#cinefile: gloves on, gloves off

The Karate Kid (2010) – some spoilers, but then, it’s a remake…

most remakes are pointless. either the original film in question wasn’t any good, in which case why remake it? or it was really good, in which case, why remake it? skipping over the former, with the latter case, generally speaking the answers seem to be stuff like: because it is old, obscure, originally in black and white or a language other than english.

there are exceptions, but it’s difficult to get away from the idea that the films that are remade for this reason are basically starting with the premise that you are too stupid and/or lazy and/or cinematically uncultured to have ever seen the original – here’s a shiny new version for you without any subtitles or effort required.

the idea that these film makers/companies are doing good by shining light on lesser-known and interesting films is more or less total bullshit – they just want your money. How many people can honestly say that they watched Chris Nolan’s Insomnia and then went and rented the Norwegian original? A few, but not many, would be my guess. How many people even know that The Talented Mr Ripley was the second film version of that story, the first being René Clément’s vastly superior Plein Soleil?

there are, however, some genuinely good reasons to make a remake. if you assume that your audience has a good knowledge of the source material, you can play with that knowledge to make a point. Gus van Sant’s remake of Psycho would serve as a good example of a film-buff’s remake, although it seems from the general response that it did its thing in perhaps too subtle a way.

then, of course, there is the ability to play with what has happened to the world in the time that has elapsed since the original to make a point about socio-cultural and political shifts. of course, that factor is to some extent a part of any remake, whether or not it is intentional. reusing old material always says something about the world that is reusing it, even if it’s only what those responsible think is going to be popular and make money.

and so to the recent remake of The Karate Kid – why has this remake been made? well, there is the cynical answer that, like most of the big-budget hollywood remakes it’s banking on the added attention and trading off the pre-investment that comes along with latching onto something that has already established its place within the pop-cultural milieu, and using nostalgia to give parents (the intended audience of the original are now in their mid to late 30s) a reason to go with their kids.

however, while that may all be true, and there are all kinds of other negative things i could say about the film: it’s tawdry, it’s overlong, the acting is bad, it doesn’t really make sense, etc. etc., there a few particularly interesting aspects to The Karate Kid (2010) which i’d like to discuss. first up there’s the issue that it doesn’t have any karate in it.

the martial art featured is kung fu. while it could be the case that the makers don’t think it really matters that karate and kung fu are different, or didn’t think most people in the west would know/notice the difference (a point perhaps supported by the fact that it is being sold as Kung Fu Dream in China and Best Kid in Japan), it seems to me that to just settle with this simplistically cynical analysis misses something of the point. it is certainly the case that kung fu is more fashionable than karate in the west (name a film made in the last 15 years that featured karate prominently? …exactly), but for me, that is just part of a wider theme that lies behind the film.

the original Karate Kid was a story about an American teenager who moves with his (single) mother from New Jersey to L.A. and struggles to fit in. after being hassled by bullies, he is taken in by another outsider, an elderly Japanese immigrant who has secrets from the east to teach him. set against the backdrop of contemporary changes in the US economic landscape (the slow death of heavy industry in areas like New Jersey and the boom of technology in places like the San Fernando Valley) the film fundamentally examined the anti-Japanese sentiment that was still prevalent in the US 40 years after Pearl Harbour in relation to the tension created by the fact that Japan was, by the mid-eighties, beginning to emerge as a technological powerhouse. economic interests were forcing the two countries towards each other, and the bad-blood of old had to be cleared away.

while Miyagi San is Japanese, it just so happens that he fought for the Allies in World War II. so, the ageing sensei is, for Americans, a symbol of the ‘new’ Japan – he retains the eastern, mystical secrets that excite the western imagination, but he also stands on the side of ‘right’ ideologically. he is to be embraced, not feared.

the remake sees Dre move with his mother from Detroit – the most up-to-date symbol of the ongoing decay of American heavy industry – to Beijing, as initially represented by sweeping shots of the Bird’s Nest stadium and CCTV tower. whereas in the original, the bullies that set upon Daniel have been trained in karate by an American who has stripped it of its beauty and philosophy and made it all about fighting rather than living in balance, in the remake, the bullies have been taught kung fu by a native teacher as part of a huge school and in accordance with what seems to the prominent ideology.

Han San, the new Miyagi, thinks that this other teacher does not know ‘real kung fu’, but not because he is an outsider, but seemingly because something has been corrupted in the wider transmission of the tradition. in this respect, it’s interesting that none of the ‘baddies’ ever speaks English or develops any real character to speak of, whereas the ‘goodies’ all speak English and make use of their Mandarin only very sporadically.

like Miyagi, Han is still grieving the loss of his wife and child, but unlike his Japanese forebear, his choice of coping strategy/distraction does not have its roots in the east (bonsai), but in the west (restoring the American car that his wife and child died in). likewise the girl that Dre falls for at school is a violinist and must play Bach well enough to impress her British tutor and to win a prestigious scholarship to a Beijing academy. lesson: just as in America’s past, upwardly mobile means westwardly facing.

the implication seems to be that while China has ancient secrets that intrigue us in the west, it also has a more worrying recent past, associated with communist ideals of mass conformity, similarity, mercilessness and table tennis prowess (Dre gets whooped by an old guy in the park). however, there are Chinese peeps that remember the best of the old stuff – kung fu, festivals, shadow puppets, etc. – but also speak english, like cars, learn Bach and so on. let’s hope, the film seems to be saying, that as China emerges as the world’s latest economic superpower, it concentrates on the good stuff – some of the more exciting indigenous traditions and a desire to learn about high and pop ‘culture’ from the west – and leaves all the weirdness and commie crap behind.

besides this slightly dubious socio-cultural schema, the other thing that disappointed (and surprised) me about The Karate Kid (2010) was its approach to violence. in the original, the scene in which Miyagi saves Daniel from the Kobra Kai guys works because Miyagi appears, to us and his opponents, to be a fragile old man, and they look like late-teenage, almost adult fighters. in the new version of the same scene, the kids that chase Dre are around 13 and Han is, well Han is Jackie Chan. so when it gets to the fight, you just have Jackie Chan kicking the crap out of a load of kids – which is weird.

the other interesting shift comes in the tournament scene. in the original, the rules of the competition are pretty close to what i remember from when i used to do karate. points are scored for strikes to the torso and side of the head, but strikes to the groin, throat and face are out and if you draw blood you run the risk of disqualification. while it’s obvious that there is supposed to be serious beef between Daniel and his tormentors, the majority of the fighting that takes place is in the style of sport fighting – competitive, but straightforward and clean (which is precisely what makes the illegal moves so shocking).

in the new film, once they get on the mat, the kids (and remember these are most definitely young kids) basically just try to kick each other’s faces off. they fight not just like adults, but pretty much like adults would in the street (adults who know kung fu that is). they fight the same way Jackie does in the grimiest of his early films. all of this doesn’t seem to bother the coaches, referees or organisers one little bit. it doesn’t even bother Han who starts out by teaching Dre that ‘real kung fu’ isn’t about hurting people, but about balance (the same message Miyagi teaches Daniel San). however, once the tournament starts all that guff goes out the window and its every child for himself – to the death, or two points, whichever comes first. as a result, it not nearly as clear why the illegal move that injures Dre’s leg was any more dangerous than anything else that had been going on – in fact, when it came, it struck me as pretty innocuous, i was expecting him to lose an eye.

the ending of the film no longer just sees our elated hero make peace with the anti-hero as in the original – “you’re alright LaRusso” – but we see all the students of the bad teacher assemble and silently bow to Han to demonstrate a singular shift in allegiance. i guess you can’t stop them being all the same overnight, the film seems to say, but at least in the meantime, if you persist, you can get them to see sense and even if they can’t speak English they’ll happily do things quietly. so there we have it, a silent but skilful Chinese army waiting to do the bidding of the teacher who has come to represent sympathy with the west. what looks from the outside like a film about an American kid learning from a Chinese man, is in reality a film about ‘othered’ Chinese children learning who to trust within their own country (i.e. capitalist, west leaning etc.), and who not to.

China will become the world’s most important economy soon, but, as this film seems to want to emphasise to its U.S. audience, when it does, Americans can console themselves with the knowledge that it was they that showed the Chinese how to do it.

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