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A little cheese and a little whine

Film Log: The Karate Kid

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This is a more sober and thoughtful film than the original, and while it follows the same form and themes it has less of a feel-good, popcorn-and-bubble-gum feel. The eponymous Kid, Dre (played by Jaden son-of-Will Smith) is dragged by his mother not from New Jersey to California but from Detroit to Beijing, creating a very different sort of culture shock. The cinematography does a magical job of capturing the half-familiar, half-alien nature of the city in Dre’s eyes and the first half of the film gives an unsettlingly live sense of his dislocation.

Since this is Beijing, it is Kung Fu, and not Karate, which provides the fighting action, as Dre falls foul of the school bullies, taught to be merciless in combat by their Kung Fu master, and turns to Mr Han (Jackie Chan) to teach him Kung Fu in the noble what-matters-is-your-heart tradition. Han is a rather more fully fleshed character than Miyagi (the teacher in the original film) and there is a very moving scene where Dre momentarily turns teacher to help Han overcome part of his past.

Dre falls in love with his classmate Meiying, allowing some exploration of cultural differences and expectations which again lend this film a depth which the original lacked. This is not by any standards an art house film but stylistically it is no formula blockbuster either. The trip to the Wudang Mountains shows off the beauty of the Chinese landscape and highlights the naturalistic and somewhat meditative feel of much of the photography, and for me marked this very much as an international production rather than a Hollywood one.

Smith gives an extraordinary performance as Dre, managing well in a role which is not only physically demanding but also has to keep us engaged for the first forty minutes where he spends most of the time being rude to his mother and complaining about being in Beijing. The script is quite uncompromising in its portrayal of Dre as cocksure, angry and insensitive in a “yank abroad” sort of way, but Smith remains watchable and holds the film very nicely. The chemistry between Smith and Chan is understated but in the later parts of the film more moving for that.

The age of Dre’s character poses, two my mind, two problems for the writers, and I have to admit feeling rather uncomfortable with the solutions they offer. First, there is the tricky issue of the love interest: presenting the relationship between Dre and Meiying as entirely chaste (with no hint even of hand-holding) is probably the best compromise available but reinforces our habitual fear of recognising how early sexuality emerges. There is no good way, I think, to depict a romantic relationship between two twelve-year-olds; but the almost total absence of physicality here seems to say more about the sensibilities of the audience than the story itself.

The same audience who would be shocked by two twelve year olds holding hands have no problem, it seems, watching two twelve year olds beating the crap out of each other. This is the second problem I think the writers face. The pivotal scene where Chan takes on five of the bullies is just about passable because they are obviously pretty vicious, even for children, and he doesn’t actually hit any of them, instead manouvering so that they hit each other. But it is hard to watch the tournament – the last twenty minutes of the film, in effect – without being conscious that you’re watching children beat each other up.

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Filed under: Film + TV

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My Bookshelf

The Golden Bough
The Value of Nothing
The Fire
A Wolf at the Table
Devil Bones

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