The Karate (Kung Fu) Kid

When I first saw the trailer for The Karate Kid remake, I couldn’t conceive of anything more distasteful. A movie produced by Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, starring their son, Jaden Smith? A remake, cashing in on the 1984 franchise? A title that deliberately ignores the fact that karate and kung fu are two completely different martial arts? Lame. Lame. For shame, LAME.

But after having said that, I still went to see it. It wasn’t as bad as I thought. There were homages to the original film: Jackie Chan swatting a fly instead of using chopsticks, the first fight, the waxing of the car, and the distinctive crane move. The story was essentially the same, but setting and the age of the characters freshened the franchise.

Based in China, the new Karate Kid explores the racial, national, and cultural conflict between East and West through its young cast. Jaden Smith is Dre Parker, a twelve-year-old African American boy who has been uprooted from Detroit and brought to Beijing. He doesn’t want to learn the language, he doesn’t want to embrace anything  Chinese, he wants to go home. Initially, Cheng (Zhenwei Wang) harbours good intentions when he stops Dre from flirting with his family friend, Mei Ying. Cheng does not want her to be distracted from her studies or get in trouble with her parents who would disapprove of the match. Through kung fu, Dre learns to appreciate Chinese culture and Cheng begins to respect Dre.

While the 1984 original featured a teen cast, the 2010 remake centres around younger characters. I watched the original Karate Kid years ago and was unaffected by the violence but it was disturbing to watch similar bullying scenes recreated with kids. Cheng is full of inexplicable malice. In one scene, on the school bus, Cheng swaps seats with his cronies so that he can sit behind Dre and make him squirm. And yet he is too young to understand that he’s doing wrong. Mr Miyagi/Han’s words, ‘No such thing as bad student, only bad teacher’, ring doubly true in this 2010 remake. Cheng’s teacher has taught him ‘no weakness, no pain, no mercy’ and he embraces this philosphy with a child’s unquestioning enthusiasm. In staged fights, Cheng zealously punches, kicks, and maim his opponents, glancing at his teacher each time, seeking his approval.

To sum up, 2010’s The Karate Kid is an interesting interpretation of the original, though I wonder how the Chinese will react to a movie about an American kid winning a kung fu tournament in China. Despite the film’s attempts to advertise PRC, will it be remembered as another example of American ignorance and imperialism’? If only they had changed the name.


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