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'Karate Kid' update breaks down some Chinese walls

The biggest modern movie co-production between a U.S. studio and China had access to spectacular locations under censors' watchful eye.

May 30, 2010|By John Horn, Los Angeles Times

"There was never any question of don't show this and don't show that," Zwart says, adding that the creative conversations with China Film were "very cooperative" with a lot of "back and forth." Zwart personally made the edits for the Chinese version, clipping the chaste smooch between Smith's Dre Parker and his girlfriend, Mei Ying (Wenwen Han). "I am not going to be an expert on what works in China," Zwart says. "But I think the Chinese version is a beautiful movie."

For all the growth in China's movie business, the country only allows 20 non-Chinese movies into the country's theaters every year, and the government dictates the distribution terms, which return only about 13% of a film's ticket sales to its makers (the revenue share is closer to a 50-50 split in North American theaters).

To get around those draconian limits, some studios have tried making local-language productions, movies in Cantonese and Mandarin, rather than simply relying on exporting their movies from the United States. Disney has launched a Chinese "High School Musical," while 20th Century Fox made the successful Chinese romantic comedy "Hot Summer Days." Neither project will likely travel outside of Asia, as their modest budgets don't require them to be global releases.

At the same time, China is reaching out to American producers, and China Film's Han San Ping has traveled to Hollywood to develop business.

"On every front, China is trying to globalize and internationalize itself," says China expert Orville Schell, who has written extensively about the region, including the book "Virtual Tibet: Searching for Shangri-La From the Himalayas to Hollywood." He says U.S. movie studios, like global pop culture consumers, increasingly are drawn to the region. "It's a go-to spot that has a lot of cachet," Schell says.

The "Karate Kid" deal follows a different model, where an American studio and a Chinese, government-run movie arm collaborate on a production. "The access was key," Belgrad says. "We had an unprecedented amount of production value by shooting there."

While the financial and location benefits can be material, so too can questions of interference. The American makers of 2006's "The Painted Veil," which filmed all over China, said their Chinese production and finance partners asked that several of the film's sequences about the Chinese Revolution and the country's cholera victims be redacted.

By setting "The Karate Kid" in modern-day China, the filmmakers were able to magnify the original film's fish-out-of-water plot (in the first film, Macchio plays a New Jersey teen who relocates with his single mother to Los Angeles). In the new story, Smith's Dre and his mother ( Taraji P. Henson) leave Detroit for Beijing when she changes jobs. Soon after arriving, Dre is confronted by a band of local bullies led by a thug named Cheng (Zhenwei Wang).

Lassister says that while China Film was worried about the film's depiction of bullying, they were able to reach a common ground. "We talked about the necessity of the fighting, and the level of the violence," he says. "I understand their point of view. But we portray both good and bad Chinese; it's not that they are all bad."

Determined to fight back, Dre enlists Mr. Han (Chan), a mysterious maintenance man who teaches Dre the Chinese martial art of kung fu. (There's really no karate in the film, and Sony wrestled with changing the title to "Kung Fu Kid," but the original film's producer, Jerry Weintraub, nixed the idea.) In following the trajectory of the first film, Dre in the new "Karate Kid" spends more and more time with Mr. Han, who ultimately becomes the boy's surrogate father. Jaden Smith trained for four months before production commenced to perfect his fighting, studying under Wu Gang, Chan's stunt coordinator.

"It's great, and it's fun — but it's very hard work," Smith told The Times earlier this year.

Sony privately says "The Karate Kid" is among the studio's highest-testing movies ever, and it looks ready to open strongly opposite another movie filled with a lot of fighting, 20th Century Fox's "The A-Team," both here and abroad.

Equally important, the production has shown Sony and Overbrook that filming in China can be a rewarding experience, even factoring in some of the obstacles. But don't look for an American studio to propose making a film about the Dalai Lama or 1989's Tiananmen Square protests in China — the country may love light, entertaining fare such as "The Karate Kid," but it is far less interested in examining the more complicated aspects of its own history. "If you're going to get into something political," Schell says, "China is not your destination of choice."

But Overbrook and Sony are ready to go back. Says Lassiter: "It was a fantastic experience. And it helps with our overall objective to become a global film production company."

Times staff writer Susan King contributed to this report.

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