The Karate Kid (2010)

Rated PG. Our Ratings: V-3; L-1; S/N-1. Length: 2 hours 20 min.

Happy are those who find wisdom,
and those who get understanding,
for her income is better than silver,
and her revenue better than gold.
She is more precious than jewels,
and nothing you desire can compare with her.
Long life is in her right hand;
in her left hand are riches and honor.
Her ways are ways of pleasantness,
and all her paths are peace.
She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her.
those who hold her fast are called happy.
Proverbs 3:13-18

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
Isaiah 11:6-9

Dre and Mr. Han train at the Great Wall.

2010 Columbia Pictures

This is that rare occasion when I like the new version of a film more than the original. Set in Beijing, China rather than southern California, the culture clash and fish out of water themes stand out more, and I found the ending more believable this time. Judging by the complaints of a few critics, as well as a flurry of criticisms on Imdb posted by fans of the original film, this will be a film that some will hate and others love. Certainly the filmmakers are open to criticism for changing from the Japanese Karate to the Chinese Kung Fu without changing the film’s name: this shows a disdain for the public—apparently they thought no one would notice the difference.

Will Smith’s son Jaden plays 12 year-old Detroiter Dre who unhappily finds himself in China when his mother Sherry Parker (Taraji P. Henson) is transferred there by her employer. Unfamiliar with the language and the customs, the boy’s first reaction when they move in to their new apartment is to wish he were back home. His discomfort turns to hatred of his new life when the school bully Cheng (Zhenwei Wang), observing Dre talking with pretty classmate Meiying (Wenwen Han), starts harassing him. Dre had tried to defend Meiying, but the bully’s mastery of Kung Fu made the American boy seem like a helpless infant, sending him thudding to the floor time after time.

Then comes the day when Cheng and his five followers are beating up Dre. Before the bully can land another blow on his victim, a hand reaches out and stops him. It is Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), caretaker of the apartment complex, who intervenes. When the gang attacks him, he handily beats all six, using the body of one and then another as a weapon to fend off the blows of his opponents. That he is an adult besting children seemed to bother no one in the audience, so glad were we all to see the villains receiving their come-uppance in so many humorous ways.

Mr. Han, agreeing to tutor Dre, takes the boy to the Kung Fu academy where he confronts the brutal Master Li (Yu Rongguang Yu), whose philosophy of never showing weakness or mercy is so opposite from his own. He and Master Li set up an uneasy truce between Dre and the six bullies. Dre will meet them in an upcoming Kung Fu tournament, and they will not harass him in the meantime.

There follows the expected long period of training Dre, one that begins with changing the boy’s disrespectful attitude toward his elders. Earlier Mr. Han and we had seen how the slovenly boy had thrown his clothes around and talked back to his mother when told to pick them up. Thus, instead of the “paint the fence, sand the floor, and wax on/wax off” routine imposed by Pat Morita’s character in the original film, it is pick up your jacket, put it on, take it off, hang it up, and on and on and on. Those who have seen the original know that Mr. Han is not being pointlessly sadistic in making the boy repeat this for weeks at a time, but only when he finally moves on to the next stage do we see its relationship to Kung Fu.

Of course, as in the original, the relationship between the boy and the older man deepens, with the pair traveling to the Great Wall as part of the regimen. What a wonderful way to show us the natural and man-made glories of China, thanks to apt direction by Harald Swart and the cinematography by Roger Pratt (the latter filmed two of the Harry Potter films). The story also chronicles the relationship between violin prodigy Meiying and Dre, each promising to attend the other’s event at the end of the summer—her violin competition and his tournament. Her showing Dre through the streets of Beijing also is a good way to highlight the culture clash, as when he shudders’ as she picks out and eats a shish kebab of barbecued insects.

But, to return to Mr. Han and Dre, by far the best part of the film deals with their relationship, the older imparting to the younger the wisdom and values that regard Kung Fu as a means to obtain harmony, rather than power, as taught by Master Li. It is a wisdom that teaches that honor is more important than victory, something that, to this film’s credit, even Dre’s opponent Cheng is beginning to perceive at the film’s climax. The climactic face-off at the Kung Fu tournament is an exciting sequence, with surprisingly brutal hits that we might expect in an adult match but not in one between two children. However, I suspect that few are bothered by this, with all of the excitement and suspense so well handled by the filmmakers and actors. This is a good film for church leaders to see with their youth, with an almost guaranteed insightful discussion resulting. Unlike so many, such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, this is one remake that is well worth seeing.

For Reflection/Discussion

Spoilers follow, especially in the later questions.

1. Have you experienced the pain of leaving a well-liked place and moving to a very different one? What problems did you encounter in adjusting to the new? How did you come to accept the new—or did you? Did you find a new, welcoming friend as Dre did, or a bully testing you? The welcoming boy almost disappears from the story: how might this be due to Dre’s lack of response to his initiative?

2. How does Dre change in the course of the film? How is he, being the young child that he is, so self-absorbent that he cannot appreciate his mother’s predicament? This is his film, so we see little of what she is going through at her work place: what problems might she be experiencing?

3. Have you, or perhaps your children, been victimized by a bully? How did you handle it? Note how there have been news reports of school authorities being confronted by the problem, intensified it seems by bullies or powerful cliques attacking someone through Twitter and Facebook, one girl even driven to commit suicide. How does the film follow the usual course or formula for dealing with a bully?

4. What aspects of Chinese culture are shown that Dre must adapt to? Note that everyone he meets conveniently understands English: how might this reflect an American cultural arrogance or lack of respect on the part of the filmmakers?

5. Compare Mr. Han and Master Li’s philosophy in regard to Kung Fu. Compare “harmony” with “power.” How is Master Li’s understanding more in line with a Western view? An example: in the Creation Story in Genesis God gives the humans “dominion” over the earth and
its creatures. How do some interpret this as giving us permission to deal with the earth as we see fit, whereas others perceive this as giving us a stewardship over creation, rather than absolute power. Note in Genesis 3 the serpent seduces the woman by suggesting that knowledge brings power.

6. What symbol of Taoism do we see several times in the film? How does Mr. Han’s stress on “harmony” as the goal of Kung Fu spring from this philosophy? Note that “Tao” or “Dao” can be translated as “the way (of life),” hence his statement, “All is Kung Fu.” Compare his emphasis upon “harmony” (and in Taoism this includes not only relationships among humans, but also with nature and the cosmos) with that of the Hebrew concept of “Shalom.” A good example of the latter is Isaiah 11:6-9. (For a little more on Taoism go to the Wikedia article at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taoism)

7. Why does Mr. Han smash the car he has been so carefully restoring? How is he somewhat like Henri Nouwen’s “The Wounded Healer” ? What does Dre bring to him at this point?

8. What do you think of the ending of the film? Compare it with that of the first film, if you have seen both. How do we see that the episode in which Dre watches the woman control the cobra was not inserted just for exotic interest but for a specific purpose? How does this make Dre’s victory more believable?

9. What do you think of the addition of Cheng’s show of respect to Mr. Han? And of his friends following him? How does this show the power of setting a good example?

10. Compare the theme of bullying as it is handled in such films as How To Eat Fried Worms and Bridge at Terabithia. How are the latter two different from the usual formula, such as in Karate Kid? How is this closer to the ethics taught in the Sermon on the Mount?