Disclaimer: This post is for a film assignment.
CS8900 Assignment 1: Film Review by Diana Goh
The Karate Kid (2010)
Director: Harald Zwart
When I first watched this film back in 2010, I admit that I did so because of Jackie Chan. The storyline was nothing unfamiliar – a kid moves to a foreign place and is treated as a stranger. He gets bullied and an unassuming kung fu master comes to his rescue, vowing to teach the little kid kung fu, who eventually defeats the big, bad bullies. Sounds like a recycled story, but the name Jackie Chan was enticing enough for me to enter the theatres. I mean, we always have time for a superstar, don’t we?
Chinese superstar Jackie Chan has long been a staple in Hollywood kung fu flicks including Shanghai Knights (2003), the Rush Hour series (1998, 2001, 2007), CZ12 (2012), Skiptrace (2016) and so many more. The Karate Kid is no exception. Wherever Jackie Chan goes, there is inevitably kung fu. Kung fu was said to have started as an extension of wuxia, with the main difference being kung fu’s “emphasis on ‘real fighting’ “ (Teo, 2009). The genre may have originated from Chinese culture, but there are opinions that these movies are not “Chinese” enough because of the predominantly Western cast.
In my opinion, however, it does not mean that a film can only be considered “Chinese” if it features an all-Chinese cast, is filmed in a Chinese-speaking region or is filmed in Chinese. Instead, it is the idea of the Chinese culture and its ideals that embodies the essence and crux of the entire Hollywood film. It is of course debatable over who truly “owns” the film. The Hollywood producers? Or the Chinese audience? The crossing of the Western culture into the Chinese one, and vice-versa, blurs the boundaries, which make these kung fu films all the more global and accessible to audience from any part of the world.
While the entirety of the film was set in Beijing, China, it was certainly clear that the The Karate Kid was filmed for a Western audience in mind. The Forbidden City? Check. The Great Wall of China? Yes, you get that too. We even travel from Detroit to China on Air China. It’s all almost a coincidence, until…
… we realize that this film is produced not only by Overbrook Entertainment, founded by Will Smith, father of Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) in real-life, but also JW Productions and China Film Group Corporation (CFGC). CFGC is state-owned, and all foreign films that wish to be screened in China have to be inspected by them first. More on them here. (Sorry, no English translations!)
One of the most important difference between the version screened in China and the version screened elsewhere lies in a line when Dre learns that he has to defeat the bullies in a kung fu tournament one by one. While he sulks and complains of the harsh and cruel form of kung fu that the bullies practice, Mr Han (Jackie Chan) exclaims in exasperation: “That’s not kung fu. That’s a bad man teach them very bad things.” This is said in the version that is screened outside of China. The version screened in China has a different line – “That’s not kung fu. That does not represent China!” For me, this is the win. The entire purpose of the film is encapsulated in this line, which is really to dennounce the negative ideas that the Western hemisphere has of China. Of course, the CFGC has its (political) reasons for doing so.
Due to the Chinese-Hollywood partnership, I would imagine that the Chinese side took full advantage of the film not just to promote kung fu to the Western audience, but also to market China to the rest of the world. Welcome to Beijing.
Evidently, such a promotional tactic is rather successful. In the film, we see China as a vibrant, healthy, modern and refined country. People are exercising in community spaces, the infrastructure is up-and-coming and we also see, well hear, Meiying (Han Wen Wen) listening to Bach. Again, only the best of China is showcased.
In many Hollywood-China collaborations, an issue that surfaces is orientalism. Orientalism, according to Rosenblatt (2009), refers to the perception of a division between the East and West, and that each is different. Some critics may view the excessive marketing of China’s landmarks in The Karate Kid as a manifestation of orientalism.
In the film, Mr Han magically heals Dre with “ancient Chinese healing” and the master-protégé pair even travel far and beyond to source for “magic kung fu water”. Unbelievable, huh? While these may seem ridiculous, further perpetuating the differences between the Chinese and the West, we find other instances that link the Americans and Chinese. It’s all in the details.
I guess the main purpose of having the Spongebob Squarepants showing on TV when Dre first enters his new home in Beijing is really a metaphor for the connection between the East and the West. Even though in a foreign land and surrounded by an unfamiliar language, we are never fully disconnected from our roots.In Dre’s case, he finds comfort in an American cartoon even though he is in China. It also acts as a levelling ground between the western and Chinese audience – we are not as different as we think we are.
Same goes for the Star Wars reference. With the world-renowned film franchise mentioned in this seemingly Hollywood-Chinese film, we see how this film is truly transcending boundaries in terms of catering to the audience. We get the best of both the West and East. At the same time, we also start to question, who does this film really belong to? The American or Chinese producers?
Attempts to further portray China as a modern country and one that keeps up-to-date with the latest pop culture is most evident in the scene where Dre and Meiying go to the arcade and dance to pop songs Low by Flo Rida and Poker Face by Lady Gaga. Now, we wouldn’t have expected that, would we?
Other issue in contention in The Karate Kid lies in the very title itself. The art form taught and spoken about throughout the film is kung fu and yet, the title very explicitly says otherwise. Karate is not practised in the film. Perhaps paying homage to the original 1984 version of The Karate Kid? In an interview with Director Harald Zwart, he admits that “we know China is kung fu and karate is Japan”. He wanted people to realize that karate was still a stigma in China (which I believe is linked to the different political ideologies between the two countries). Zwart also acknowledged that while the earlier version of the film was “close to perfect” and that the storylines were exactly similar, the 2010 version was done differently in-terms of choice of cast and setting. In my opinion, it is an attempt by the Chinese side to capitalize on the star power of Jackie Chan to bridge the gap between Chinese films and Hollywood. In case you’re interested, watch Zwart’s thoughts on The Karate Kid here.
Final thoughts on The Karate Kid: If you’re a fan of Jackie Chan (like me), the action scenes by Chan are minimal but thoroughly enjoyable. But if you want more kung fu action, this is probably not the best film to catch. However, it still makes for a good watch, regardless of audience, as it tracks the journey of an American boy in a new environment and how, under the tutelage of a kung fu master, rises to beat all his bullies.
In more serious matters, this film also acts a reminder of the interlinking sphere between Chinese and Hollywood cinema. Such collaborations are becoming increasing global and accessible and the ownership of these films are no longer confined to a single Hollywood or Chinese production company. Instead, as audience, such collaborations will allow us an alternative perspective to a culture or country we may not entirely be familiar with.
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Harald Zwart Directs The Karate Kid Like An Independent Film [Interview by K. Rich]. (2010). In CinemaBlend. Retrieved from http://www.cinemablend.com/new/Interview-Harald-Zwart-Directs-Karate-Kid-Like-An-Independent-Film-18952.html
Rosenblatt, N. (2009). Orientalism in American Popular Culture. Penn History Review: Vol. 16: Iss. 2, Article 5.
Teo, S. (2009). The Rise of Kung Fu, from Wong Fei-Hung to Bruce Lee. The Wuxia Tradition Chinese Martial Arts Cinema, 58-81. doi:10.3366/edinburgh/9780748632855.003.0004
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The Karate Kid Remake Director Harald Zwart [Interview by A. Bilington]. (2010, May 24). In New Interview: The Karate Kid Remake Director Harald Zwart. Retrieved from http://www.firstshowing.net/2010/new-interview-the-karate-kid-remake-director-harald-zwart/
Ward, R. M. (2011, June). Film Review of The Karate Kid (1984) and The Karate Kid (2010) [Review]. Scope: An Online Journal of Film and Television Studies, (20), 22-27. Retrieved from http://www.academia.edu/16067657/Film_Review_of_The_Karate_Kid_1984_and_The_Karate_Kid_2010_
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