KARATE KID: THE WRONG, RIGHT AND DISRESPECTFUL

By Dr. Craig D. Reid

karate-kid-42The Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan starring The Karate Kid (2010) and its predecessor the Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita starring The Karate Kid (1984) has a unique balance of yin-yang philosophy seeped in martial traditions and chances are you’ll probably never recognize it unless you understand martial arts history, taiji (aka tai chi chuan) and read this review. Apart from being filled with respectful nods to the original version, the Chan/Smith remake is also filled with superior martial arts and fight choreography compared to the Macchio/Morita rendition. Yet it is both of the films’ use of animal styles of kung fu that subliminally ties the two movies together on an esoteric level that goes beyond the “fish out of water” storylines.

 

Let me first share that as a film critic and fan I totally enjoyed this film. As a fight choreographer in Asia and Hollywood, the martial choreography was pretty good, with one major mistake that at the end of the day does not break the film. However, there is one glaring event about the movie that in my view is bordering on disrespect to Jackie Chan, something that undoubtedly was a result of Will Smith and his wife Jada Pinkett Smith being the producers and of course the parents of Jaden.

 

If you’ve seen The Karate Kid (more like The Kung Fu Kid) then you’ve seen The Karate Kid. In 1984, Daniel and his mother move from New Jersey to California, and Daniel quickly finds out that the black-haired Italian lad doesn’t fit in with blond surfer dudes. Pining to go home, he meets a beautiful lass who’s the girlfriend of the local karate-trained bully who learns martial arts from a maniacal martial arts teacher that teaches that martial arts is about fighting, no mercy and no compassion for your opponent. Kind of sounds like today’s MMA fighters.

 

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Daniel gets the living daylights beaten out of him and just as the karate bully and his minions are about to send him to the hospital for good, the elderly martial arts master Mr. Miyagi appears from nowhere to save the day. Miyagi ends up confronting the evil martial arts teacher and inadvertently lays down a gauntlet; Miyagi will teach Daniel karate so he can fairly fight the karate bully in an upcoming karate tournament. Daniel is confused as his karate training is all about painting fences and waxing cars.

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karate-kid-2In 2010, 12-year old Dre and his mum move from Detroit to Beijing, and Dre rapidly learns that a black American kid, culturally, linguistically and racially doesn’t fit into Chinese society. Begging his mum to go home, he meets a cute Chinese girl who’s under the thumb of a feared kung fu Chinese bully who learns kung fu from a deranged, cruel kung fu sifu (teacher). When the bully and his mates are about to kick the crap out of Dre, a local handyman Han (Chan) saves him and then agrees to teach Dre kung fu so he can fight the bully fair and square in an upcoming kung fu competition. Dre is befuddled that before he can learn kung fu he must hang up his jacket 1000 times.

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What is so sad about this Karate Kid is the way Jackie Chan is being treated by the filmmakers. How does the number one action martial arts star of the past 32 years and the genre’s top martial arts film box office star, a man who has literally put his life on the line for martial arts films and has almost died several times because of it, get second billing to essentially a 12 year old rookie actor? To me, that is a disrespectful diss on Chan the man. He didn’t even get equal billing. We of course know the reason why. Father Will and mother Jada should be ashamed of this oversight.

That being said, Jaden’s emotional honesty keeps the film’s reality moving forward under a very real story. It is actually something I went through back in the 1970s when I moved to the Republic of China to learn martial arts and qigong as a means to save my life, of which when I arrived there I had one year left to live due to the deadly effects of cystic fibrosis. So I could totally associate with Dre being a foreigner in China, who can’t speak the language and is trying to fit in as his world collapses around him. Most at some point in their lives can associate with being an outcast, so the emotional content of the movie strikes home on many levels. Jaden’s martial arts acting performance stemming from three months of intensive wushu training (wushu is a sport and not traditional martial arts training) fits well into the film. If he sticks with it, he may one day become a good martial artist.

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karatekid-3So what’s with the yin-yang tie in between the two Karate Kid productions, and how does taiji fit into all of this? In 1984, Daniel’s signature move was the white crane stance (standing on one leg, arms held up and out to his sides like bird wings) that ends with a jumping front kick. In 2010, Dre’s signature technique is the snake stance (standing on one leg, arms extended out from his body, hands pointing at his opponent like cobra heads) that climaxes with a jumping-spinning-flip kick. Part of Karate Kid was shot at Wu Dung Mountain. True martial lore tells that former Shaolin monk Zhang San-feng created taiji in 1365. After leaving Shaolin Temple, Zhang came upon the Wu Dung Mountains during his travels. Awed by their majesty, he ended up living there and developed a new school of martial arts known as Wu Dung. (Modern audiences may be familiar with the term as wu tang as in the rappers Wu Tang Clan.) As legend goes, one day Zhang saw two animals fighting, the balance of the animals made it impossible for one to beat the other. From this Zhang created taiji. The animals? White crane and snake.

The actual origin of snake fist is relatively unknown, though it perhaps arose during the late Song Dynasty. The style evolved via copying the cobra, viper and python; the fighter’s hands, fingers and legs represent the snake’s head, tongue and tail, respectively. In Karate Kid, they focused on the cobra, where the correct arm and hand position should have the forearm held at a 90-degree angle to the upper arm, the wrist bent downward, and an open hand with fingers pointing at the opponent and thumb curled underneath the hand to maintain dynamic tension. The “cobra” hypnotically sways back and forth, and then quickly strikes at the body’s vital points. Dre is inspired to learn the cobra from a female practicing the skill. However, the actress was not practicing traditional snake kung fu but the wushu version, and you can tell this because the thumbs were not curled underneath the hand but were oppressed against the forefingers, like in a “karate chop” fashion. This of course has little bearing on the film, but just thought you might like to know the difference between the real martial arts and the reel martial arts.

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