“Children are resilient,” people like to remind themselves in times of pain, confusion, and emotional agitation. Children are not, however, invincible and magically adjustable. They learn through emulation and mimicry to be like others if others appear to have better fortune. Children’s impressionable minds can be molded towards integrity or self-importance. Such is what I got from watching The Karate Kid (Harold Zwart, 2010), the 21st century update to the Ralph Macchio-Pat Morita sports film classic. And, that kung fu is a way to make peace with your enemies, it’s not a way to incite conflict.
I’ve never seen any of the original Karate Kid films in their entirety. I’ve seen the majority of the Hilary Swank one, but not the others. This entry, therefore, will not compare and contrast the current with the past. The film is about culture shock through the eyes of a twelve year-old. Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) and his mother Sherry (Taraji P. Henson) move from Detroit, MI to Beijing, China because the (new) widow’s employer can no longer provide a job for her on American soil. Although there are enough international (read: English-speaking) youngsters in the Parkers’ new neighborhood, new culture sensory stimulation is a lot to process. Dre is barely off the plane and he already has a bully to avoid. Not only is he an American, but he’s African-American, the exotic other. Meiying (Han Wenwen), a girl he befriends, asks him if she can touch his hair moments after seeing him for the first time. Their encounter does not sit well with Cheng (Wang Zhenwei), the son of Meiying’s parents’ friends. The bully has found his target.
The Karate Kid is approximately 140 minutes long, consisting of a coming-of-age-in-a-new-place narrative trope and a sports film. The former introduces and enables the latter to flourish. The “kung fu kid” portion of the film doesn’t begin until Dre has been antagonized by Cheng and his gang on three or four separate occasions and Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), the building’s maintenance man, displays his skills.
And now it’s time for a breakdown, The Karate Kid adheres to sports film motifs in the following ways:
1. Coach – athlete relationship mirrors a father – son dynamic.
2. Female (love) interest is central to the athlete’s growth, downfall, or both (Meiying does a bit of both).
3. Dre’s attempt to use transgressive violence similar to physical acts of bullying are not effective. Only the sanctioned “violence” of kung fu performed in a proper arena at a wushu tournament permits Dre to have any kind of chance of matching Cheng’s level of bodily harm.
4. The athlete must learn to set aside his own ego and overcome any character flaws before winning any kind of prize. A trophy for a competition Dre never intended to participate in would be great, but his goal is to beat his fear.
5. Training montages reveal the athlete’s transformation.
The fourth point concerns the name and beginning of this entry. With authenticity like I’ve never seen in a child actor, Jaden Smith makes it clear to his mother how much “I hate it here” in China. It’s not truly due to moving to the eastern hemisphere where the people speak a different language and live to be 400 years-old; no, Dre hates Beijing because a round-faced, big-eyed Chinese kid has beat the snot out of him twice and his mother actually is not psychic enough to know what’s bothering him. All she cares about is that he put his jacket on the coat rack instead of tossing it on the floor. Although Dre’s character is young enough to wish his mother would make things better, he’s too old not to have pride. He may be reluctant to ask for help from his mother, but he isn’t afraid to approach Mr. Han, who rescued Dre from a third (or fourth) very serious whooping.
Dre and Mr. Han are linked through loss of loved ones as well as a victory in the tournament would mean Dre doesn’t have to worry about Cheng being a meanie and traditionally attired kung fu principles defeat westernized, mechanized kung fu disciples taught by a certain Master Li (Yu Rongguang, who was in my favorite wuxia film ever, The Iron Monkey–he was the Iron Monkey). Dre wants to be self-reliant and only Mr. Han can teach him how to do it with grace, confidence, purity of purpose. And that’s not wax-on-wax-off wisdom. For this kung fu kid, it’s jacket-on-jacket-off* mantra.
Children can learn how to cope with the emotional, often unconscious, stresses of adapting to a new environment, yes, they can. But they can’t work miracles or clear a path for themselves until they’ve lived through adversity by conquering their own demons. If they don’t have that foundation mentally, how are they going to survive the realities of a world filled with power-happy alpha male-peers that have someone to impress?
Observations & Miscellania:
1. I sat next to a cool, smart, and perceptive eleven year-old boy during the 7 pm showing opening night at the Northpoint Regal. He used a Twizzler strand as a straw by biting off each end. We had a brief chat before the film and during the previews; it reminded me of the cool suede boots conversation. He was there with his younger brother and their parents. The theatre was just about filled to capacity; average age of audience member was probably 25. Families galore. I think I was one of three Asians in the audience.
2. Product Placement & Branding: Air China, Starbucks and Haagen-Daz (Chinese airport); Detroit Lions (Jaden Smith wears a long-sleeved shirt in the beginning of the film), Beijing’s Olympic Village, Sponge Bob Square Pants, Sony flatscreen TV and laptop, the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, light teal hightop Chuck Taylors, and Lady GaGa’s “Poker Face” (Meiying dances to it at an arcade).
4. Dre and his mother move into apartment 305; Mr. Han’s wife and son died in a car accident June 8th. What, if any, significance is there to these numbers? A good balance of cool and not-cool things according to wikipedia. As for 305…I might be over-thinking it, but bear with me. The number “3-oh-five” and “three hundred and five” are written in Chinese like so:
“Three-oh-five” is pronounced “san-ling-wu.” “Three hundred and five” is “san-bye-wu.” The apartment is referred to as “three-oh-five” in the film. In Mandarin, the sounds for those characters resemble those for
which is pronounced “shan-ling-wu” and means “mountain forest martial arts.” Where does Dre learn a very important kung fu lesson? Atop a mountain forest.
5. It’s not fun watching Jaden Smith getting punched and kicked by boys nearly twice his size (if not in height than in pant size). The major throw-down that precedes Jackie Chan’s save incorporated slow-motion as a way of minimizing the verisimilitude of pain unleashed upon Jaden’s character.
I cannot wait to see Predators.
*Sigh, didn’t anyone in pre-production realize what kind of jokes would be made on account of “jacket off” ?