04/22/2014 11:29 am ET Updated Jun 21, 2014

Men of Tai Chi

I saw this movie, Man of Tai Chi (helmed by Keanu Reeves), and at first blush thought it ridiculous, and relentlessly so, but being that it was on streaming video, I did have the opportunity to go through it several times and came to the conclusion that is wasn't so bad.

There was this stupid plot: A high-rolling "fight club" that brought in martial arts supermen to take on all comers for the amusement and gambling thrills of some very rich folks. Gladiatorial as it was, the matches would end up with one or the other biting the dust and flying off this mortal coil.

The star of the drama is a very limber Tiger Chen who practices Tai Chi, a martial art that most Americans consider to be a rather silly set of slow moving exercises practiced by Chinese seniors and the occasional visiting Westerner like Michelle Obama.

Tiger Chen is out to prove to the world that Tai Chi is actually a very effective martial art with loads and loads of philosophy to back it up and I do agree. I started learning the fundamentals of the art in the early 1970s at Shr Jung Tai Chi Academy in New York's Chinatown. Several times a week, I'd make the journey from downtown Brooklyn over the bridge to 87 Bowery and up three flights of stairs in a dismal loft building that had seen better days. That's where I learned the basics -- 37 movements in this particular Yang style -- and while it was called a "short form" it took a full year to learn. The slow pace tested your mettle: If you could last the year you'd graduate to push-hands (two opponents trying to unbalance one another) and then on to sword form. The training sensibility behind Shr Jung was old school Chinese -- part of the legacy of the school's founder, Cheng Man-ch'ing - and there were no shortcuts, no weekend intensives and no ten easy steps to mastery. Once you had all this considerable experience under your belt, you might move on to what was called "form application," in other words, fighting.

In Man of Tai Chi Tiger Chen plays a character called Tiger Chen and is the devoted student of a Master Yang who runs his Beijing school out of a 600-year old monastery and makes it clear that the purity of the art isn't for sale and that's where we find the essential conflict. Yang is having trouble finding the dough for needed repairs and stands to lose the place to a cabal of real estate developers and this prompts Tiger to get mixed up with one Donaka Mark (Keanu Reeves) who prances about with a permanent scowl while recruiting talent for the fight club. Spotting Tiger kicking the bejesus out of his opponents at a televised martial arts competition, Donaka knows he's found a tai chi diamond in the rough and makes him a financial offer he can't refuse. Tiger knows that this won't sit well with the Master, but what the hell: He's determined, Blues-Brothers style, to save the monastery and its Tai Chi legacy at any cost.

Money problems are just one stressor in this Master-Student relationship. There's also impatience and a failure to adhere to some of the basic principles of Taoism (at the heart of Tai Chi practice) and in a telling early scene while practicing slow moving exercises Tiger's hair-trigger impulses get the better of him.

"You are not controlling your chi" Master Yang points out to his frustrated student upbraiding him for allowing this ephemeral force to knock him off his martial equilibrium.

While the concept of "chi" -- vital energy -- has been around for centuries in the East its American manifestations are largely pop cultural dating back to Star Wars ("the force") and the 1970s era Kung Fu TV series starring David Carradine as Caine, a Shaolin Monk traveling about the Wild West knocking evil cowboys for a loop. Caine, for those old enough to remember, was guided by a set of Chinese homilies taught to him by a Master Po who endearingly referred to his charge as "grasshopper."

The gullibility factor runs high in the martial arts world and with all the self-proclaimed "Masters" and "Grandmasters" there's an enormous market in what I call show and tell: show me the money and I'll tell you the secrets and this provided partial grist for a documentary, Martial Arts: The Real Story, produced by Pacific Street Films. Co-written by myself and ex-military martial arts practitioner, Joseph Svinth, the film set out to separate the fighting wheat from the metaphysical chaff and we took a cue from an extraordinary book, Secret Fighting Arts of the World, written in the early 1960s by one John F. Gilbey.

When you're talking about really esoteric killing techniques Gilbey documented some doozies: There's a chapter on the Liverpool "nutter" (practitioner using noggin to deliver death blows), the Ganges Groin Gouge (instant death by targeting opponent's crown jewels) and my favorite: the Parisian Halitotic Attack (bad breath designed to permanently dispose of malefactors). The book became something of a legend among martial arts true believers who felt they found validation for some of the more magical techniques like Dim Mak -- the delayed death touch -- that was making regular appearances in Hong Kong epics and American flics like Tarentino's Kill Bill. Even Man of Tai Chi gloms on to this stuff, for instance, when a pissed off Master Yang sends his chi hurtling at a distance to floor his impertinent student.

We never found Gilbey, but we did find Bob Smith -- the real author -- and in the annals of "you-can't-make-this-shit-up" he turned out to be a former CIA agent with both a mischievous sense of humor and a deep font of martial arts knowledge. Stationed in Taiwan during the 1950s and early 1960s, Smith discovered a community of older Chinese teachers who had fled China after Mao's takeover and continued their practice and their teaching and some of it was genuinely extraordinary. Despite the sham-cum-goof nature of his Gilbey book, Smith was a serious student of the martial arts and became a convert to the fighting value of Tai Chi, which he helped popularize in the West. Under his own name, he wrote several learned and legit accounts of Asian martial arts and its progenitors, but his most extraordinary find was Cheng Man-ch'ing who founded the Shr Jung Academy in New York (where I began my studies).

Smith, armed with a home movie camera, documented his discoveries, and there's grainy black and white footage of Professor Cheng (he'd always be referred to as "Professor") rooting himself, both feet firmly placed on the ground, and resisting the efforts of several hefty lugs to try and displace him. Smith was one of those trying (and failing) to make any headway against this considerably smaller adversary.

There was another Tai Chi adept in these circa 1950s home movies playing push hands with Professor Cheng and getting flung backwards with considerable force. He was a senior student by the name of William CC Chen, and like his namesake, Tiger, in Man of Tai Chi, William used his skills in the ring to win several top honors at free-style wushu matches in Taiwan.

Taking his expertise to New York in the 1960s, William opened up a school in Manhattan that focused on the martial aspects of Tai Chi and that's where I migrated to after leaving Shr Jung. Pugilistic in nature, we'd don 18 ounce gloves and practice sparring in a relaxed, yet focused, manner, but when your opponent was a professional boxer even relaxed muscles afterwards would cry out for applications of Ben-Gay. William would always take part in the sparring, and despite the constant hammering and the non-stop haymakers, never flinched nor evidenced any outward signs of injury.

Was it "chi?"

William never subscribed to the more outlandish claims for "chi," but links it to basic principles like a relaxed musculature and highlights the importance of body mechanics: How leveraging the body in different fighting situations could give you an advantage over an opponent. He also passed on his experiences and expertise to his two children -- Tiffany and Max -- now gifted Tai Chi fighters in their own right.

At the conclusion of Man of Tai Chi Donaka Mark and his evil minions wind up busted, Tiger Chen is reunited with Master Yang (monastery saved) and everybody lives happily ever after. While the movie is basically Americanized, for those with the patience to wade through the B-movie plot there are pearls of Tai Chi wisdom to be harvested.

Tai Chi is difficult to master as a real martial art and a beginning student wouldn't fare well in a street fight but as a stress-reliever with corresponding health benefits it's a must-do exercise, especially for those seeking physical and spiritual balance. In my own case after forty years of practice the self-defense aspects have become secondary to more practical applications like dodging pedestrians on crowded New York sidewalks or finding a balance point while riding a rock-and-rolling subway car during rush hour.

But men of Tai Chi? My original form instructor at Shr Jung was a remarkable woman by the name of Maggie Newman. One of Cheng Man ch'ing's original American senior students she helped establish Tai Chi schools around the country. Closing in on 90 she still makes appearances at seminars and, for my money, embodies the best of Tai Chi and its centuries-old legacy.

Joel Sucher is a writer/filmmaker with Pacific Street Films. He's written for a variety of publications and outlets including American Banker, Huffington Post and In These Times. Currently he's working on a pilot for a martial arts series, titled Tough Guy.