Saturday, June 12, 2010

A Different China in "The Karate Kid"

The Chinese version of the poster. The title is "Kung Fu Dream." It says on the poster: Kungfu kid, dreams come true in China.

China is no longer the far away, exotic and ancient land, but a modern, familiar place. This is the kind of image “The Karate Kid” presents about China. 

The two-hour-long movie, which opened in the US yesterday, is a remake of a popular 1984 movie of the same title. The year is 2009, and twelve-year-old Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) moves to Beijing with his mom, only to find himself bullied by a group of kung fu-practicing Chinese boys. With help from Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), a kung fu expert disguised as maintenance guy, Dre finally defends himself and wins respect. 

Intentionally or unintentionally, the movie shows a China that is quite different from previous Hollywood productions with a Chinese setting. 

First off, China is not a country where “everything is old.” While looking at a tour book about China on the flight from Detroit to Beijing, Dre tells his mom: “Look, everything in China is old.” 

Arriving in Beijing, on the way from the airport to their apartment, Dre and his mother see the postmodern CCTV tower, the National Stadium (Bird’s Nest) and the car packed streets. “Well, I guess nothing in China is old, huh,” says Dre’s mother. 

Dre is soon to discover that Beijing is, after all, not so foreign. Switching on TV, the first show he sees is “Sponge Bob,” an American cartoon program, although translated into Chinese. 

He plays basketball with Chinese kids in a park, same game as he played in the US. He meets another American boy who lives in the same apartment building. Not to mention that he attends a school that enrolls quite some western teenagers, and everybody eats lunch very much the same way as in American schools, except for the use of chopsticks. 

American music is also not so hard to find in Beijing. Going into a game room, Dre and his Chinese girl friend both show off some American dance on a dancing machine that not only plays American music, but also speaks English. 

Another image about China featured in this movie, but rarely in other Hollywood productions so far, is that of rich people in today’s Beijing, which is new to Chinese society itself. 

The Chinese girl, whom Dre is trying to get close to and consequently bullied for, is from an upper-middle class family in Beijing. Her parents dress nicely, drive a nice car, and live in a fancy court-yard residence with stone lions standing at the gate. They also can afford to hire a western musician to teach their daughter to play violin! 

In reality, this kind of people might not be everywhere in China, but does exist. As a matter of fact, the father character might well resemble one of the creators of this movie, Mr. Han Sanping, president of China Film Group Corporation, the state-owned powerhouse of China’s movie industry. Han Sanping himself is likely the most powerful movie maker in China, having produced international blockbusters such as “Red Cliff” and “Kung Fu Hustle.” People like him, who head profitable state-owned enterprises, have become the most affluent in today’s China.

Still, a movie like this cannot totally leave out China’s rich history and culture. Thus the scenes of the Forbidden City, the Taoist temple in Wudang Mountain, and of course, the Great Wall. Comparing to the scenes of car-packed streets, junk-stuffed narrow alleys, i.e. the messy and hectic inner city, which are fairly truthful portrait of life in Beijing, those from the famous sites seem to demonstrate that China still has some beautiful places. 

A co-production between China Film Group Corporation and Columbia Pictures and set to be released in China on June 22, this movie also intends to make both American and Chinese audience feel good at the end. 

American audience is happy when Dre finally beats up the aggressive Chinese kids, while Chinese audience will be satisfied by the success of Mr. Han, who is arguably the biggest winner. Besides turning Dre into a brilliant kung fu kid, Mr. Han also wins over those aggressive Chinese kids, who decide to turn to him as the true kung fu master. 

For Mr. Han (Sanping), mission accomplished.

More about The Karate Kid (2010)