Is the China of 'The Karate Kid' the real China?
I took my son to see "The Karate Kid" Wednesday night and I found myself with a lot of explaining to do. Don't get me wrong, we had a good time, since if you're a stone-cold Jackie Chan fan, like my 12-year-old, its worth the price of admission to see Chan give a nicely nuanced, almost totally effortless performance as a mysterious maintenance man who turns out to be a canny kung fu instructor, teaching a forlorn American kid (played by Jaden Smith) how to find himself by mastering the art of kung fu.
If you've only seen Chan mug his way through the "Rush Hour" movies or breathtakingly defy gravity in Hong Kong classics like "Super Cop: Police Story 3," the role is a treat, since he gives a remarkably restrained performance, walking slowly and gingerly, like a man who's broken nearly every bone in his body, then rousing himself into action when wrongs must be righted.
But back to my original point: Why did I have so much explaining to do?
First off, as my kid asked afterward, if the movie is all about kung fu, why is it called "The Karate Kid"? He's seen the original 1984 "Karate Kid," so he has kind of figured out that the movie is a brand, but still -- why not call it "The Kung Fu Kid"? At least it would be accurate, since almost any 12-year-old can tell the difference between kung fu and karate. I had to explain that in Hollywood, brand trumps accuracy and authenticity every time, which is why -- according to this recent story by my colleague John Horn -- when Sony tried to change the title, the film's producer, Jerry Weintraub, said essentially, no dice. (He also produced the original.)
Speaking of Weintraub, the film offers an intriguing lesson in Hollywood insider politics. My son is a huge Will Smith fan, so he knows that Smith is one of the biggest stars in the business. On the other hand, he's never heard of Weintraub, who's more of a behind-the-scenes force in the industry (but not so behind the scenes that he hasn't been all over TV and radio recently shilling for his memoir, "When I Stop Talking, You'll Know I'm Dead: Useful Stories From a Persuasive Man"). So how was it possible that, when it came to display the film's producer credits, that the biggest star in Hollywood had to share a crowded credit block with his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith and his production company partners, James Lassiter and Ken Stovitz, while Weintraub got a producer credit block all to himself?
Ah, my son, that is a sign of true power in action. I'm betting that Smith and Co. tried to negotiate a better credit-block deal, but once again, Weintraub said, no dice.
But the brand that gets the best treatment in the movie is the brand of China. For Sony, the idea of having the film set in China was a huge inducement to make the film, since it gave the studio the opportunity to bolster the film's enormous global appeal. Finding a way to have your summer movie play in China is a rare opportunity indeed, since the country is so restrictive that it only allows roughly 20 non-Chinese movies into its theaters each year. By cutting China's state film arm into the action -- China Film put up $5 million, roughly 1/8 of the movie's budget -- Sony was allowed to actually film in China, even in such normally inaccessible locations as the Great Wall and the Forbidden City.
Of course, in return, China clearly had veto power over any issues involving the film's portrayal of the country. I know that "Karate Kid" is intended as pure entertainment, but it operates as a wonderfully organic propaganda tool for China, presenting a largely sanitized version of the country. There are no political dissidents, no shots of environmental disasters, no one trying in vain to reach thousands of restricted Internet sites.
Although there is a plot wrinkle involving a pack of teenage bullies who prey on Jaden's character, the rest of the populace is portrayed as happy, contented and well-fed, without any complaints, even about the unbearable air and the hideous traffic. The parks are full of people exercising and playing sports, the schools are full of well-mannered, upwardly-mobile kids. Jaden's romance with a local Chinese girl is as chaste as anything you'd see on the Disney Channel (though as Horn's story points out, not chaste enough for the Chinese censors, who made the filmmaker cut out a teeny-tiny kiss between the kids for the Chinese version of the film).
So if Sony benefits by getting access to the huge Chinese market, China benefits too, by having its society presented in the film as it was during the Summer Olympics, as a benign place of wondrous growth and unlimited potential.
I had only one other small piece of explaining to do. After the film was over, my son said, "Dad, that was a really good movie, but why was it soooooo long?" (By our count, it was well over 2 hours.) I didn't really have a good answer for that, since, well, like so many other movies these days, there really was no good reason for it being that long. All I could say was: "I guess if you have to go all the way to China to make your movie, you want to get your money's worth."
Photo: Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith in "The Karate Kid." Credit: Jasin Boland / Columbia Pictures