Wednesday, June 16, 2010

KUNG FU KID, I MEAN KARATE KID: NOT THE ONLY WRONG THING ABOUT THE FILM


The 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 article.

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 fan I totally enjoyed this 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.

In the updated version of the Karate Kid, 12-year old Dre (Jaden) and his mother move from Detroit to Beijing, and Dre rapidly learns that a black American kid, culturally, linguistically and racially doesn’t fit into Chinese society. Pining 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, maniacal martial arts teacher who teaches that kung fu is about fighting, no mercy and no compassion for your opponent. Kind of sounds like today’s MMA fighters.

Dre gets the living daylights beaten out of him and just as the kung fu bully and his minions are about to send him to the hospital for good, elderly martial arts master handyman Han (Chan) appears from nowhere to save the day. Han ends up confronting the evil kung fu teacher and inadvertently lays down a gauntlet; Han will teach Dre kung fu so he can fairly fight the kung fu bully in an upcoming kung fu tournament. Dre is confused as his training is all about hanging up his jacket.

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 being disrespectful to 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. 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.

So 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 one-legged white crane stance that ends with a jumping front kick. In 2010, Dre’s signature technique is the one-legged snake stance climaxing 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 continues, 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.

3 comments:

  1. Dr. Reid - interesting observation about the second billing of one of the greatest Asian male leads in film history. Thank you for sharing your knowledge in this review. I saw the film and my biggest disappointment (although I enjoyed the film) was the exact replication of every pivotal moment from the first film. The filmmakers could have innovated a little more, but this film was way more enjoyable than I expected.

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  3. Good to talk about such a movie.Thrilling action, well-timed humour and a strong moral heart help to justify the slightly overlong length of the movie.

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