In Columbia Pictures’ The Karate Kid, 12-year-old Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) could have been the most popular kid in Detroit, but his mother’s (Taraji P. Henson) career takes them both to China. Dre has a hard time making friends at first but he does make a connection with his classmate Mei Ying – and the feeling is mutual – until cultural differences make such a friendship impossible. Even worse, Dre makes an enemy of the class bully, Cheng.
Dre knows only a little karate, and in the land of kung fu, Cheng puts “the karate kid” on the floor with ease. Feeling alone in a foreign land, Dre has no friends to turn to except the maintenance man, Mr. Han (Jackie Chan).
Secretly a master of kung fu, Mr. Han and Dre begin to train together, building a friendship and moving toward a final showdown with Cheng at a kung fu tournament. As Han teaches Dre that kung fu is not about punches and parries, but maturity and calm, Dre learns that facing down the bullies will be the fight of his life.
Karate Kid (a Columbia Pictures action, adventure drama, Rated PG for bullying, martial arts action violence and some mild language, stars Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan, and Taraji P. Henson as Dre’s mother, Sherry.
Jaden Smith, 11, is the son of Will and Jada Smith and has already gained critical and commercial success in Hollywood films, such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008), The Pursuit of Happyness (2006).
“Dre Parker is a cool American kid who’s left Detroit and now is just trying to make it in China,” says Jaden Smith in the production notes. “He’s definitely having a rough time – he feels like he just doesn’t fit in. He doesn’t mean to, but he gets on the bad side of some bullies. He’s got no friends and nowhere to go, and that’s when he finds out that his building’s maintenance man, Mr. Han, is a kung fu master. Mr. Han teaches him kung fu, and they end up having a special bond between them.”
It’s a theme that has long resonated with audiences – and explored in the hit movie of the same title that starred Ralph Macchio and the late Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, in his portrayal of the stoic sensei, Mr. Miyagi.
Perhaps the biggest challenge was in casting the role of the mentor. The filmmakers would need an icon – and they found one, in Jackie Chan, the martial arts icon who has appeared in more than 100 films since the 1970s as an extra in Bruce Lee films. He is also an action choreographer, filmmaker, comedian, producer, martial artist, screenwriter, entrepreneur, singer and stunt performer.
Originally from Hong Kong, he is known for his acrobatic fighting style, comic timing, use of improvised weapons and innovative stunts.
Chan felt a particular affinity for the story, as he admits he can actually relate to the young American character. “I understand the fish out of water story,” says Chan. “About 30 years ago, I went to America for the first time by myself. When you’re in a completely different culture, it’s very frightening.”
The story tells the tale not only of a master and student but of the bond that’s formed between a lonely, childless man and a fatherless boy.
“At first Mr. Han thinks he is only helping this bullied boy, but in the end, his life is also transformed,” Chan said.
“Dre is like boys everywhere – they want to kick something, a way to get revenge,” he added. “But kung fu is not about hurting people. It’s about helping people.”
Of course, the part required Smith to learn kung fu. He would learn from the best: Wu Gang, the stunt coordinator of the Jackie Chan Stunt Team. Because Chan performs most of his own stunt work in his films, Chan formed his Stunt Team in 1983 as a way to facilitate the fight choreography.
“When I first met Jaden, I liked him, but you can never be sure. I wasn’t sure if he’d really be up to the task,” says Wu. “He proved himself: he is very talented and he worked very hard. And it wasn’t easy. I loved training Jaden.”
And did Smith enjoy his training? “He asked me to continue training him after the movie wrapped,” says Wu. “I was honored.”
In adapting The Karate Kid for modern audiences, the filmmakers sought a location that would place as many obstacles in Dre’s path as possible. The decision to take the entire production to China was not taken lightly.
Many of the desired settings in the story are off-limits and the producers turned to the China Film Group to assist in securing locations.
“One little shot took months of planning,” says Zwart. “Just as an example, we are the first film to be given permission to shoot inside the Tiananmen Gate and the Forbidden City since Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor more than 20 years ago.”
The production was headquartered out of the old Beiying Film Studios. The “backlot” is essentially filled with hutong or passages between rows of siheyuan courtyard houses. Siheyuan is the traditional, albeit disappearing, style of residence of Beijingers, each consisting of a rectangular courtyard surrounded by one-storied tile-roofed houses, usually one to six meters wide.
A Beijing location – the Staff Residence Building #3 at the Beijing Forest University – doubled as the Detroit street where Dre and his mother start out.
One visually stunning was shot at the prestigious Beijing Shaolin Wushu School and highlights 400 students dressed in traditional red gi doing their morning lawn routine. Established in 1991, the school features education – primary through senior high – with a wushu-style philosophy.
Smith enjoyed working alongside his Chinese costars. “I learned a lot of kung fu from them, and I taught them their first English words: ‘Yo. What’s up.’”
Shooting at the Tiananmen Gate and inside the Forbidden City was a thrilling yet daunting experience for both cast and crew alike. Very few productions are permitted access and this is the first company to film here in over 20 years.
The company also filmed at The Golden Buddha, overlooking the entire Forbidden City. This sacred shrine, located at the highest point in Beijing, offers an unobstructed 360 degree view of the entire city.
Another coup for the production was gaining filming access to the Great Wall of China. The section of the wall that was used was at Mutianyu, located in Huairou County about 45 miles from Beijing.
The wall was first built in the Northern Qi Dynasty (550 – 557). In the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644), two famous patriotic generals rebuilt it in order to strengthen its defensive potential when they guarded the strategic pass. It served as the northern protective screen, guarding the capital and imperial mausoleums for generations.
One of the most moving and impactful scenes in the film occurs when Mr. Han takes Dre on a spiritual pilgrimage to the Wudang Mountains to discover the origins of kung fu. Only after climbing to the top of the mountain can Dre drink and replenish from the Well of Kung Fu.
Everything that Mr. Han is instructing leads up to the tournament, the final showdown between Dre and the bully, Cheng. The interior of Beijing’s Feng Tai Sports Arena represented the “People’s Auditorium” where the huge competition takes place.
Han Feng is the costume designer for the film. She is best known for her work with the theatrical opera production of Madame Butterfly. The Nanjing native moved to New York City in 1985 and enjoyed success in fashion design.
The film score was composed by James Horner who worked on Avatar, Titanic, House of Sand and Fog, A Beautiful Mind, Braveheart, Apollo 13, Field of Dreams and Aliens, and An American Tale.