The abundance of mass media in our society has a strong influence on how we judge the people we encounter. When meeting someone for the first time, people look for an identity. In other words, they look for an easy way to recognize who a person is, and what they represent. Although everyone carries a certain individuality to themselves, it’s become almost instinctive for people to categorize each other based on archetypes found in popular culture. Since the Martial Arts movie rush during the 1970s and on, famous actors such as Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li have promoted, and popularized Asian Martial Arts throughout America. While these films introduced a foreign, and distinctive style of art to the US, they also contributed to stereotyping and prejudiced thinking of Asian Americans and Martial Artists in particular. By analyzing popular and revolutionary films such as Karate Kid (1984), Karate Kid (2010), and The Forbidden Kingdom (2008), connections can be drawn between the messages found in these films, and how people have expressed these ideas towards my identity as an Asian American Martial Artist.
When someone mentions Martial Arts, who’s the first person that comes to mind? Chances are, most people would pick an actor out of the most recent Martial Arts movie they’ve seen, or one of the Martial Arts film giants like Bruce, Jackie, or Jet. While it’s understandable that a majority of people don’t prioritize having any knowledge about Martial Arts, it’s a problem that movies have become one of the only ways to spread knowledge to a large audience. Movies can be captivating, exciting, and influential, but can also be misleading through the messages they send. This can lead people to believe real people follow these inaccurate portrayals found in film. One way that films convey misleading information is through characterization.
In the film Karate Kid (1984) there is a character named Mr. Miyagi, who is a Japanese American Martial Artist, and the teacher of an American teenager named Daniel. Through various interviews off screen, it’s evident that the actor of Mr. Miyagi speaks with a perfect American English accent (1), but the film makers decided to give Mr. Miyagi a thick Japanese accent, coupled with the frequent use of deep and elegant figures of speech. The characteristics that made him more “Asian” were emphasized through his speech and manners. Since Mr. Miyagi was the expert Martial Artist in the movie, this could lead viewers to believe that people with more Asian characteristics are also more skilled in Martial Arts. In my own life, throughout my experiences in Middle school and High school, many people have assumed I do Martial Arts without getting to know me, simply because I’m Asian American. I’ve heard things like “show me your Kung Fu moves” countless times.
.The most apparent example of this is the sense of mysticism and ambiguity represented in particularly Asian Martial Artists. Mr. Miyagi was able to heal Daniel’s injured leg at the tournament after simply clasping his hands together and humming. The scene cuts away, and the rest is left for the viewer to decide what happens. Comparatively, in Karate Kid 2010, Dre injures himself a similar fashion, and has Mr. Han miraculously heal him using some jars and fire. There was no change between the portrayal in 1984 and 2010, with the exception of some special effects. Even after the near 30 year gap in time, the film makers chose to keep this scene in order to maintain the elaborate and spiritualistic aspect of Martial Arts. No matter what they did to make Martial Arts more relatable in the US, they had to preserve the exotic theme, which contributed to much of its appeal. This representation can be detrimental to the identity of Asian Martial Arts because it allows the viewers to make an assumptions during ambiguous moments. Whatever pops into their head is most likely what they assume happens in the real world.
While some aspects in each film have been kept the same, there is a contrast between them that is worth noting. As a fly buzzes around Mr. Miyagi, he uses a pair of chopsticks to catch the fly. This soon evolves into one of the most widely known movie scenes in the Martial Arts world, as cartoons, and even comic books begin incorporating the chopstick scene into their repertoire. In Karate Kid (2010), the complete opposite happens. Mr. Han breaks the cliché and nostalgia of the previous movie by simply killing the fly with a fly swatter. The discrepancies made between these scenes are important because they emphasizes that not all Martial Artists do everything one way. This provides a contrast to one of the many Martial Arts clichés.
Growing up, I’ve experienced two main portrayals of Martial Artists coming from the people I’ve interacted with. Many people have shown respect towards my identity as a Martial Artist, but there have been those who act unimpressed, and sometimes ridicule my involvement in Martial Arts. Different people can extract completely different messages from the same Martial Arts film. For instance, consider the speed in which the main characters from the Karate Kid films and The Forbidden Kingdom progress in their development. In all three films, the main character learns seemingly advanced techniques within a matter of minutes. This unrealistic display of training time gives the wrong message to the viewers. Learning Martial Arts is a lifelong journey filled with discipline, and hard work. Jackie Chan’s character from The Forbidden Kingdom states,
“Kung Fu: Hard work over time to accomplish skill. A painter can have Kung Fu, or the Butcher, who cuts meat everyday with such skill. His knife never touches bone”. (2)
When the audience sees how easy is it for the main character to master Martial Arts, they are split between two interpretations. Either they become inspired, or they mock the film since it seems spoon fed and fake. They begin to look at Martial Arts as a joke because what they’ve seen in films. For example, in Karate Kid (2010) Dre starts his training by taking off his jacket and putting it back on repeatedly in order to cement discipline. By the time Dre attends the tournament, there is almost no footage of his real training, and yet he miraculously does a one footed back flip kick to win. To many viewers, this seems farfetched, phony, and absurd. Through what they see in popular film, viewers like these disrespect Martial Arts and disregard the actual time and work needed to master Martial Arts. I remember being picked on in the 3rd grade because I told people I knew Martial Arts. Kids would ridicule me because they didn’t take Martial Arts seriously. This idea originally stemmed from the unrealistic, and sometimes blasphemous portrayals of Martial Artists in film. In reality, Martial Artists like myself dedicate many years of their lives to their physical and mental training. Great skill in Martial Arts should be portrayed as something worth achieving, where one sacrifices time and effort to attain it.
While the Karate Kid movies have been ridiculed for spreading such a variety of hurtful stereotypes, a large emphasis was placed on explaining what Martial Arts teaches, and what it should be used for. All three films show this by pushing themes such as self-control, discipline, and respect. I find these lessons to be homologous to what it means to be a real Martial Artist, and I’m thankful that they were included in these films. If there is one thing people should gain from Martial Arts, it should be that these values that triumph over any fighting technique, no matter how advanced or flashy they may be. This is a core theme that revolves around every Martial Art style, and these films all helped reinforce the basic principles of Martial Arts.
When film makers produce these movies, they surely aren’t trying to degrade the image of Martial Arts in the United States. The way people perceive each movie is what shapes the common portrayals about Martial Artists in our society. Ultimately, the viewer is the one that remembers what they’ve watched, and molds the “ideal Martial Artist” in their head. Hopefully, Martial Arts films that are released in the future will change these perceptions for the better. While Martial Arts films in the past introduced a foreign, and distinctive style of art to the US, they also contributed to stereotyping and prejudiced thinking of Asian Americans and Martial Artists in particular. By analyzing popular and revolutionary films such as Karate Kid (1984), Karate Kid (2010), and The Forbidden Kingdom (2008), connections were drawn between the messages found in these films, and how people have expressed these ideas towards my identity as an Asian American Martial Artist.
(1) Mr. Miyagi Interview regarding Karate Kid <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MoBeHY1Rvs0>
(2) The Forbidden Kingdom. Directed by Rob Minkoff. 2008.
(3) Jackie Chan Forbidden Kingdom Interview. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2VIXa2eWr-k>
(4) The Karate Kid. Directed by John G. Avildsen. 1984.
(5) The Karate Kid. Directed by Harald Zwart. 2010.