Monday, June 21, 2010

Love Letter to Northern China


Saw the remake of Karate Kid over the weekend. The plot is the same as the 1984 original: Young Jaden Smith, fresh off the plane from Detroit, embarks on a coming-of-age slash hero's journey after being bullied at his new middle school in Beijing. He needs to learn self-defense and who better to teach him than the gracefully aging, universally popular Jackie Chan?

Doubts are overcome, skills learned, discipline inculcated etc. with a merciful lack of the soundtrack-driven montages parodied so viciously in Team America: World Police.

But as Chan leads Smith hither and yon to learn the True Meaning of Kung-Fu, the movie's uncredited costar emerges: northern China.

Visually, the movie is a love letter to the north; the credits should have a notice from the China National Tourist Office thanking you for watching. A half-hour into the movie we've already seen Beijing's modern airport in all its glory, the Olympic "bird's nest" stadium, daring new buildings, construction cranes dotting the skyline, idyllic crowd scenes of Beijing residents doing tai chi, playing ping-pong and otherwise looking both peacable and industrious, and a potential Chinese love interest for 12-year-old Jaden.

Now, though, Chan and Smith take a train journey that leads them past rice paddies hemmed in by dramatic mountains, to training atop the Great Wall of China, to drinking from a "dragon fountain" at a mountaintop temple that's so photogenic you want to put down your popcorn and walk into the frame.

Combine those beautiful visuals with the movie's ending, where Smith's tormentors turn out to be okay guys--they not only present him with the winner's trophy but pay respect to Jackie Chan's character, implicitly renouncing their current, cruel sensei--and you've got a very nice boost for PRC soft power around the world.

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