OK, my trip to visit Alex wasn't filled solely with crappy movies and disappointing books. The same series of posts that got me to give Legend of Drunken Master a chance also suggested Man of Tai Chi. And Alex' roomie has Netflix, so that made it easy.
Tiger Chen (played by Tiger Hu Chen) is a deliveryman who is the last student of Ling Kong Tai Chi. He wants to prove Tai Chi is a great martial art, and so enters a big national tournament, where he comes to the attention of international underground fight promoter Donaka Mark (played by Keanu Reeves, who also directed the film). He's intrigued by a Tai Chi master, and offers him a job. Tiger turns it down, until his master's temple is listed as condemned and ordered torn down to make room for a housing development. So Tiger takes the offer, hoping to earn the money to repair the temple (while his girlfriend helps him file for a permit touting the temple as being historically significant, and thus worth preserving).
Tiger finds out pretty quick the job he's taken is a lot different than fighting in a tournament, and what's more troubling is he grows to enjoy it, ignoring his master's urgings to stop and meditate. Over the course of the film you can see it in his movements. As he progresses through the tournament, he gets increasingly dismissive of his opponents, not even deigning to take any sort of stance when the fight begins. These guys are kids, fighting by rules, and they're nothing compared to the much larger, angrier, more brutal guys Donaka sends to cave Tiger's skull in. Even beyond that, his body language seems to shift. Some of it is obvious, how much quicker he gets angry, the way almost any argument gets him clenching his fists. Or how he can't calm down and go through the steps, the different movements like he's supposed to. His master will tell him to slow down, but he can't, he just keeps moving faster, and his movements are more herky-jerky. It's like this underground fighting has unlocked some huge reservoir of energy in him and he needs to let it out immediately, sharply, violently. Beyond that, I think there's just something different about the way he carries himself, some more aggressive in his walk or posture, also maybe how he's placed in the camera frame. I don't if it's anything as obvious as putting the camera below him and looking up, but he definitely gains more of a presence.
Over the course of the film, Donaka (who is also being investigated by a tough Hong Kong lady cop to provide the bare minimum of plot necessary) keeps asking Tiger questions. What he expected, if he wants to continue, what he wants, etc. At the time, I didn't understand what his goal was, which made the big reveal at the end pretty effective. The presentation of it was more than a little cheesy, but the idea behind it was impressive, and it made sense in the context of things. It also explained a few things about the crowd reactions at different times.
But this is a movie about fights, and there are a lot of those. Long ones, short ones, ones you see coming or with lots of build-up, and ones that come out of nowhere. Tiger's "interview", where he enters a featureless room, is told to stand in front of a two-way mirror, and then a woman yells "Fight!" and he's attacked by some Muay Thai fighter who seeming appeared out of thin air to hurl Tiger around the room by his tie. The fight against two opponents, the occasional steps back into the nicer, cleaner world of that tournament, with cheering crowds, in bright sunny gyms (as opposed to these grey, frequently empty rooms lit by harsh fluorescent lights he fights in for Donaka Mark), especially his fight with his master, just for the wide disparity in the styles of two people who are supposed to be trained in Tai Chi (Chen's probably made some hybrid style, or else just lost the fundamentals. I couldn't tell you which).
The one problem is the final fight is against Keanu. Reeves isn't a bad fighter, as actors go, he's had some training. But Tiger Chen is a trained stunt man, and my guess is the same is true of most of his other opponents, or else they're all highly-trained martial artists. So in comparison, Reeves' movements look slow and just not as smooth. It isn't a deal-breaker; I could justify it on the grounds that Tiger knows nothing about how Donaka fights, while Donaka has seen all of Tiger's fights and could presumably have studied him extensively if he wished, or even that Tiger just hasn't quite gotten control of his chi back yet, and isn't really at his best. But it does factor in, if only because it means the end battle isn't quite as cool as the others.