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Lessons from 'The Karate Kid' -- Japan out, America down, China on the rise

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 27, 2010; B03

A movie that gets fans to stand on one leg and flap their arms would hardly seem like a platform for a lesson in geopolitics. The 1984 version of "The Karate Kid" owes its iconic status, in large part, to its timeless themes of teenage anxiety, courage and moral redemption -- not to anything it might tell us about the United States' role in the world.

But when paired with its summer 2010 remake, the two movies offer a parable on the transformation of the global economy, the end of the American century and the changing balance of power between the United States and Asia. Between Jackie Chan's sly digs about global warming and Jaden Smith's status as a refugee of the U.S. economy, you can almost feel the world's center of gravity shifting.

Rewind the Betamax to 1984 and you'll recall that, back then, California was still the promised land, the place where the film's teenage protagonist, Daniel LaRusso, and his mom had moved from New Jersey to start a new life. It was also the place to which the family of Daniel's Japanese mentor, Mr. Miyagi, had immigrated years before.

The original movie's America was a land of exterior allure and interior motion, a place that allowed an old Japanese karate master and an Italian American kid from Jersey to form a life-altering friendship. It was the melting pot at its most potent.

It was also an America halfway through the Reagan years, a superpower at the height of its Cold War influence but still coming to terms with its own strength, still grappling with the proper uses of force. Between oil shocks and inflation, the 1970s and early 1980s had not been great for the economy. But if the United States worried about imports, trade deficits and currencies, it was Japan that provoked concern.

Interwoven with crane kicks and Cobra Kais, the movie offered some subtle moralizing on U.S. conflicts of the past half-century: Miyagi was not just any Japanese immigrant, but a World War II hero who had fought against his native land on America's behalf and whose wife and son had died in childbirth in a U.S. internment camp. Meanwhile, the bullies who antagonized Daniel were trained by a Vietnam veteran whose merciless approach to martial arts contrasted with Miyagi's karate-as-life-lesson approach. A corny device, but also laden with overtones of "Vietnam bad, World War II good."

In hindsight, this was not just a coming-of-age flick, but a uniquely American film that adroitly captured national dynamics, circa 1984.

Jump to the new version. Japan -- diminished on the world stage by a lost decade of economic stagnation, an aging and contracting population, a once-mighty yen facing marginalization -- has disappeared from the story.

U.S. interests in Asia now revolve around China, and the movie has been set in Beijing in what amounts to a two-hour-plus advertisement for the country, featuring stunning landscapes, smog-free skies and a Forbidden City void of police. (Perhaps the $5 million in funding from the Chinese government, together with permission to film in the country, helped shape the outcome? That's a question for Jaden's dad, Will Smith, one of the producers.)

Key plot dynamics are reversed. America is no longer the land of opportunity. The boy protagonist, Dre Parker, has left the economic mayhem of urban Detroit. He and his mother have been transferred by an unnamed car company from a failing factory in Michigan to a presumably thriving one in China. No more escaping to the surfer 'burbs of California. Presumably no jobs are there, either.

Instead it is all the way to an apartment complex in downtown Beijing. As Dre's mom announces, China is now home. This is no temporary ex-pat gig, it appears, but a full-blown inversion of the immigration patterns that defined the modern global economy.

It's an improbable reversal that speaks directly to the American anxieties of 2010. If the United States is no longer a beacon for ambitious immigrants -- and indeed is exporting bright young families -- maybe it is in decline.

China, it would seem from the movie's perspective, is clearly the future. Dre, thumbing through a dated book about the country, expects to find nothing but old Fu Manchu characters and crumbling buildings. Instead he is awed by the sparkling Olympic village, the cute young women, the parks buzzing with activity -- tai chi, soccer, basketball, music. It seems like everybody in China has an outdoor hobby.

As in the original, the boy is beset by bullies, and there's still a malevolent martial arts teacher. Various bits of dialogue and key scenes are retained from the original, and the remake is still a fun ride on a young-meets-old, East-meets-West and good-beats-bad level.

But it tells a different story.

Any about subtext are dispelled by Mr. Han, the Mr. Miyagi successor played by Hong Kong-born martial arts crossover star Jackie Chan. Han turns out to be not just the building handyman, but a full-fledged kung fu master. (This remake might be better titled "The Kung Fu Kid," because karate, more associated with Japan, has been replaced by the Chinese martial arts discipline.)

For all we know, Han might also have been advising the Chinese government at the Copenhagen climate talks last fall. He is, at any rate, a handyman with an environmental conscience.

When the new Americans complain of a broken water heater in their apartment, he explains that they only have to flip the switch and wait half an hour before showering, then turn the heater off.

There's a switch? They seem puzzled. In the United States, hot water is always just there.

Put in a switch, Han lectures, and save the planet.

There's a blunter moment as well. Like Miyagi in the original, Han plays briefly at trying to catch a fly with a pair of chopsticks -- but then abruptly pulls out a flyswatter and smashes the insect.

There's little doubt where the flyswatter was made, but by the end of the movie one might wonder: Was that a joke or a warning?

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