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China has starring role in ‘Karate Kid’ remake

Filmed as a joint project along with a Chinese movie company, “The Karate Kid” stars Jaden Smith as Dre, left, and Jackie Chan as Mr. Han.
Filmed as a joint project along with a Chinese movie company, “The Karate Kid” stars Jaden Smith as Dre, left, and Jackie Chan as Mr. Han.
John Horn Los Angeles Times

For years, Sony Pictures considered – and decided against – updating “The Karate Kid,” its 1984 family film about a browbeaten kid (Ralph Macchio) and the enigmatic martial arts coach (Noriyuki “Pat” Morita) who teaches the boy to believe in himself.

The studio had pretty much beaten the franchise into submission, with the third sequel – 1994’s “The Next Karate Kid,” featuring 19-year-old Hilary Swank – marking the series’ commercial (domestic gross of $8.9 million) and critical (6 percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes) low point.

“This is a valuable property,” Doug Belgrad, president of Sony’s Columbia Pictures, recalls thinking at the time. “We better have the right idea, or it’s not worth doing.”

So even when Overbrook Entertainment – the production company for Sony’s biggest star, Will Smith – pitched Sony on a “Karate Kid” remake featuring Smith’s 11-year-old, martial-arts-obsessed son Jaden (his co-star in “The Pursuit of Happyness”) in the Macchio role, the studio passed.

Finally, just as Beijing was about to host 2008’s Summer Olympics, Overbrook altered its pitch: What if the new version were set in China?

“That was enough to say yes,” says Belgrad, who had long been fascinated by the country.

With more than 1.3 billion residents, China is both the world’s most populous nation and one of Hollywood’s biggest challenges, with borders to entry almost as tall as the Great Wall.

It can be one of the biggest-grossing countries outside of the United States for certain films, even though DVD piracy is rampant and there aren’t a lot of theaters. Chinese box-office returns surged more than 40 percent to above $900 million in 2009.

The “Karate Kid” decision not only launched the biggest modern movie co-production between an American studio and China, it also opened up the film to government-mandated creative controls that ultimately yielded two slightly different movies.

Government censors asked that several scenes, including sequences of bullying and a kiss between two young characters, be trimmed for the Chinese version.

Although the production, was granted vital access to an array of spectacular Chinese locations – the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, Wudang Mountain – the filmmakers also had to negotiate sometimes byzantine permitting rules.

Try to film a movie in Los Angeles, and the locals will grudgingly get out of the way. Not so in Beijing.

“The people run the country,” says James Lassiter, Overbrook’s president and a “Karate Kid” producer.

“So if people didn’t want you shooting in their neighborhood, there’s no authority that can tell them they have to. That’s why it’s called the People’s Republic of China.”

The filmmakers, who hired a number of Chinese crew members, say the production inconveniences were minor and the creative conversations with partner China Film Group Corp. easily resolved.

As part of Sony’s deal, the government-run movie company invested about $5 million in the film’s $40 million budget, retaining distribution rights in China.

Director Harald Zwart (“Agent Cody Banks,” “The Pink Panther 2”) says he never felt there was government pressure to steer the movie in a certain political direction, even though it depicted working-class communities as a little bit ramshackle.

“There was never any question of ‘Don’t show this’ and ‘Don’t show that,’” says Zwart, who personally made the edits for the Chinese version, clipping the chaste smooch between Smith’s Dre Parker and his girlfriend, Mei Ying (Wenwen Han).

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 original film, Macchio played 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.

Determined to fight back, Dre enlists Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), a mysterious maintenance man who teaches him the Chinese martial art of kung fu. Dre spends more and more time with Mr. Han, who ultimately becomes the boy’s surrogate father.

Sony privately says “The Karate Kid” is among the studio’s highest-testing movies ever, and it looks ready to open strongly this weekend opposite another movie filled with a lot of fighting, 20th Century Fox’s remake of “The A-Team.”

Equally important, the production has shown Sony and Overbrook that filming in China can be rewarding.

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, 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,” says author Orville Schell, who has written extensively about the region, “China is not your destination of choice.”

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