Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Kung Fu Kid

I knew that I wanted to see the remake of "The Karate Kid" when I saw the lead kid training on the Great Wall in a commercial a few weeks ago. I don't pay attention to movies and hardly ever go to the theater to see anything. Before seeing that commercial, I didn't even know that the original movie had been remade or that the new movie takes place in China.

Qian and I went to see the movie a couple nights ago. Overall, I thought it was pretty cool.

Image from

Being a kids movie, "The Karate Kid" is silly and stupid in a lot of ways. I don't particularly like the main character, Dre, played by Will Smith's son. He just annoys me. The dialog is pretty terrible. And it seemed like all of the kids in the movie are just too young. Dre is 12 years old in the movie. The fighting and romance scenes featuring pre-pubescent kids are painful. And it was too long clocking in at about 2 hours and 15 minutes.

But saying all of that, I really liked the Chinese-ness of the new "Karate Kid." The entire movie, save five minutes or so, takes place in China. And about 90% of the time in China is in Beijing.

Although I've been watching a lot of Chinese TV and have been watching "the real China" all the time in those shows, seeing "the real China" in "The Karate Kid" was very exciting for Qian and me. Both of us walked out of the movie theater a little bit sad missing China. We were seriously moved by the movie's portrayal of China.

Now, that is exactly what the movie producers want its viewers to feel. The China Film Group Corp. helped out in the movie's production. According to good old Wikipedia, the CFGC is "the largest and most influential state-run film enterprise in China. It is also the only importer of foreign films in China and a major exporter of Chinese films." It is very much in the interest of the Chinese government to paint its image in a tourist/family-friendly manner. By and large, the CFGC succeeded.

I've read some articles that found the way China is portrayed in "The Karate Kid" as over-the-top. From the LA Times:
More on the movie in the coming days, but upon seeing the film this week we couldn't help but notice what will quickly jump out even to casual viewers: the cultural tourism that pervades the film. Clocking in at more than two hours (about the same length as the original), the new movie is extended not by any more time spent hitting the requisite notes -- the forbidden tween romance, the redemptive fight scenes, the menial-but-life-altering training routines -- but by the fetishizing shots of the Chinese landscape.

Nominally incorporated as part of the regimen of young Dre Parker (Jaden Smith), many of these shots exists to showcase the country's varied (and, as my colleague Patrick Goldstein points out, sanitized) topography. There's a lengthy scene at the Taoist holy site at Wudang Mountain in which we see glorious mountains from below and equally lush valleys from a dramatic cliffside temple above. The Forbidden City is shown as a giant playground for a group of children, free of guards or other tourists (or the chaos and checkered history of Tiananmen Square just outside its walls).

The everyday urban spaces get a similarly romantic treatment. Squares fill with whooshing colors of those practicing martial arts, and the markets in which Dre and his mother (Taraji P. Henson) try out local delicacies overflow with a kind of vibrant beauty.

There are also gauzy, glamorized shots of the Great Wall, which Dre runs up and down it under the watchful eye of his mentor Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), a kind of Rocky steps for a new generation, or at least for an export-minded corporation.

Director Harald Zwart, studio Sony and the picture's American producers (including Will Smith) took pains to get as much of China in as they can. But it's only a certain kind of China.

Read On
I can see where this article is coming from. But I think this article is being too serious. What does the writer suggest the movie show? Poor migrant workers? Acrid pollution? It's a kids movie. I understand why the movie painted the mostly rosy picture it did.

Saying that, there was a cringe-worth moment or two. One is while Dre and his mom are on the plane to China. Dre looks at a picture of China and says something along the lines of, "Man, everything is old in China." Fifteen minutes later in the movie after Dre and his mom have rolled by the Bird's Nest and the CCTV Tower in a taxi, Dre's mom says with a smile, "Dre, you were wrong. Everything in China is new!"

That was a little bit difficult to stomach. But for the most part, I really liked what the China that was featured in the film.

I was deeply struck by China's holy mountains during my time in China (see Hua Shan and Emei Shan on that link). I visited the Great Wall three times. I find the mountainous scenery of western China enchanting. If there was some travel porn in "The Karate Kid," it doesn't really bother me. There is a lifetime of cool stuff to see in China (I feel like I've only scratched the surface of what I want to see). I'm not going to criticize the makers of the film for using China's mythical Wudang Mountain (also romanized as Wu Tang) or the Great Wall as props. And I don't blame the Chinese tourism department for wanting to show those places off either. They completely fit with the movie.

Apart from the scenery, the movie was at least within the ballpark of realistic/every-day-China on a few things. Jackie Chan's character, a maintenance/door man at Dre's apartment complex, seems a lot like some of the doormen I used to see every day at my apartment complex (minus his kung fu and English skills, of course). Dre's love interest, Meiying, feels the same pressures that a lot of the twelve year-olds I taught in China felt. Meiying is a prodigious violinist and is pushed very hard to develop her talent. And the bullies/antagonists in the movie are exaggerated, but I've certainly encountered dozens of pre-pubescent/pubescent hell raisers teaching in China that the boys in the movie made me recall.

If you've read this far, you've probably already seen "The Karate Kid" or are at least interested in doing so. I recommend seeing it. It's a nice remake of a modern classic. And it's an interesting experience seeing American movie producers (and the CFGC, of course) Hollywood-ize China.

My only serious problem with the movie is the title. I realize that they had to have "The Karate Kid" to cash in on the franchise. But "The Kung-Fu Kid" would have been way better.

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