The Karate Kid
starring Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan, Taraji P. Henson, Wemwen Han, Rongguang Yu and Zhenwei Wang
screenplay by Christopher Murphey
directed by Harald Zwart
Called “Best Kid” in Japan, this is a re-make of The Karate Kid (1984, directed by John G. Avildsen) starring Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita. It’s better than the original. It’s bigger and I quite liked it, whereas I did not feel that way about the original film - Ralph Macchio, you know. To be accurate, the 1984 version was actually about Karate, a native Okinawa martial art, while this new version features Chinese Kung Fu. So the title is wrong. But still ... In 1984 Daniel Larusso (Macchio) is given Karate training by the Japanese gardener, Mr. Miyagi. In the 2010 version Dre Parker (Jaden Smith, son of Will Smith) is given Kung Fu training by the handyman, Mr. Han.
The fact that Dre and his mother (his father is dead) immigrate to Beijing from Detroit for Mrs. Parker’s work with an automobile firm might reflect some interesting contemporary social developments. Not only does it reflect the decline of the American automobile industry, but it’s kind of reverse immigration, because historically people immigrated to America for economic opportunity. Right now, at the start of the 21st century, it looks like things have turned around, and now they’re leaving Americafor economic opportunity elsewhere. Of course, it might only look that way. America is still the leading economy in the world, and it is very resilient. Anyway, the story might also indicate the shifting of American consciousness from Japan to China or rather, the shrinking of the former against the rise of the latter. Oh, well. Dre’s mom is left to be ridiculous and annoying because she has nothing to do with the story of the boy and his teacher, so the writer and director just let her wither on the celluloid vine.
As a Canadian who emigrated to JapanI was quite entertained to see a depiction of these Americans arriving in and adjusting to China - especially the mother. (Similarly, during my first year in Japan I was very entertained to watch Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia playing American cops accidentally caught up in Japanese crime fighting in Black Rain (1989, directed by Ridley Scott, co-starring Ken Takakura). When I left the movie theater and stepped out into the Tokyostreets it was like I was still watching the movie, but now I wasn’t watching it, I was in it.) Of course, Japan is not China - not by a long shot. But there are still comparable culture shock themes, like dealing with an unfamiliar language - very unfamiliar in this case - adapting to the food, learning where to shop and how to pay bills. Even learning how to take a shower:
Mr. Han: The hot water fine. Flip switch. Wait half hour. Take shower. Flip switch off.
Dre: Why don’t you just leave it on?
Mr. Han: You leave on in America?
Dre: We don’t have a switch in America.
Mr. Han: Get switch. Save planet.
I greatly appreciate seeing China (and Japan,Korea, Vietnam,Malaysia, etc.) portrayed as a super-modern place, intelligent, up-to-date and with its own sense about things, rather than as either an incomprehensible two-dimensional alien exotic destination or a two-dimensional incomprehensibly cartoonish rogue state. I like it to see China and Japan portrayed in American movies as competent places. Competence is attractive. That’s why girls always go for athletes and rock stars and not Pipers.
I like to see China and Japan portrayed in American movies as competent places. Competence is attractive. That’s why girls always go for athletes and rock stars.
But Harald Swart’s depiction of Beijing is too clean and nice. He shows us nothing about the rainy season, the oppressive humidity, the ubiquitous air pollution and the regular power outages, not to mention the police corruption, the communist immorality and public etiquette idiosyncrasies like perambulating in one’s pajamas, copious public spitting and casual disregard for traffic safety laws. Of course I want to return to live and work in Canada because I have affection for my hometown despite its shortcomings. But there are shortcomings, and the reality is that whenever I visit Guelph it seems beautiful while feelings like a small and silly place - slow, dirty and provincial. Sometimes more than a little backward. New York, Paris, London - even Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver - are yesterday’s cities. There are livable, but the future belongs to Tokyo, Shanghai and Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Mumbai and Abu Dhabi. Or not. We’ll see.
Anyway, about the story, 1984 and 2010 share the basic plot. A new kid in the neighborhood gets picked on and beaten up by the local boys. You know - pubescent male aggression. Girls talk to establish social order while boys aggress to do the same thing. Pecking order. As he is passing out from a particularly bad beating he hazily sees an old Asian man jump to his rescue and successfully beat off a crowd of belligerent youngsters whose martial arts, we learn, have been warped by an evil teacher. The boy needs a father figure / mentor and the Asian man steps in by taking him on as a student, but starts his training with something ridiculous, like waxing a car (1984) and simply hanging up his coat repeatedly (2010). It’s supposed to represent some profound Asian wisdom buried in the mundane: martial arts are not about fighting. They are about peace - controlling ourselves more than beating others into our control. How we hang up our jacket and how we relate to people are regulated by the same energy, called chi, like The Force in Star Wars. So the Karate Kid is a young jedi paduan learner, and his teacher is Yoda. I guess that makes the other boys the Sith. Personally, I think of it less as mystical Asian wisdom and more as plain common sense. What Mr. Han calls the saturation of kung fu chi in our lives Jews and Christians might call visitation by the Holy Spirit and wholehearted devotion to God (synonymous with wholehearted devotion to one’s neighbors), by which I do not mean to equate Eastern and Western religiosity, ethics or morality, nor divinity with humanity. Those are each something else.
Jackie Chan is very athletic and his martial arts scenes are always magnificently choreographed. But I am not a great Jackie Chan fan. First, his Chinese movies are predictably atrocious - you know, Chinese production values. Second, his American movies have mostly been silly and negligible - you know, Hollywoodproduction values. But in The Karate Kid he demonstrates admirably mature acting. Pay attention to the flyswatter gag.
My favorite scene came early. Dre and his mother are aboard an Air China jumbo jet departing Detroitfor Beijing. Dre tries out some basis phrases on the Chinese passenger across the aisle - Hello. What’s your name? - in Mandarin, etc. Actor Wentai Liu replies in a deadpan, slow, quiet mid-western American voice, “Dude ... I’m from Detroit.” I loved that.
The feature song, “Never Say Never,” was sung by Canadian teenage heartthrob Justin Beiber. Get a haircut, Justin!