"I saw him," a young woman said not long ago, sitting across from me at a busy Japanese restaurant in Beijing. "He was buying something in Sanlitun," she explained, referring to one of the city's major shopping and nightlife districts.
These were my clues: He was buying something... in Sanlitun. I made a mental note and continued spooning miso soup in my mouth.
"He," in this case, is Keanu Reeves, who is in Beijing directing his first feature film, "Man of Tai Chi," in which he will also play the villain. The $32-million project is being co-produced by Village Roadshow Pictures Asia and China Film Group. Universal Pictures will distribute.
"The Matrix" star is tapping into China's booming movie industry, currently the world's third largest, with box-office earnings topping $1.5 billion in 2010, a 64 percent increase from the year before. Hollywood studios are eager for co-productions and Reeves is one of a growing number of stars seeking out projects here.
Christian Bale appeared in Zhang Yimou's "Flowers of War" last year. Hugh Jackman co-starred in "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan." Kevin Spacey premiers this month in "Inseparable" and last year Russell Crowe filmed "The Man With the Iron Fists" in Shanghai. (Apparently Dolph Lundgren is in town at the moment, if he's still considered a star.)
Expat Beijing has been abuzz with Keanu-talk in recent months, and some friends of mine have spotted him at various locations around the city. It seemed like every time I went out somebody was reporting a Keanu-sighting, and I was starting to feel left out.
So I set out to find Keanu.
I had a list of clues: He'd been seen at a few bars around town and spotted coming in and out of his serviced apartment/hotel in the Dongzhimen neighborhood. One friend reported seeing him buying his morning coffee at Café Flatwhite, an Australian-owned coffee shop near his place.
And he'd been spotted buying something in Sanlitun.
One Sunday, a day I knew through a friend on set that "Man of Tai Chi" wasn't filming, I went to see if Keanu was buying anything, as the woman had said at the Japanese restaurant. I walked passed the Apple Store, strolled through Uniqlo and wandered by several popular cafés to see if Keanu was around.
Maybe, I thought, he was buying a pirated DVD of, say, "Point Break" -- by far my favorite Keanu movie -- as a souvenir of his time in Beijing. I went into a busy DVD store on a bar street in Sanlitun.
I looked around. No Keanu.
Curious, I checked what Keanu fare they offered. I skipped the new releases (when was the last time he starred in anything major?) and I found "Devil's Advocate" and "The Matrix" trilogy in the back.
It was a long shot, but I asked one of the workers if they stocked "Point Break."
She sounded out the words. "Poo-eent Buree-ke?" She looked confused. "Mei you." They didn't have it.
I pulled out of a copy of "The Matrix" and asked if she recognized the man on the cover. "He's filming a movie right now in Beijing," I said.
She examined the packaging. "What's his Chinese name?"
She shrugged. Keanu had not been here.
One evening at a bar I overheard a group of English guys talking about Keanu.
"Keanu Reeves must get a lot of action," one of them said. "Ladies love that guy."
An astute observation. For the last few weekends, I've kept my eyes out for Keanu at bars where ladies tend to gather. But still, nothing. A few times I went down to Amilal, a small hutong bar off Gulou Dong Dajie, near the Drum and Bell Towers, where Keanu had been spotted a few times drinking whisky.
One morning I took my laptop to Café Flatwhite and waited for Keanu to stop by for a coffee. Again, no sightings.
I was running out of ideas. In a last ditch effort to spot Keanu, I went with a friend to sit at the bar in the lobby of his apartment. My friend, a Californian, had actually been a dancer in a party scene of one of the "Matrix" sequels, but her scenes had been cut. She didn't get the chance to meet Reeves -- who she described as "my celebrity crush when I was younger" -- and was eager for a second chance.
We sat at the bar in the early evening drinking draft Asahi and eating peanuts, sitting beside an American expat who was drinking a bottle of champagne by himself. As we watched Korean soccer on T.V., I periodically glanced over my shoulder toward the lobby, waiting for Keanu.
After several pints we grew bored of the bleak hotel bar. We paid our bill and walked out, and I was left wondering what I might have said to Keanu had he passed me by in the lobby.
Something along the lines of, "Dude, 'Point Break' rules!"