at home in... w| Gerald Zhang-Schmidt

Look Closer, Learn More, #GetAtHome In This World

Great Emptiness?

Karate Kid Goes China, I wonder

They say that, if you sit by the river long enough, you’ll see your enemy’s body float by… checking out the trailer, it looks like some corpses get re-animated, though:
After a dumbfounded but fascinated Westerner went on a fantastic journey to a mythological China (in “Forbidden Kingdom“), now – 26 years after the original – a new Karate Kid makes his way to China.

I have to admit to a fascination with rather simple-minded movies, sometimes I will go so far as to hold the likes of Karate Kid or Kung Fu (the TV series) responsible for setting me on the path that led me here.
High theory be damned; shallow movies and TV series can be fun and they tell the world more – and more about the world, I sometimes think. They are certainly received better than high-brow theories.

So, let’s have a look…


Okay, obvious problems:

  • First of all, it’s a bit too much of a regurgitation of the original plot (but the way it’s set, I don’t know if it’s meant for people who remember the original…).
    Apparently, if you shanzhai (copy) yourself, paying the original creators of the idea their fair due, and make money off customers with old wine in new bottles, it’s not copying, it’s creativity. Recycling of intellectual property, with proper payment – very ecologically-minded?
  • Then, is that really a 12-year old in a story that is decidedly having a romantic twist? Or do kids nowadays really take middle school friendships that seriously? The original Karate Kid remained an immature weiner through the whole trilogy, in my opinion, but at least he was a teenager.
    I wonder if there is some influence to the whole “if your (American) kid is to have a good future, let it loearn Chinese”-attitude in that. Teenagers today might be too unruly…
  • For that matter, getting a rather romantic twist set in a Chinese high school doesn’t talk to much appreciation for how those work…Sorry, but even university students get told that they should just be studying, not dating. But okay, let’s just call it a merely “friendship” story, as the makers seem to want it. – Though the Chinese are, again, not necessarily big on male-female friendship in school. Gender roles and socialization are one of the more fascinating issues (post upcoming).
  • Most blatantly, getting the Great Wall to yourself, on a restored part? Nice cinematography (from a purely “nice scenery”-standpoint), but, wow, what an idea…

Great Emptiness?
Then again, movies aren’t meant to be documentaries, and there is always the possibility of looking deeper. In keeping with that spirit, I won’t go into the stale “all Chinese know Kung-Fu, right?”

Dre immediately falls for his classmate … but cultural differences make such a friendship impossible
Quotes from the movie description on the official website

Well, seems a usual overrated problem. Easy to say, to make a plot point of, but friendship can be hard in a new place, anyways. And the cultural problem here seems to be another boy who is a bully – haven’t we seen that in other teen movies, regardless of culture?

…his mother’s latest career move has landed him in China
[and as she says when he utters the necessary complaint about his wanting to go home:]
This is home now!

One could talk quite a bit about (possible) racism and attitudes towards foreigners in China, and to what extent a foreigner would therefore feel at home, but there’s something deeper, more in-tune with the recent discussion in here: As the New York Times suggested, in an article that made it sound all too easy, Americans seem to increasingly head for China, the new promised land of economic opportunity.
No wonder people don’t quite know what to make of China when much of the information they can read or see about the country is of economic strength in a country with a single-party government seemingly hell-bent on keeping its power. Reality is more complicated than that, but who wants to see complications?

Especially in the movies, kiss. Or k.i.s.s. – keep it simple, stupid.

In all the simplicity, one thing is certainly noteworthy:

Japan seems to have become established. Kid goes to Tokyo, discovers it’s a pretty different and funky place, but not so funky after all (The Fast and the Furious, Tokyo Drift). Hell, Japanese even seems to have become a normal language that might just be spoken by kinda normal people: Hiro in “Heroes” is the prominent example; “Flash Forward” in one sub-plot recently also “went Japan,” and actually found that people speak Japanese there (whereas in Hong Kong, hardly anything other than English was spoken).

China, on the other hand, is the new rising-star of existent mythical realms. Mythical not just in the fascination and opportunity that the foreign, exotic, “other” offers for telling stories, but also in simple, cold-hard economic opportunity.

A question still to ponder:
What makes the situation so different nowadays that there is no “Rising Sun” about China?

Japan, it was feared, would outright buy up the USA. (In Europe, there was far less to none of such a fear.) Interestingly, this still worked even at a time when Japan had apparently already entered its “lost decade.” – I was in the USA in 1993/94, and the first high school I attended offered Japanese classes; articles on the Japanese way and threat were still around, as was the influence of the book/movie(Rising Sun).

China is holding treasury bills, is the workbench and wanting to become more than that, buying up foreign and keeping domestic raw materials, apparently making foreign business harder recently – not to mention the aforementioned attitude towards foreigners which is somewhere between totally open and xenophobic, maybe even both at once, depending on point of interpretation. And yet, it seems less of a discussion; certainly a different one, this time around… [see the update at the end of the post, though…]

Finally, if you happen to have an interest in cultural intelligence (such as David Livermore talks about, or maybe even more theoretical, “thicker,” as per Clifford Geertz), consider the “catching a fly with chopsticks”-scene in the trailer. It’s rich. Just two words: Pragmatic Chinese.

Aimee Barnes put up a post which reminded me of the movie I had forgot when arguing that there were currently no “Rising Sun”-like movie regarding China. There is: “Red Dawn” has been remade for 2010 (yup, time of the living dead, movie-wise), and this time, it’s not the Russian commies but the if-they-aren’t-commies-anymore-they-only-threaten-us-more Chinese who outright invade the US. At least some useless small-town.


Talk to Me, Not my Culture


Blogging a China Relationship – Chinese Characteristics, Indeed

1 Comment

  1. Great post, Gerald — I didn’t even realize Karate Kid was “going China.” Good points all around, especially the racism one. The fact that they chose African American characters for this movie would have been a great opportunity to open that up.

    The “catching flies” scene reminds me of my husband. He takes great pride in his ability to catch flies (and, admittedly, he is good at it). But when I told him about using chopsticks, he just thought it was ridiculous.

    P.S.: Nice redesign.

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