01 July 2010

The Kung Fu Kid

Americans love a good underdog story. A quick look back at our filmmaking history finds our theatres filled with stories about the downtrodden, outcast or overmatched hero facing up against seemingly impossible odds, only to eek out a victory at the climax, proving that even the most ordinary of us is capable of amazing things. From Jimmy Stewart’s idealistic “Mr. Smith,” heading off to the Senate, to the hapless Cleveland Indians seeking to top the “Major League,” from the “300” Spartans staring down death embodied in the Persian Empire to Luke Skywalker facing down a spacefaring galactic one, from the trials of one “Rocky” Balboa to essentially any character portrayed by Adam Sandler, the underdog story is one of the most tried and true that any media can create.

Back in 1984, moviegoers were introduced to a young man named Daniel Larusso, a hapless teenager transplanted from Newark, NJ, all the way across the country to Reseda, CA. The challenges of assimilating to a new neighborhood in a new state, which an entirely different ethos from the one Daniel was used to was further exacerbated by torment inflicted on him by a group of skilled karate thugs trained by a merciless Vietnam Veteran. Saved one day by the mysterious Japanese man, Mr. Miyagi, Daniel subsequently goes on a two month long training session so he may challenge his tormentors in the All Valley Karate tournament. Did I mention that the cause of this torment was initially brought on by Daniel’s newfound friendship with a pretty California girl, and the leader of those thugs was her ex boyfriend? No? Well, it’s sort of important, because it’s what gets the initial movie going, but it falls by the wayside as the training begins.

Initially viewed as a “teenage Rocky,” (fitting since it was directed by John Avildsen, who also helmed the boxing classic 8 years earlier), Karate Kid was an underdog story framed by themes of diaspora, both in Daniel’s relocation to a new home, and his interactions with the Okinawan Miyagi. Daniel was the everyman that many youths felt, forced to face against bullies who were bigger, stronger, and tougher than he was. Miyagi was a surrogate father who taught him self discipline and respect, and the rival sensei John Kreese was a semi-faceless monster caught up in his own ego and vicious worldview. The quintessential American underdog tale, and it caught on like wildfire, spawning three (3!) sequels, and sending Larusso halfway around the world to Japan in the process.

Given the interest Hollywood has devoted of late to remaking (and some may argue, completely destroying) classics from yesteryear, I was initially very skeptical about the announced remake of “The Karate Kid.” Not that I have that strong a bond to the series, it was an interesting watch, and the location shots from the second movie were truly gorgeous, but it was still something regarded by many (myself included) to be a sacred relic of our collective youths. If remaking the film wasn’t a big enough affront, changing its location from California to China, the mentor from Pat Morita’s Mr. Miyagi to Jackie Chan’s Mr. Han and the style from Okinawan Karate to, of all things, Kung Fu, seemed like the largest travesty of all. “It’s Kung Fu, why not call it ‘The Kung Fu Kid?’” were the cries of many of my friends. Many vowed to never see the film based on that fact alone.

Never one to base my decisions on outward appearances, I decided to wait until the film had been actually released before I rushed to any judgements. And I am glad I did.

Much like the original, Karate Kid 2010 centers around the story of a boy uprooted from a familiar landscape and forced to relocate far away. However, unlike the cross country trek made by the Larusso’s in the first, this time young Dre Parker is taken all the way across the Pacific to Beijing, China, where his mother has a new job. Alone in a new country, with no friends and an inability to communicate, Dre runs afoul of a group of peers led by the vicious Cheng, an expert in Kung Fu. Dre refuses to back down, and is summarily pounded by the boy. When a prank goes awry, Dre is chased back to his apartment complex, where he is further assaulted by a group of boys, until he is saved by the rather antisocial handyman Mr. Han, who defeats the entire group of them with his own style of Kung Fu. Though reluctant to aid the boy, Mr. Han eventually accompanies him to the Fighting Dragons Kung Fu Academy, where they are strong-armed into competing in the Open Kung Fu Tournament. Mr. Han then trains Dre to fight and defend himself, taking him all across China while dispensing sage wisdom (and more than a few challenging training scenarios that leave the boy with more than a bruised ego at times). And did I mention that all this started because Dre was talking to a girl? Because that’s what happened, only this time it has a stronger connection to the tale.

After I watched Karate kid 2010, I went back and watched the original. I was struck by exactly how similar they were, at least plot-wise. I read somewhere that the new film sticks to the story almost scene for scene, and for the most part it does: every major event that happens in the first film is dutifully recreated in the second, but not so much that the film feels like a retread. Additionally, some of the scenes and plot points in the first film are expanded upon in the second: Dre’s young friend, Mei Ying’s, violin recital plays a much larger part of the plot, the motivations and inner turmoil of Mr. Han take center stage in a scene so powerful, you forget you’re watching Jackie Chan for a moment, and the training sequences are not limited to a montage or two, but rather are extended out over several truly lovely locations, and we are given more time to witness the development of the Master/Student bond between Dre and Han. Much like Miyagi served as a surrogate father to Daniel, so does Han to Dre, only so much more.

The setting of the story, filmed mostly on location in China, is lushly depicted, using every advance filmmaking has made since the original debuted over 15 years ago. Scenes filmed on the Great Wall, in the back alley’s of Beijing, at Buddhist temples and finally at the Tournament itself with flashing lights and elaborate display screens, further serve to show a world far different from the small one Larusso lived in, and further illustrate exactly how hard it has been for Dre to acclimate from his old life in Detroit to his new one in China: he’s not just a stranger in a new neighborhood, he is in fact a stranger in a strange, alien land, so far removed from what he is used to dealing with. In fact, Karate Kid 2010 manages to do in one sitting what it took the original franchise 2 films to do: it uproots the main character from an “idyllic” American world and sends him to a setting where he truly must interact, and indeed survive, entirely on his own. It’s one thing to move cross country, it’s another to move across the globe.

The film, while visually stunning, might not have worked, however, if not for the abilities of the more than capable leading actors. Jaden Smith, previously known to me as “Son-of-Will,” shows that he more than just looks like his famous father, he can act. (A friend with me said that his ability to cry on command was notable. I don’t know if this is a big deal or not, but she’s the actor not me.) Whether he is joking around, showing off his “moves” or struggling against opponents both real and imagined, he tackles each scene with competence, flair and charisma. And in the process, he makes Dre Parker a protagonist infinitely more worldly, urbane, and likable than Daniel LaRusso ever was. As classic a character as Daniel-san was, he was also annoying, somewhat weepy (and not in the good way) and always complaining about something. Dre, by contrast, has a relatable fear, his tears elicit sympathy, not groans, and he is completely the product of a new, global world.

Smith’s skill and talent are further showcased by his interactions with Jackie Chan. Now, I will not go into any comparisons between Chan and the incomparable Pat Morita here, because they would be truly and completely unfair. Morita and Chan are two different actors, coming to us from two very different worlds and two very different traditions. Morita was still generally under-known at the time, his most notable portrayal being diner owner Matsuo “Arnold” Takahashi on the classic sitcom “Happy Days.” Karate Kid exposed the world to him and his acting chops, and generally made him a household name. By contrast, Jackie Chan is already world famous for his films (and in some places his singing, check it out if you don’t believe me). In the case of both actors, their roles as mentors present challenges: Morita was not the original choice for the role (that would be the legendary Toshiro Mifune, and later Mako) and he had to prove himself to cast and crew. Likewise with his role, Chan has to fight against the general perception of himself as a comedic actor and martial artist. Both actors played out of familiar character roles, and had to tackle serious dramatic acting. And in both cases, the actors were more than up to the task of creating and bringing to life compelling characters that added immensely to the appeal of the movies.

Something should be mentioned about the OTHER obvious change to the film from its 1984 colleague: Karate Kid is a horrible misnomer, but one they are more than willing to play to. When the film was released in Asia, they actually referred to it as “The Kung Fu Kid” China, and “Best Kid” in Korea. Both titles serve the actually theme of the movie better, so why call it “The Karate Kid” in the US? Dre’s martial arts skills, which are a bit undefinable but definitely include a good deal of Wing Chun, are obviously not Okinawan Karate. In fact, at one crucial point in the film, when Dre attempts to enroll at the Fighting Dragons Kung Fu Academy (which has absolutely no resemblance to the Cobra Kai dojo, save for it’s aesthetic of merciless combat) only to be chased away by a wickedly grinning Cheng (expertly played by Zhenwei Wang), he remarks to his mother that “It’s kung fu, not karate, mom.” Given the prevalence and interest in traditional Chinese martial arts these days (thanks, mostly, to Jackie Chan and Jet Li), it is no surprise that they would ditch the relatively “bland” styles of Japanese martial arts for something “flashier” and more “impressive” like Kung Fu. (I do not use terms like “bland” and “impressive” to judge the systems or their values: I have trained in Shotokan, Wing Chun and Jeet Kune Do, and I respect those systems greatly, each is a worthy style for training and self development. I simply refer to the VISUAL aesthetics of the systems- while practical, karate lacks much of the flowing movements found within traditional kung fu styles. Leaps, spins, throws, forms and “snaking arms” movements are generally absent from most karate training, and those happen to be the most visually stimulating techniques used in filming.) So then, I ask again why still insist on calling this film “The Karate Kid,” when there is no actual karate in it?

Well, it IS a remake. An expansive, stimulating, vibrant remake, but a remake nonetheless. And let’s be honest with ourselves, would we still be debating the movie were it called “The Kung Fu Kid?” Most likely not. No, the name “Karate Kid” still holds a strong place in our shared cultural history: older adults will remember the plucky Italian fighting against California surfer thugs, younger kids will relate the name to what they have heard their parents say of it. The name invokes emotion in us as Americans, and this film seeks to tap into it, for good or bad. But anyone choosing to pass this film up simply because of the name is doing the film, and themselves, a disservice. Look past the name, you will find a gem of a film, a true underdog story in the same vein as Rocky, Star Wars and even Harry Potter, and more than worth the two-plus hours of runtime.

And in case anyone wants to know...”wax-on, wax-off”, and the “Crane Technique” are still there, in spirit less than form. Just with more attitude this time.

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