What sets tai chi apart from most martial arts where you just have the drilling on moves, is that it is directly modeled on a few cool and simple insights about how the world is put together. This doesn't make it superior craft, nor some mystical art though teachers will often advertise it as both. But tai chi brings mind to the fore of the practice in a way that other arts won't do.
Best exemplified in the tui shou or 'pushing hands' exercise, in the film this is the scene where, touching hands, master and pupil lightly push and yield to a circular flow, tai chi is first and foremost a cultivated awareness, to the extent that it is a Taoist art and not any other kung fu. With it come all the other stuff, the harmony, the equanimity and joy.
So, ideally, a good tai chi film works from the principles in a cinematic way; the principles are cinematic as hell to begin with since they're originally a matter of embodied vision. It could be as simply done as a romance between a man and a woman. Kar Wai is close to this. Ang Lee tried.
But let's see what Reeves is trying to do.
A Matrix of sorts about spiritual awakening. Reeves as the director of a film- within, a cruel Architect, manipulates the circumstances that cause a well-meaning student of martial arts to stray into pride and violence. The student is constantly filmed in private fights for the amusement of hidden paying viewers, us. Film as illusion. Illusion as self, and that as habitual anger and desire. The cycle of violence as broader—mental— life. All meant of course in their Buddhist context.
All valid from the Buddhist view. All sophomoric to see. All, precisely because of that, fail to convince they are not some archaic pose and fail to illustrate the everyday vitality of the meditative mind. Worse yet, they're used to opposite effect: the noble master, the flowing clothes and formalities on emptiness, all go to reinforce a cultural image, condensing an illusion as tool for shaping some national self.
This isn't alone a Western filmmaker's failure, though Reeves signed up for it. It's a Chinese tradition, and this is blatantly a government- stamped project; in the end, business execs who wanted to demolish the old temple and our tai chi fighter and his 'pure' girlfriend are brought together under the old master's approving, fatherly glance. Cheap, because it reeks of an imposed understanding. Silky robes to dress a sloppy body.
Something else though.
I was drawn to the film, beside the tai chi, because of supposedly a super-advanced robotic camera system that Reeves would be using. It was a promotional video of the thing in action that wet my palate, where it looked awesome, something from the future of making films. Oddly, in the film it is an American who corrupts with his show the young Chinese pupil, yet state-of-the-art American equipment and of course the American action language were asked for the film. Ho-hum.
So I was on the lookout for this system in action. The verdict? It fails. As absolutely as the first aeroplanes. Either because Reeves hasn't mastered the machine, or the programmers the art, we get simply nondescript mechanical movements. At any rate, you wouldn't know it was that thing from the promo. Which is the most revealing thing in the whole enterprise and brings us back to tai chi.
In other posts I stress the important continuity between cultivated perception, cinema and life, which are both fields of that cultivation, looking for a more intuitive that we can bring to anything we do. You can cultivate such in dancing, skiing or surfing or love, anything that requires coasting on the flow. Tai chi and meditation simply offer some pretty refined tools from centuries of directed practice, always with both eyes fixed on ordinary life.
Chinese Zen masters would famously perform calligraphy and other more mundane acts with a meditative mind, embodying the insights. Tai chi likewise embodies Taoist stuff, looks for it in the body. How would it be to bring this to the camera? To use it to paint a state of mind that is not separate from what's before the eyes. Not just film there, but your perception tending to it, bending sight. A filmed space that has awareness of itself. Malick does it for my taste.
Here, the robotic camera is as mechanical as the handling of the insights. It just goes to illustrate the walls we've hit with regards to A.I. and science of mind. There's simply nothing we can built that is as intelligent as embodied human consciousness, each of us being a graceful marvel. The robotic camera pales to what human intuition can bring, the furthest thing from the beautiful awareness that tai chi enables.
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