Man of Tai Chi is one of the best action films of recent years. The credit for much of its success must go to first-time director Keanu Reeves. Reeves may be a newcomer to the director’s chair, but he brings a distinct visual style and vocabulary to the project that belies his inexperience behind the camera. He and cinematographer Elliot Davis don’t just capture a series of astounding fights, they subtly underscore the themes of their film by consistently using framing techniques that are grounded in key tenets of Tai Chi itself: balance and motion.
Early in the film, Tiger Chen’s sensei Master Yang says, “Tai Chi is about balance.” Reeves weaves this concept through his film by the use of balanced, symmetrical shots. These balanced frames underline the power of their subjects. Conversely, Reeves uses jumbled, asymmetrical shots to depict characters of lesser importance or moments of chaos in Tiger Chen’s journey.
A good example of Reeves’ use of symmetrical framing is the audience’s introduction to Tiger Chen. As Chen poses, he is positioned in the dead center of the frame, which extends in perfect symmetry on either side. (FIG. 1) This shot establishes Chen from the outset as a centered, balanced individual. Contrast this with a shot later in the film, when Chen’s chi has gone out of balance. Tiger has just declared to Master Yang that he doesn’t need to meditate, thus tossing aside one of the primary aspects of Tai Chi. When we see Chen in his room, the shot is a striking contrast to the earlier one. (FIG. 2) Now, the shot is completely out of balance—as Chen lies across the shot, even the windows are no longer symmetrical. Chen’s chi has gotten out of balance, and Reeves’ framing follows right along.
Tiger eventually regains his chi during his climactic fight with Reeves’ character Donaka Mark. Chen is getting beaten until he realizes the truth of Donaka’s taunt, “You are nothing.” Tiger is struck by this revelation and repeats, “I am nothing.” The moment Chen comes to this realization, he is shown in a totally balanced, symmetrical shot that underscores his mental balance. (FIG. 3) Chen stays balanced in the center of each shot through the rest of the scene, while the (now) powerless Donaka lies crumpled in an asymmetrical ball on the ground. (FIG. 4)
Prior to this final battle, Reeves character is shown in a series of balanced shots that serve to convey his power. From his first appearance, Donaka Mark tends to be shown in the center of the frame. (FIG. 5) In the world of the film, symmetry and balance are consistently equated with power. About halfway through the film, as the dedicated police inspector (Karen Mok) begins to dig into what’s going on, Donaka spies her outside his home. This time, when we see the inside of his home, it is the first time Donaka is not central to the frame. (FIG. 6) The police investigation is subtly shifting the ground beneath his feet, compromising Donaka Mark’s all-powerful organization. In order to regain his balance and chi, Donaka has to retreat to his Zen garden. Once he gets to the garden, he is once again shown in a balanced shot. He’s temporarily regained his balance, and the shot reflects this. (FIG. 7)
Throughout the film, Reeves depicts power, balance, and symmetry as inherently related concepts. Early shots of Mok at the police station place her off to one side of the frame, against a busy, indecipherable background. (FIG. 8) By the film’s finale, when she’s cracked the case and been promoted, Mok is shown center frame, in a balanced space. (FIG. 9) When Tiger Chen is in control, he can usually be found in the center of the frame, while his low points are illustrated with jagged angles and off-kilter shots.
The main draw of Man of Tai Chi is, of course, Tiger Chen and his amazing fighting techniques. Reeves shoots the fight scenes with great respect, showing full figures engaging in what feels like real combat. He displays a real appreciation for the martial art form, shooting the fight scenes to help showcase Tiger Chen’s Tai Chi abilities. The practice of Tai Chi centers on graceful movements that flow seamlessly from one to the next. Reeves shoots and edits the fights to emulate this graceful flow.
Reeves doesn’t depict a fight as a series of enigmatic blurs, camera jerks and jump cuts, but as a series of interconnected movements that maintain cause-and-effect relationships. You get the sense that you’re seeing the whole picture, so to speak. Shots are held much longer than in most modern action films, and are edited so that one motion leads smoothly into the next. In most of the fights, Reeves shows the actors’ whole bodies, so that viewers can get a true sense of the space and motion within it. (FIG. 10)
Fights are shot and edited to emphasize the flow between the moves. Viewers can follow and visually track and understand the action. If an arm is coming down at the end of one shot, you can be sure that this movement is tracked through to the shot that comes next. Of course, having Yuen Woo Ping on board as your action director doesn’t hurt. But Reeves doesn’t just let Woo Ping take over the film whenever Tiger Chen has a battle. He showcases his own visual style throughout, showing a real flair for framing action scenes in a classic, streamlined way that many contemporary filmmakers seem to have forgotten.
Tiger Chen’s first fight for Donaka Mark showcases Reeves’ distinct way with a fight scene. The two characters are trapped in a controlled, geometric space. (FIG. 11) Within this confined space, Tiger and his opponent engage in a wild brawl that’s made more impactful through Reeves’ use of the camera. By staying with shots through a series of movements, or by showing the full impact that a move has on both fight participants, Reeves grounds the fight in reality. He lets the action speak for itself, rather than needlessly ratchet it up by hyperspeed editing or frantic camera movement. Tiger Chen’s skills don’t need any help from fancy camerawork to be impressive.
In key fights later in the film, Reeves tends to switch between long, full-body shots of the actors that situate them in their physical space and in relation to each other (FIG. 12) and closer shots that emphasize the fighters’ upper-body movements (FIG. 13). Both types of shots are held long enough for viewers to track the action. There’s never a moment when viewers are confused about who’s punching who or where the fighters are in space. The one fight that breaks away from this mold is Tiger Chen’s battle in an open, dinner-theater-type arena. Reeves uses a variety of flashy lighting effects and swirling camera moves throughout Chen’s melee with a pair of fighters. These jarring effects help drive home the point that this battle is the point at which Tiger loses his chi. He allows his fury and violence to take over. The scene is shot as if inside a kaleidoscope, it’s topsy-turvy nature reflecting the turmoil within Chen. (FIG. 14-16)
The film ends with an absurdly long (over 7 minutes) credits sequence that plays over a slow, stately circular shot from high atop the city. As soft, lilting music plays and the credits scroll past, the camera pans across an early morning cityscape. While it may seem baffling to tack such a long credit roll onto a film that only runs 105 minutes, I think that it’s Reeves’ final attempt to convey some of the essense of tai chi. Reeves wants viewers to reflect on what they’ve seen, to meditate, so to speak, on the action that has preceded it. Tai Chi isn’t just about physical balance and movement, it’s also about meditation and mental balance. This coda to the film provides the audience with a chance to process what’s gone before in a calm, reflective way. It’s the perfect ending to a strikingly successful directorial debut, a film whose visual structure mirrors the tenets of the philosophy it’s depicting.