Death of Detroit: “The Karate Kid” vs. Eminem

I finally got around to seeing The Karate Kid (i.e. last year’s remake starring Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan) last weekend.

Though not a revolutionary classic of filmmaking by any means, it was still pretty enjoyable and interesting from my perspective. One reason is that it is the only Hollywood film I have seen that captures the modern experience of being an American expat in Asia — particularly of being an American kid coming to Asia. The protagonist, 12-year-old Dre Parker, goes through the same stages of frustration and emergence in Beijing that I went through as a 15-year-old in Osaka. This balances to hilarious effect with the “overawed clueless expat” character of Dre’s mother Sherry, who spends most of the movie fawning on the wonderfulness of everything Chinese.

The other interesting facet of the film is its historical context in the industrial decay of America and simultaneous emergence of China. At the very beginning of the film, Sherry and Dre move from a middle-class existence in Detroit to a middle-class existence in Beijing, and a long portion of the opening credits consists of shots of the decaying metropolis of Detroit. The reason for their move, which is only briefly mentioned in the film, is that Sherry worked at a car factory which closed down, and the only way she could keep working was to transfer to a factory in China. When Dre gets exasperated and wants to go home, Sherry emphatically tells him that they cannot go home because there is nothing left for them.

In short, it’s a movie primarily about a kid overcoming his weaknesses through kung fu discipline, and secondarily about America, China and the expat experience in the 21st century. On the latter point, it does a much less groan-worthy job than the likes of Rising Sun and Gung Ho did during the Japanese emergence of the late 1980s.

The decay of Detroit is, of course, nothing new; there have been a few big movies made on the theme, such as the non-fictional Roger & Me in 1989 and the fictional 8 Mile in 2002. Now Chrysler is using the legacy and the decaying grit of Detroit as selling points for their high-end cars; on Sunday, they ran the following ad during the Super Bowl, which is the most-watched TV program in the US just about every year, and got Eminem to pop in as a spokesman. (Hat tip to James Fallows for the link.)

The ad conveniently ignores the fact that Chrysler will be owned by Italians as soon as it pays off its debts to the US federal government. But hey, image is everything.

8 thoughts on “Death of Detroit: “The Karate Kid” vs. Eminem”

  1. I found your blogsite just yesterday while looking for an english explanation for “toire no kamisama”

    i like what you guys are doing. I am not even close to you in what i try to do with my blog, but perhaps you can see my love for Japan and for taking photos


  2. Karate Kid was great. (Though as they say in the movie, it’s not karate, it’s kung fu!) I heard that Will Smith’s production company worked pretty closely with the Chinese government to film this movie, and I think you can tell. The (Chinese) friend I saw it with also approved of the parenting in the movie, both the protagonist’s and his love interest’s. Parents are strict but loving, and you should do what they say, but also find your own path. Good message for kids.

  3. I thought the performances by Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith were decent enough but the film as a whole was disappointing. It felt like it tried to tick all the boxes and match the key scenes in the original without taking the time to invest them with any real motives.

    On US urban decline, you might want to look out for “Requiem for Detroit”. If you Google the title, you should come across a RuTube (Russian) link for the version shown on the BBC last year.

  4. Isn’t the reason the movie is called Karate Kid is because it is the taunt the Chinese boys use when their Kung Fu lands the protagonist on the floor when he tries to use his Karate skills against them. A metaphor for the decline of Japan, anyone?

  5. Nope, the phrase is never used in the movie, though there is a scene where the kid gets angry at his mother for confusing karate with Kung Fu.

Comments are closed.