So I saw the new Karate Kid movie tonight, per my partner’s request, although I would’ve gone to see it eventually anyway—albeit probably at a matinee, to pay some respect to the boycott of the film called by Aly Morita, the daughter of the late, great Noriyuki ‘Pat’ Morita (who played the iconic and inimitable Mr. Miyagi in the original version of the film). But I didn’t really agree with the boycott anyway, which I’ll get to in a minute, and I’m glad I went to see it on a Saturday night, since there were tons of little kids of color (mostly African-American but some Asian-American too) in the theater who were super-excited to see the movie.
That in and of itself says something about the importance of this film, and made me glad that I didn’t buy into Aly Morita’s call for people to boycott the film in theaters (she says it’s OK to watch it later on Netflix, I guess to decrease its box office impact). Tonight at the theater, I was especially moved by two young Black girls—probably between the ages of eight and ten—who waited with big grins on their faces in line, practicing ‘karate’ kicks high into the air, emulating the image of Jaden Smith doing his split-kick in the movie’s promotional materials.
As a woman of color and a sometime martial artist, this made me happy. Even though I was well into womanhood when I saw the amazing women-only fight scenes in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, they affirmed my desire to practice martial arts, and more than that, to define myself however I wanted to as a woman. And that women could be damned good martial artists, too.
Of course, there had been many other movies (mostly Chinese) that showed women kicking ass before, but this was the first that had such huge commercial success in this country, and that makes a cultural difference, if only because of the sheer number of people that then see these images. In many ways, that’s the real power of this ‘Karate Kid’ remake, which has been the top-grossing movie in the US since its release last week.
To watch these young Black girls be inspired by Jaden Smith in the same way that I had been by Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi surprised me for a minute, but then made total sense. Didn’t I and tons of other kids and adults of all colors grow up idolizing Bruce Lee? Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not comparing Jaden’s beginner-level kung fu skills with Master Lee’s transcendent powers, but the importance of the impact of their images on the big screen is undeniable. No doubt a whole generation of kids (especially kids of color) will leave that movie theater asking their parents if they can start taking kung fu classes!
The movie itself—dramatically and martial-arts wise—was a good, though not a great, movie. The original was a great film. I won’t go too deeply into comparisons except to say that the remake didn’t have half the emotional depth, complexity or vulnerability of the first ‘Karate Kid’, as glimpsed in this snippet of the famous scene where Daniel-san finds Mr. Miyagi getting drunk by himself—the comedic yet tragic scene which undoubtedly got Pat Morita nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor that year:
Despite the fact that the Smith clan and Jackie Chan seem to be pretty tight, the fact that Jaden’s only eleven in this film while Ralph Macchio was a teenager in the original changes the dynamic between the teacher and student characters significantly. I also think that Pat Morita was a better dramatic actor than Jackie Chan (although his karate could obviously hold no candle to Jackie’s considerable kung fu skills), it’s this age difference between the two student characters that affects the emotional tone of the film the most. Despite the best attempts of the filmmakers to give emotional charge to the characters’ lives in the remake, that special spark that was so clear in the first film is lacking here—and that’s actually appropriate, since a twelve-year-old (Dre/Jaden) shouldn’t be dealing with the same things that a sixteen-year-old (Daniel/Ralph) does.
In any case, the new version is worth watching, despite the mini-controversy that Aly Morita’s boycott seems to have stirred up, especially in the Asian-American blogosphere. I actually even got a direct response from Ms. Morita to my comment on Edward Hong’s great review about the remake, in which I stated that her call for a boycott was a little illogical. My basic gripe—which I stand even more firmly behind now that I’ve actually seen the film—is why pick this movie to boycott and make a point about the lack of Asian-Americans in Hollywood films? The movie doesn’t even take place in the United States! Also, she readily admits that she hasn’t even seen the film, but still makes broad generalizations about its lack of cultural accuracy about China (and yes, she’s Japanese-American, but I won’t even get into that). Her own personal stake in the original film, unfortunately, doesn’t illuminate but only clouds her position, and I wish she’d channeled her efforts towards a less formidable, and more worthy, opponent. For example, M. Night Shyamalan’s ridiculous casting of White actors in Asian character roles (I’m really hoping they don’t do some twisted high-tech yellowface) in The Last Airbender.
In the end, though, and Ms. Morita knows this, the Will Smith Hollywood movie-making machine is pretty unstoppable, and I at least appreciate that the Smith franchise tried to do some racial and cultural script-flipping (wimpy Black kid from the ‘hood gets beat up by tough Asian kids in China). And despite the confusion created by the title (because it’s set in China, not Japan), the filmmakers made a good effort to draw the distinctions between kung fu and karate clearly in the film. Of course, some folks will still walk away confused, but that would’ve been the case even if they HAD called this movie ‘The Kung Fu Kid’.
Interestingly, the genre that I thought this movie fell most in line with aesthetically and dramatically was that of Chinese kung fu cinema. Partially because of the setting (it’s actually filmed in China and shows some spectacular scenery, no doubt at the encouragement of the Chinese government), and partially because of the kung fu, but I sensed a distinct connection to Hong Kong martial arts films. The Hollywood twist also brought to mind the indelible impact that Bruce Lee had on American cinema—and on Will Smith, no doubt. Also, there is a long tradition in the African-American community of embracing martial arts, as this article by Jeff Yang attests. In the end, I was left with a warm feeling that the film was not just a feel-good kid flick, but it was also—consciously or not—a kind of coming-full-circle African-American homage to Asian martial arts cinema. This homage goes cutesy in the movie when Jackie Chan’s character gives Little Dre (Jaden) his own gi (kung fu uniform). Dre says, “Cool, this is just like the one Bruce Lee wore!”
And as I left the theater, I watched as those little Black girls kept practicing their kicks. Who knows, maybe one day they’ll write their own movie about kung fu or karate, tae kwon do or jujitsu—and hopefully it won’t have to be a remake to get our attention.