherwise, you aren’t really part of the full life.”

In addition to borrowing his own nickname for the character and collaborating with Reeves and screenwriter Michael Cooney on the script, Chen Hu was also happy to lend his own perspective and experience to help flesh out the story. 

“Tiger is about 80 percent me, my experiences, my personality, I think,” he says. “Keanu said, ‘We don’t have to make another person, we’ll just put you into the story.’  So it was easy for him to ask me questions like, ‘What would you feel like in this situation?’”

These conversations were often held across oceans and continents via video chat, leading to some unusual hours for Tiger to contemplate the fate of his character: 

“It would be the middle of the night when I would start these calls, and Keanu and Michael would be talking about the story. They’d ask me through the computer, ‘How would you feel?’ and I’d answer, and they’d go back to talking and I’d fall asleep on the call. Then, a half hour later, they’d shout ‘Tiger!’ and ask me another question.”

Because of the complexity of Tai-Chi as a martial art, Tiger, Reeves and master fight coordinator Yuen Wo Ping (another Matrix veteran and a legendary fight choreographer and film director) had to ask themselves unusual questions when creating the fight sequences for Man of Tai-Chi. “I think it’s the first time you have MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) style versus Tai-Chi,” says Tiger.  “And, of course, we have to make all of the fights different from one another, so it’s not just the same moves over and over. Finally, you also have to tell the story, to live the journey through Tiger.” This would lead Reeves to ask Tiger questions that are unfamiliar to most fighters used to basic stunt fighting. “Keanu would ask me, ‘Why do you have to kick?’ That’s a hard question to answer… Why do you have to throw the punch or the kick now, at this moment?” 

Ultimately, Reeves is impressed by Tiger‘s martial artistry and emotional vulnerability. 

“Tiger is a very talented actor,” Reeves says, noting that even as a stuntman in The Matrix films, Tiger immediately understood the need for playing a character and not just executing the physical moves. “I saw him do some work with Laurence Fishburne, and I could tell that he knew what it took to shoot a scene, to be on a movie set. So acting wasn’t unfamiliar to him; and in terms of the character work, he was so open and committed, and he completely understood the role.” 

Man Of Tai-Chi, released and distributed by United International Pictures through Solar Entertainment Corp., is still showing nationwide.

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