Is the China of ‘The Karate Kid’ a credit to that country or a disservice to this one?


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Observers have been paying close attention to production on ‘The Kung Fu Kid’ ‘The Karate Kid’ since the movie was announced last year; this has been, after all, more just an attempt to update a quarter-century-old pop classic but Hollywood’s largest co-production with China to date.

More on the movie in the coming days, but upon seeing the film this week we couldn’t help but notice what will quickly jump out even to casual viewers: the cultural tourism that pervades the film. Clocking in at more than two hours (about the same length as the original), the new movie is extended not by any more time spent hitting the requisite notes -- the forbidden tween romance, the redemptive fight scenes, the menial-but-life-altering training routines -- but by the fetishizing shots of the Chinese landscape.


Nominally incorporated as part of the regimen of young Dre Parker (Jaden Smith), many of these shots exists to showcase the country’s varied (and, as my colleague Patrick Goldstein points out, sanitized) topography. There’s a lengthy scene at the Taoist holy site at Wudang Mountain in which we see glorious mountains from below and equally lush valleys from a dramatic cliffside temple above. The Forbidden City is shown as a giant playground for a group of children, free of guards or other tourists (or the chaos and checkered history of Tiananmen Square just outside its walls).

The everyday urban spaces get a similarly romantic treatment. Squares fill with whooshing colors of those practicing martial arts, and the markets in which Dre and his mother (Taraji P. Henson) try out local delicacies overflow with a kind of vibrant beauty.

There are also gauzy, glamorized shots of the Great Wall, which Dre runs up and down it under the watchful eye of his mentor Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), a kind of Rocky steps for a new generation, or at least for an export-minded corporation.

Director Harald Zwart, studio Sony and the picture’s American producers (including Will Smith) took pains to get as much of China in as they can. But it’s only a certain kind of China. The images aren’t entirely inaccurate, at least according to our own time spent there. But they hardly tell the whole story -- eliding, for starters, hutongs and bicycle crowds and everything else that makes Beijing, well, Beijing. If the head of the country’s department of tourism served as the film’s D.P., it probably wouldn’t look much different.

All of this is clearly meant, at least in part, to show the Chinese government that such a co-production was worthwhile. The government-run film corporation invested about one-eighth of the production budget, as my colleague John Horn reports, and it more than gets its money’s worth.

But it’s hard not to feel like there was an opportunity squandered. Showing China in the best possible light may appease the government, but it hardly helps American filmgoers, many of whom won’t have a chance to see China in person and will have this be one of their main experiences of the country, over several hours in the immersion of a movie theater. Yes, few going to the multiplex to see ‘The Karate Kid’ next weekend are doing so to to understand Asian culture. But it comes through just the same.


I’m not sure the non-visual messages are any more subtle. The film’s general tone toward China is at once deferential and high-handed. The attempt to show the native way of life as somehow more pure and serene, as the film often does, may have seemed like a good way to pay tribute to the country, but it can feel patronizing.

And I’m not sure American audiences won’t see through the gambit. It’s one thing for a little slice-of-life photography to come through in an East-meets-West film (the second ‘Karate Kid’ did just that in Japan). But even a non-discerning audience can see the difference between local color and a tourist brochure.
Then again, maybe there’s a neat symmetry to all of this. Studios have spent decades showcasing American cities to foreign audiences with a healthy amount of creative license, taking an America of the imagination and depicting it as a reality for the benefit of Asian countries. It was only a matter of time before Asia returned the favor.

--Steven Zeitchik