Unleash the Tiger

Leading man Tiger Chen says he felt the weight of expectations on him from his gongfu master Yuen Woo Ping and film director Keanu Reeves to perform great for the film. Acting for the film has helped him fulfil his lifelong dream of spreading gongfu to the world through movies, and he is very grateful to his close friend and director Reeves for the opportunity.

SINGAPORE - Tiger Chen, the first-time leading man in Man Of Tai Chi, is not at all new to film-making.

The 38-year-old Sichuan native has been based in Hollywood for 14 years, working as an action choreographer and stunt double to the stars.

Starting with The Matrix in 1999 - when he was brought in by veteran action choreographer Yuen Woo Ping to assist with gongfu work - he has gone on to work behind the scenes on other big films including Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003). He also coached actresses Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore and Lucy Liu in gongfu on Charlie's Angels (2000).

He was discovered by Yuen, 68, at a gongfu contest held in the United States shortly before the start of The Matrix.

Yuen took him in as a martial arts student after that.

"My relationship with Yuen is more than that of a master and student now," he says.

"We're more like father and son. The respect I have for him is nothing like the superficial stuff that many new gongfu students have for their masters these days. My generation was taught that we must have the utmost respect for them and there is no question about it."

His transformation into a leading man is less straightforward. Thrust into the limelight for the first time, he admits to feeling the pressure.

He tells Life! in Mandarin: "I am quite introverted, so in all honesty, I prefer staying behind the camera. There is also plenty of faith that director Keanu Reeves has in me to do well, as well as the hope that my master has in me. So, definitely, there is pressure.

"But I've always dreamt of spreading gongfu to the world through movies, the way that my idols Bruce Lee and Jet Li have done, and that's why I feel like I should bravely stand in front of the camera and do the best I can."

He took on martial arts as a child only because he dreamt of becoming an action star one day, says the bachelor.

"Ever since I saw what Bruce Lee, Jet Li and Jackie Chan had done in their films, I decided I wanted to learn gongfu so that I may be like them one day. Of course, it hasn't been easy to reach where I am today. It's been a long journey."

He is, naturally, very grateful to Reeves, who insisted on casting him as the titular character in the movie right from the start.

"Keanu is my guiren (benefactor). I am so lucky to know him," he says earnestly.

Chen first moved to the US at the age of 20, working as a martial arts coach and performer. To make ends meet, he washed dishes at restaurants.

"My English was not very good then and I didn't have enough money. It was tough. But my plight was similar to many other Chinese people there at the time.

It's very different from today.

"Now, when the Chinese go to the US, it's all cash, cash, cash," he says of the nouveau riche class of visitors from China.

He persisted in pursuing his movie star dream through the tough years for a "simple" reason, he says.

"Gongfu is something that I'm good at and I don't think there is anything else I can ever be better at. So I have to work hard and keep at it."