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The Karate Brand trumps Kung Fu Reality

After seeing The Karate Kid (2010), a martial arts remake of the 1984 original, my daughter asked me why the movie wasn’t called the Kung Fu Kid. She was not alone in her query. The blockbuster is actually entitled The Kung Fu Kid in China, and known as Best Kid in South Korea and Japan.

A mini uproar from minority communities and film source devotees has emerged as allegations of cultural ignorance, potential racism, and deindividuation have resulted from the film keeping its original title. Critics cite this lack of distinction between accurate depictions of Japanese (Karate) and Chinese (Kung Fu) culture as a misrepresentation of truth and reality.

Producer Jerry Weintraub defends retaining the name (see 3:03 in his interview) as a brand issue. To Weintraub’s defense, a good explanation of how the protagonist (Smith) believes his Karate will help him defeat the Chinese bullies would represent a defensible starting point. However, the ‘film devotee rant’ and Weintraub interview explicitly and implicitly declare that movie studios inherently have a right to make money by whatever means necessary.

The marketing industry often walks a thin line between exaggeration and falsehood. Products and services are considered ‘must haves,’ and peripheral desires become necessities for human flourishing. Some defend advertising’s role in promoting economic growth and portray it as a cultural mirror of existing consumer values/visions of the good life. Others see the industry as representative of everything wrong with the free market. The critical question for the brand is when and where to draw the line between full disclosure and a desirable profit share, artistic license, and perpetuating a lingering stereotype.

  1. Dorothy Scharer
    October 28th, 2010 at 08:23 | #1

    It isn’t a documentary! It’s a movie, inherently fictional. We could all complain about inaccuracies or stereotypes in movies and TV. Artists do their own thing in every medium. Karate Kid just joins the long list of inaccuracies in fiction, what else is new?

  2. Zina Bell
    April 18th, 2011 at 14:32 | #2

    When I first began working with film studios and their ad departments, a client told me, “Studios would show an hour of black screen if people would pay to see it.” My customer pointed out that whatever secondary motivation they had fell behind their primary motivation of making money. I am not disparaging studios; sequels, especially in a down economy, are a sure fire way to get a return. If a film previously made a profit, a sequel usually makes more money with less expense. Less advertising and marketing is needed because people are buying a ticket to get more of what they already like.

    In the case of the original Karate Kid (1984) and the sequel (1986), total price-adjusted box office receipts represent $200 million and $240 million respectively. If you change the name then people won’t identify with the sequel and you would have to ‘resell’ it as a new movie. You would not call Batman, “Gotham’s Crusader” or Shrek 2, “Fiona’s Fairytale.” People know Batman and Shrek. The studio can bank on the repeat business because it is a brand. Establishing a product as a brand is a smart way to help you stand out from the crowd and create loyalty.

    Money does not excuse someone from being offensive, but are the producers intentionally being culturally insensitive, or just ignorant? I think some major studios are realizing that getting the facts right with any ethnic or religious group inspires loyalty to the film and perhaps ultimately … more money.

    • April 18th, 2011 at 23:59 | #3

      Dorothy, movies have become a new reality for many people in our society. Consider the impact Schindler’s List (1993) has had on our culture’s impression of both the Holocaust and Oskar Schindler versus all other WWII documentaries combined. Film has the power to implant an idea deep into the collective consciousness; its drawbacks include the reinforcement of errors and inaccuracies.

      Zina, I do not have a problem with maintaining the Karate Kid brand or the profit motive. I do have an issue with the producers dismissing core differences (the religious analogy would be that Christian beliefs are the same as Mormon or Muslim beliefs). Justifying the error for a profitable end continues to foster the American stereotype of there being no distinct difference among Asian ethnic groups. Notice how the film producers could not get away with the title in the Far East.

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