As anyone who’s ever practiced martial arts knows, the original The Karate Kid (1984) wasn’t about karate. It was about an unlikely friendship between a bullied teen and a Japanese immigrant. Pat Morita’s Miyagi could relate to Daniel-san because he knew what it’s like to be cast aside when you have so much to offer. Dressed in an odd mix of Zen philosophy and sports clichés, the film’s underlying message was subtle but effective: immigrants are as much a part of our future as our children, and neither should be treated like a burden.
You can imagine my apprehension when I heard Harald Zwart’s remake would tell of an American child (Jaden Smith) learning to cope with racist bullies in China. I feared a creative team that ostensibly couldn’t tell the difference between karate and kung fu would do a pathetic job depicting Chinese culture. I feared the boy’s janitor turned mentor, Mr Han (Jackie Chan), would be depicted as a Chinese apologist instead of a source of inspiration. I feared the filmmakers had missed the point entirely. I was wrong on all counts.
From a marketing standpoint, I fully understand the need to keep the original title: why acquire the rights to a franchise that’s been gleefully ripped off for over two decades if you’re not going to capitalise on the name? However, it’s worth noting that, save for one throwaway scene, this new version of The Karate Kid doesn’t feature karate. Admittedly, one could argue the same about the 1984 hit, but that’s beside the point. As the characters are quick to point out, this new movie is entrenched in Chinese kung fu.
This works out quite well cinematically, since kung fu has always been more aesthetically pleasing than karate, especially when Jackie Chan and his stunt coordinator Wu Gang contribute to the choreography. All the classic set pieces have been updated with dazzling acrobatics, most of which performed by pre-pubescent killing machines. Seriously, I wouldn’t want to face these kids in a secluded alley, though Chan makes great use of their skills when his character is forced to do exactly that without throwing a punch.
I’m ambivalent about the pupils’ age in this version. On the one hand, the fact Jaden Smith’s Dre is still in his formative years helps explain how he could catch up to his rivals’ extensive training, presuming, of course, Mr Han is a super Shao Lin master. On the other, it takes a special kind of evil to order your twelve-year-old kung fu students to break their schoolmate’s leg just to make sure he loses a competition. Tonia Harding’s got nothing on insane Master Li (Yu Rong Guang).
That’s all beside the point, mind you, because The Karate Kid isn’t a martial arts movie. The franchise’s true focus remains cultural exchange, this time from the immigrant’s perspective. I love how the film’s depiction of China changes in accordance with the protagonist’s state of mind. Beijing feels restricted at first, familiar when Dre falls in love, breathtaking as Mr Han guides him through its wonders, until finally it seems like home to both the hero and the viewers.
The details of Dre’s experience as a foreigner are pitch perfect, from his mother’s forced enthusiasm when she calls their new country the future to his Chinese girlfriend’s (Han Wen Wen) initial fascination with his hair, his otherness. Also consider how quickly Dre’s Caucasian neighbour befriends him. No longer black and white since they set foot in China, the kids have become united by their minority status. “Stay away from us,” says Cheng (Wang Zhen Wei), the bullies’ nasty leader, “all of us.” Dre didn’t need the latter precision.
It helps that, at eleven years old, Smith found the perfect note as our point-of-view character: plucky yet conflicted, petulant without being moody, and immensely sympathetic. Actually, I was impressed with the whole cast. Take, for example, Taraji P. Henson’s portrayal of Dre’s mom, the way her face betrays all of her character’s insecurities as a single parent. One really gets the sense of a woman who’s better at evoking discipline than she is at enforcing it.
With the largest shoes to fill, Chan gives an equally subtle performance, toning down his energetic charm to evoke the wary spirit of a man with a kind heart but wounded ventricles. I was concerned Mr Han might come off as the token “good Chinaman”, but the character is too rounded for that. This is the sort of role I’ve wanted the international superstar to play for years now. In fact, my biggest qualm with the movie is its abrupt ending. It seems to me an epilogue focusing on Dre’s relationship with his mentor was in order.
As anyone who’s ever known prejudice understands, The Karate Kid isn’t about a kung fu tournament or even China. It’s about the unlikely friendship between a young immigrant and someone who knows too well what it’s like to lose one’s support system, everything a man (or boy) calls home. Dressed in a familiar plot, the film’s underlying message is as pertinent today as it was twenty-six years ago: immigrant is merely a status, not the measure of a person’s worth, and all people should be treated with empathy and respect.