Keanu Reeves and the Future of Martial Arts Cinema

I am a fan of Keanu Reeves.

I even like his facial hair.

The Bill and Ted movies and cartoons were a childhood favorite. Speed blew my mind, and I’ll never forget that movie’s score. I walked out of The Devil’s Advocate (I was way too young and should have never been allowed in that theater in the first place!). And I still quote The Matrices on a daily basis. And before you ask, yes, I’m a fan of all 3 movies. He’s got an interesting celebrity, though, and a lot of people seem to enjoy making fun of him and his acting. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.

What I am interested in is Keanu Reeves and his connection to martial arts cinema.

One of my favorite lectures to give in film classes discusses the role of The Matrix in bringing a Chinese martial arts aesthetic tradition to Hollywood. Many scholars have connected the historical line from traditional Chinese opera to Chinese kung fu films, which I believe can be extended to many contemporary Hollywood action films through The Matrix.

The main thrust of the argument that connects Chinese opera to kung fu cinema is its very strong emphasis on the moving body/physical skills of the performer. The contents of Chinese opera are best represented and described by the two terms sigong and wufa which translate literally to the “Four Arts” and the “Five Skills.” The Four Arts consists of singing, reciting, choreographic moves, and martial or acrobatic arts. These can be further divided into two groups, those presented orally (singing and reciting) and those presented visually (choreography and martial/acrobatic arts). The Five Skills include the Chinese characters for hand, eye, torso, step, and method. There is actually confusion about this last skill arising from the same pronunciation of the character for “method” and that of “hair” which is often given as the fifth skill.

The Four Arts and Five Skills are basically the reason you go to a Chinese opera. With the emphasis on the moving body came a DE-emphasis of other elements: plot, character development, stage design, etc. Everything is or is not there to emphasize the actor’s movements. Characters’ masks, costumes, and even their gaits would all tell the audience what they needed to know about the character so that your attention and their time could be spent on their movements. The very minimal sets would include a few props, for example a table and two chairs or a ladder. Not surprisingly, even these props had the purpose of being used by the performs to further display their skills. Interestingly, it was not until the medium of cinema burst into the scene that Chinese opera troupes began to put more emphasis on their set design as a way to try and compete with the new technology. But that’s another story…

(The paragraphs above are a VERY brief summary of content found in a very informative essay by Yung Sai-shing titled “Moving Body: The Interactions Between Chinese Opera and Action Cinema” found in Hong Kong Connections: Transnational Imagination in Action)

You can easily the connection to kung fu cinema in the clip below of Jackie Chan, who, surprise surprise, was trained in Chinese opera.

Watch as Jackie goes through prop after prop after conveniently placed prop, using each in exciting new ways. But if you really strip it down, you can see that he’s basically doing the same thing with each object, whether it’s a broom, a chair, or even a lion mask. It seems fresh and new with each object because they’re different objects that we don’t necessarily expect to be used as weapons. Besides the props to showcase his physical skills, traditional Chinese martial arts cinemas use minimal cutting compared to most Hollywood action scenes as another way to emphasize the fact that these performers are actually performing these feats themselves, and are not being replaced with stunt doubles through crazy cutting. If you want a point of comparison to see how Hollywood did it BM (Before The Matrix) look no further than the cuts in that great American classic, Lethal Weapon 4:

For extra fun, try counting and comparing the number of cuts between the two clips. Not to mention the terrible lighting, rain, and lightning flashes that are added to make it easier for Mel Gibson and Danny Glover’s stunt doubles to jump in.

Anyway, I think two of the most important elements of martial arts cinema are minimal cuts and real physical skills, which are two of the major elements that The Matrix brought – with a huge amount of financial success – to the United States. (Aside: if you’re really interested, compare the cutting strategies of Hollywood action films before 1999 and after 1999, or we can talk about it more in the comments).  It is also where Keanu Reeves and the future of martial arts cinema come in.

As you may or may not know, Keanu Reeves is currently directing a film in Beijing titled Man of Taichi with the following vague synopsis courtesy of IMDb: “In Beijing, a young martial artist’s skill places him in position to experience opportunities and sacrifices.” Now besides the fact that he’s directing a movie, what’s really interesting about this film is the technology he’s working with. Check out the video below:

Pretty cool, eh?

So apparently, they’ve got a robotic arm running on motion detecting technology that allows the camera to independently travel around the performers in order to capture shots that would be otherwise nearly impossible to get without some sort of digital wizardry. I have to admit, those shots look really nice and I can’t wait to see them in action. But I’m also wondering about the implications of this technology on martial arts cinema. Jackie Chan has stated in interviews how when he choreographs and shoots a fight scene, he doesn’t go the traditional route of repeated master shots, medium shots, and close ups from various angles to put together a fight scene in post-production. According to him, he visualizes it all in his head and just gets the shots he needs, having it all edited in his head before even shooting a single frame. That way, he already shoots with all the cuts in mind. This technology obviously changes that.

It also seems to shift, or at least divide, our focus between the human body and the technology. It certainly enhances the moving body by putting a greater emphasis on the performers performing their own stunts and extended choreographies. This would allow for even fewer cuts since the camera can move more freely and negate the need for cut-ins or angle changes. However, it also seems to distance us from the physicality and skill of the performers by calling attention to the technological skills of the camera’s movements. And what lovely movements they are…

I’m still not totally sure just how much control, if any, an operator would have. If it IS fully automated, then this would also raise questions of authorship in some sense, no? If cinematographers are deserving of authorship credit, what happens when the cinematography is fully automated? Would such an achievement only be recognized in the non-televised technology-focused portion of the Academy Awards? Would it even be considered for “Best Cinematography?” I don’t know the specifics of the rules, but the Oscars do have a lot of weird bylaws.

Of course, this technology is nothing if filmmakers do no have access to it. And ultimately my guess is that most Chinese productions will not have access to it. But hopefully I’m wrong, because I really want to see that rig being put to all kinds of uses.

there is no cinematographer…

Share your thoughts! Do you think there’s a future to this setup? Is it going to revolutionize filmmaking? Or am I just getting too excited over the pretty movements?

8 thoughts on “Keanu Reeves and the Future of Martial Arts Cinema


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