Tuesday, June 15, 2010

thoughts on the karate kid

I just saw the remake of The Karate Kid the other night. Themes of globalization were front and center. An African-American single mother from Detroit has to move to China due to her job being transferred. The film was full of beautiful scenes of the Chinese countryside as well as city life. Temples, the Forbidden City, crowds of people doing Tai-Chi in the park. Plus there were a few obligatory humorous outcroppings of Western culture in the film: Spongebob Squarepants on television (dubbed and subtitled so that Jaden Smith's character couldn't understand). And the demure violin-playing Chinese girl getting her groove on to Lady Gaga.

Jackie Chan's performance was competent but I felt his own martial arts skills were wasted against the teenage bullies. I would have wanted to see at least one face-off between him and the head of this film's version of the Cobra Kais.

Jaden Smith's performance was also respectable. My main complaint: I wish his character was more likeable but he ended up acting like a brat for much of the movie, especially in the beginning. Also, his reluctance to learn Chinese in China was not a good look. (I mean, even the blond American kid who befriends Jaden's character early in the film manages to learn Chinese! Jaden's character doesn't speak any significant amount of Chinese until he needs to be nice to the cute girl's parents.)

In fact, that leads me to an intriguing question: Does the film end up being an (African-) American version of Avatar / The Last Samurai / Dances with Wolves where the (African-) American boy who knows nothing about Kung Fu (or Chinese) ends up beating the natives in a Kung Fu competition? Is this really an old story in blackface? Or is something fundamentally different because the character in this role is Black? (Some leftists might ask the same question about Obama and U.S. foreign policy) When I stop to think about it, previous martial arts films with black protagonists (Red Belt, The Last Dragon, Ghost Dog, etc.) tend to have a different sort of dynamic; the hero respectfully uses an Asian tradition against either white or black opponents.

Some other questions which are created by transposing the story to China: In the original film it was easy to argue that the Cobra Kais, led by a racist American Vietnam veteran, were teaching a distorted form of karate. But in the remake's portrayal of China, knowledge and practice of martial arts is shown as ubiquitous, and the "Cobra Kais" are quite popular. So are they practitioners of "real" Kung Fu? Also, in one key sequence Mr. Han (Jackie Chan) takes Jaden's character to a temple to learn the source of his Kung Fu and drink from the mystical dragon well. But again, they are in China, don't the other Chinese kids in the kung fu competition have teachers who can tell them where the dragon well is?

Chinese Martial Art

Hyphen Magazine: Pat Morita's Daughter Calls for a Boycott of the new Karate Kid movie

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