So as many of you know, The Karate Kid is opening this weekend. When this remake was first announced, I placed this film in what I call the “Hollywood Movies That Will Possibly Make Asians Look Bad or Not Have Asians At All As Main Characters” box, which also contained The Last Airbender, The Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, Sex & The City 2, and the Red Dawn remake. These were films that I would be hard pressed to pay $12-15 for and even if word of mouth for these films were spectacular, I would rather go watch Glee or my roommate’s bunny eat the carpet floor.
But out of all the movies in my absurdly named box, I didn’t feel so strongly against The Karate Kid remake like I did for the others. I liked that Jaden Smith was playing the kid and Jackie Chan as the grizzled mentor because it meant two people of color were the main stars in a Hollywood movie. However, I would still be hesitant enough to actually pay to watch the remake, so it was something I would just check out on DVD or on TV, if I ever was that bored.
But last week on June 4th, CAPE (Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment) and Sony invited people to a special press screening for this film. The nifty thing was that the event was free and at the very least, I can watch the film to see for myself if this is yet another exercise in Hollywood Asian stereotypes.
About two hours later, I came out of the theater shockingly surprised by how much I enjoyed the movie. Immediately, I became shocked at how I actually liked it. The two emotions battled each other for the rest of the night but eventually, I found myself enjoying the film because I was happy that it was one Hollywood movie that didn’t treat Jackie Chan as a joke. In this film, Chan shows off his serious acting chops in the portrayal of a deeply flawed yet noble character. At one point, one profound emotional moment with Jackie’s character absolutely floored me. I also enjoyed how Jaden Smith took his craft seriously, which not only made me believe he was a real kid but that he also worked his butt off to prepare for the martial arts segments. Most importantly, the chemistry between Jackie and Jaden was honest and genuine, giving this film a lot of heart that I otherwise wouldn’t expect.
Before I go into my final verdict for this film, I would like to address the many controversies with this film that I have heard from the APA community. I asked members of the community such as Aly Morita on what their concerns were for the film after noticing that the remake upset a lot of people. Aly is the daughter of Pat Morita (the original Mr. Miyagi) and is spearheading the protest to boycott The Karate Kid remake. From my conversation with her and with several others, I learned there were four major points why folks were not too happy with this remake (along with my own opinions on these concerns after watching the film).
For starters, the “Karate Kid” title is still attached when Jackie Chan’s character is clearly teaching kung-fu to Jaden Smith. Is this laziness on the filmmaker’s part where mainstream audience members can’t tell the difference between the two different martial arts styles with their own unique cultural history? Or is this a marketing ploy slapped on to attach an established franchise to this remake?
Jaden repeatedly makes the difference between the two styles, and it’s repeated to the degree that even if I had no idea if the two styles were different, I definitely do now. But yeah, it would have been better if they just called it “Kung Fu Kid”.
While Jaden Smith is African American and a person of color, the old Hollywood dynamics are still the same where the American guy gets the Asian girl with his “liberating” and “fresh” American ways. Insert Asian antagonists in the form of jealous bullies who beat Jaden up and disapproving parents of the Chinese girl. These elements are present in The Karate Kid, but to what degree?
The bullies end up becoming good/redeemed at the end and although Jaden and the girl do kiss, their relationship is very innocent as they are only 11 year old kids, after all. All of the kids are young and I did not get any real “the bad guys really gets it at the end” negative feelings. I did not see any issues with this concern here.
The film gives off the impression that everybody in China knows kung-fu. Jaden’s character makes a joke that all Chinese people knows martial arts and while that may be said from a cute, ignorant adolescent point of view, is this humor for the audience members who are aware that this is clearly not the case, or is this comedy because it’s yet another slapstick Asian joke?
I didn’t really get that impression at all. Although it would have been nice to see a Chinese person who had no knowledge of kung-fu whatsoever, the film did not make direct inclinations that everybody is a martial arts expert.
Another concern that people have is that there was some serious Hollywood nepotism going on with Will Smith and his wife flexing their producing powers and putting their own child as the main star while Jackie Chan received second billing. Jackie Chan has been in over 100 movies while Jaden has been in two (The Pursuit of Happiness and The Day The Earth Stood Still). Why is it that a more reputable actor gets second billing to a 11-year old kid? Is it because he’s Asian?
Actually this does piss me off — why IS Jackie Chan second billing?
These are legitimate concerns and from seeing the trailers, I can see why people are worried. But I must stress the fact that many of these concerns can only be evaluated once you actually watch the film. Although I had a great conversation with Aly Morita, I was surprised when I found out that she never actually watched the film after reading Quentin Lee’s interview with her at Film Hustler. Her concerns and criticisms are valid but to those who are curious about this film, I encourage you all to watch this film and talk to me if you found the film to be problematic in its perceptions of Asians. It may be unfair as I got a jump start by watching a free screening of this film, but in my personal opinion, I found it to be entertaining and did not believe it portrayed Asians in a negative light.
I can say that if I had it my way with this film, I would have created this film differently. This is how my awesome Karate Kid remake would go:
It would be called Kung-Fu Kid, because it’s kung-fu and there’s actually a difference. The main star, however, would be a Chinese American in high school or college, only because pre-adolescent people get on my nerves. I would keep Jackie as Mr. Han because he was fantastic but Jackie should get top billing. It’s a no-brainer for me because respect should be paid to people who’ve worked that freaking long and is a living legend. The story will still be in China, but since it’s focused around a Chinese American kid, the “jook sing” (which means ‘hollow bamboo’) reference will be used as it is a term that a lot of Chinese American people get when they come to China and don’t know the language or the culture.
This will be the reason why he gets picked on by bullies. He gets handed to him by the bullies and so he eventually learns some martial arts from Mr. Han. However, there is huge resistance in the beginning as he rather not because he believes it perpetuates stereotypes that all Asian people know martial arts. Eventually he learns the form anyways (because otherwise you have no movie), kicks some serious butt at the grand tournament finale, gets the girl with a huge make-out session, and the end.
Now THAT would be bomb!