TORONTO - Keanu Reeves first forged a friendship with Tiger Hu Chen some 15 years ago, when the martial arts master was helping him train for the "Matrix" films.
The pair — whose latest collaboration is the eye-popping fight flick "Man of Tai Chi" — found plenty of opportunity for storytelling and chit-chat during their workouts.
"When you're stretching you have a lot of time," Reeves recalled during an interview at the recent Toronto International Film Festival. "'Cause we would stretch for two hours ... he would just tell me these crazy stories. And so I'd just go: 'OK, and then what did your master do? What did you do? You went to where? ... What?'
"And then also you bond through the climbing of the mountain. There were scenes like the wire-work (in the 'Matrix') and Tiger tried to help me with that, you know I was in such a different world. So you bond through the journey and the journey happened to be the 'Matrix' trilogy."
Sitting beside Reeves during a round of media interviews at the festival, Chen provided his own recollections about those early workout sessions.
"(I told) a lot of stories (about) China — the traditions, the martial arts and my master, how is my master training, how is my master training me and my hometown," he said.
Those conversations forged the foundation for a longstanding friendship, one of the driving forces behind "Man of Tai Chi," which marks Reeves' directorial debut.
Opening Friday in limited release, the film stars Chen as Chen Lin-Hu, a supremely talented tai-chi artist who is lured into the world of underground fighting by mysterious financier Donaka Mark (played by Reeves).
Shooting in more than one language across two locations (Hong Kong and Beijing), choreographing dazzling fight sequences and taking on a starring role might seem overly ambitious for many first-time directors, but the Toronto-raised Reeves seems to have relished the challenge.
"Once the story kind of filled my heart and mind, I had to tell the story. I had to tell it, I couldn't hand it over to someone else," said the 49-year-old "Speed" star.
"It didn't matter that it was in two different languages. We had to tell the story, so we had to do whatever we had to do. I had translators. I had Tiger. And you always have to communicate, even when you're speaking the same language. It took more time, but we did it."
Clearly, his close bond with Chen helped pave the way.
"I think because we collaborated on the story for so many years, we had a shared perspective and direction and understanding of what the story was that we were telling," said Reeves, who spent "some years" working on the "Man of Tai Chi" script with screenwriter Michael G. Cooney.
"So that even going in, that work was done. And so when we started getting into it we were getting into new things."
Reeves has steadily become more involved behind the camera — co-producing the 2011 caper flick "Henry's Crime" as well as the 2012 documentary "Side by Side," about movie-making's shift to digital (he also narrates and conducts interviews in that film).
He's become known as somewhat of a film-technology geek and lights up when told a reporter saw "Man of Tai Chi" in IMAX.
"Awesome!" says the actor, suddenly sounding a lot like his laid-back character from "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure." "That's great!"
And he was clearly gratified by the way Toronto festival audiences reacted to "Man of Tai Chi," noting he was pleased to see them "have fun with the movie" (which will also be shown in traditional formats) and "enjoy the action, enjoy the story, enjoy the humour."
Overall, he's philosophical about tackling so lofty a project for his inaugural turn behind the camera.
"The challenges are opportunities — that's how I look at them," said Reeves. "Any block is (an opportunity) to try to find another way. ... Rules are made to be broken."
"Man of Tai Chi" opens Friday in limited release.
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