Kung fu? In my Karate Kid?

In this special guest blog, MediaSmarts intern and University of Ottawa Communications MA candidate Anton van Hamel looks at how a desire to appeal to international audiences may affect a movie's setting and storyline.

Why is a movie about a young boy learning kung fu called The Karate Kid? For most of the film's young audience, Jaden Smith's break-out movie doesn't explain the confusion. Their parents and older siblings, however, may recall the earlier installments in this series which started with a young Ralph Macchio learning karate from Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, a movie which started as the hero's quest to learn karate to overcome his tormentors and evolved by film's end into a coming-of-age story about the bond between mentor and student. The first Karate Kid struck a chord with audiences, becoming the fifth-highest grossing film of 1984.

After two sequels, which did little to alter the formula established by the original and met with dwindling success, the franchise underwent a revamp in 1994 when Daniel was replaced by a new student. The Next Karate Kid, a 1994 sequel, tried to cash in on that decade's trend towards butt-kicking hero-ines (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena: Warrior Princess, etc.) by casting Hilary Swank in the title role, but failed to either reproduce the original's success or revive the franchise.

A full 26 years after the release of the original, the newest version is once again adding a twist motivated by the changing market. Although this re-imagining of the original story changes up many elements, the most significant one is moving the setting to China. The suggestion to transplant the story overseas was actually the decisive factor which emboldened the producers to green-light the newest chapter despite the lukewarm performance of the last edition. Moving the story to an exotic locale isn't just a case of trying to one-up the original, though: as with the decision to cast a girl in the 90's, the focus on China – and the switch from the hero studying karate, which is of Japanese origin, to learning Chinese kung fu -- in the newest Karate Kid is mostly based on money.

Hollywood has a complicated relationship with China. Composing nearly one-fifth of the world's entire population, and with a growing middle class, China is a market too big to ignore. More importantly, it is a market which appears poised to embrace Western cultural products on a massive scale; for example, Chinese ticket sales for Avatar account for the single biggest chunk of the film's take in foreign box offices, no small feat considering the difference in exchange rates. Despite the massive appetite inside the country's borders for Hollywood films, though, the government officially sanctions only a small trickle of foreign-produced movies, allowing no more than twenty onto screens each year. According to a statement from Dan Glickman, CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA,) “because there are fewer movies available legally, there is more of an appetite for seeing them illegally. You can buy just about every movie in the history of the world in China”. As a result, China is ranked in the top five countries where piracy is a major problem for American producers (so is Canada, incidentally, though for different reasons.) In some cases the MPAA has filed suit against Chinese sites which stream Hollywood films without permission, yet because most of those films are not legal for distribution in China anyway it's more difficult for the MPAA to claim damages to their profits. The fact that so few foreign films are legal for distribution in China means that unapproved ones exist in a legal grey area. The best the MPAA has achieved so far are promises from the Chinese government to crack down on piracy internally.

As a result, some studios are trying to make inroads into the Chinese movie market by being proactive about securing those few, precious spots allowed for foreign films. Nods to Chinese culture are one strategy to please film committees, but signing on with local companies is a more committed tactic. Co-productions with Chinese studios (such as The Mummy: the Tomb of the Dragon Emperor and The Forbidden Kingdom) are in the fast lane to get onto Chinese screens since they can be vetted by government officers at each stage of production. The Karate Kid remake is actually the biggest Chinese-American co-production in film history, partnered with a state-owned Chinese studio to make sure of government approval. This latest twist on the franchise may be a shrewd move on the part of the film's distributors to reach a tricky market. If the setting alone isn't enough to convince Chinese audiences, martial arts movie legend Jackie Chan -- a household name in China, even moreso than in the Western world, due to his more than 70 roles in both English and Chinese-language films – seems likely to seal the deal. Some foreign film studios are putting down roots inside China on a permanent basis, no doubt motivated by the possibility of circumventing the cap on foreign films. After an initial success with Mulan and later breaking the record for box office sales in the animated film category for Kung Fu Panda, Disney has set up their own studio in China for a local adaptation of their surprise-hit, High-School Musical. In the case of the latter, Disney is planning to simply take advantage of low production costs in China and probably won't release the final product internationally, clearly betting that there is enough money to be made in the Chinese market alone.

Of course, Chinese audiences don't uncritically embrace every American production which features some aspect of Chinese culture. Despite financial success, both The Mummy: The Tomb of the Dragon Emperor and Kung Fu Panda hit some speed-bumps due to perceived cultural insensitivity. In the case of the former, some movie-goers were outraged that the villain of the movie was loosely based on a venerated Chinese emperor who (spoiler alert) is dispatched by the film's square-jawed Western hero. As for Kung Fu Panda, its release was unfortunately timed around the Sichuan earthquake. As the panda is the symbol for that province, some critics felt it was in bad taste to show a comedy with a panda as the main character and suggested a boycott. While The Karate Kid remake has already raked in more than half of the original's total gross in North America in its opening weekend alone, the release in China is scheduled for a little later. This version has apparently had a few edits, but it remains to be seen how well audiences will tolerate the story of an American boy learning kung fu and (spoiler alert) besting his Chinese tormentors at one of China's oldest sports. Nevertheless, if it is a success it would be a massive step forward in the globalization of American-produced films. China is attractive not only because of its huge consumer base, but also because it is one of only a few markets which Hollywood films haven't broken into yet. A combination of policies which block entry for foreign films and a thriving black market has so far made the middle kingdom a tough nut for Hollywood to crack. Even India, which has its own well-oiled, homegrown movie-making machine, has started warming up to some American-backed productions and turning out impressive profits. There, too, the key has been adapting and being sensitive to the local market rather than repackaging and dubbing old content, but striking the right balance is still a work in progress.

For Teachers:

  • Ask students to debate the character of Hollywood blockbuster movies. Are they distinctly American or are they stripped of national character to appeal to as many countries as possible?
  • Canada and America are lumped together into one 'North America' category when tallying box office grosses. What does this say about the market for films in Canada?
  • Ask students to make a list of different films they like and know well and order them according to how easily each one could be exported to a completely foreign country where the language, customs, or history are totally different. Discuss what the audience is expected to already know before they enter the theatre. This is the same task faced by many Hollywood executives everyday.
  • The topic of this blogpost can be used as a supplement with Media Awareness Network's lesson The Blockbuster Movie