Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Karate Kid

Flicking through channels on television the other night I came across The Karate Kid, only missing the first half hour. It was a blessing really. I had not watched it for years. The movie has been for some time one of my favourites, but watching it the other night I realized the film is even finer than I thought it was.

This is, strangely enough, one of those hidden gems that go unnoticed in the world of film. And not because no one has heard of it, or because no one has watched it - that is the strange part. It is very well known, but its actual quality as a film seems to go with nary a word. People ransack the most obscure, most "independent" of filmic depths, looking for the great ones that hardly anyone else knows about, and so resurface holding to the light what they think they discovered, and lo, Criterion has done a restoration of their find, and every other miner of obscure films knows about it. And there sits The Karate Kid, a film (a big box office one of its time) of quiet and understated depths, of the most natural acting you'll ever see, of some of the most excellent film direction that it doesn't even need to try to be original, happily and contentedly wearing its deceptive and rumoured mask of 80's melodramatic-teen-championing-against-all-the-odds dorkiness.

People watch it and think they know what they're seeing. People actually think this movie is dated. People think because they imitated Daniel LaRusso as kids, doing their crane kicks on the trampoline with a band around their foreheads, that therefore the movie must be 100% pure 80's cheese. Still others grant the movie some sort of begrudging merit, but only under the ruse of waxing nostalgic.

Many movies retain the fashions of the time of their making yet remain timeless in spite of them. You know, just try and sort of ignore the bellbottoms and dead slang. The Karate Kid on the other hand is not good in spite of its 80's fashions, but it is good alongside them - because it is that good. The movie lets its 80's milieu be complete and lets it go right alongside, neither trying to make this companion relevant or irrelevant. Instead the movie's goodness gets the best of this companion: it even uses this companion to hide its eternal truths, thereby (paradoxically) making this blatant companion rather invisible. The movie does it so successfully that even if this companion tries to take its revenge under a song track entitled, "You’re the best" by Joe Esposito during the climax tournament towards the end, its efforts are still turned towards the good.

I cannot praise enough how well buried are the themes in this film. And how finely they come out. It is so subtly there that it makes other more sophisticated films about human relationships look like pigs running for their slop.

The buried undercurrent, the palpitation running throughout is the dynamic of father and son. The father teaching his son true manliness, and the son imitating his father. Is it coincidence that Mr. Miyagi's (Pat Morita in one the best performances of film) continual referring to Daniel as "Daniel-san" (a Japanese custom of courtesy when speaking anyone's name) sounds remarkably close to "Daniel son"?

Is Mr. Miyagi's back story any hint in his motivations? And what about Daniel (in one of the best teen performances of film), who comes to California with his mom - no father even mentioned? Yet the film hides these things so well that they would go unnoticed - and to me, that is why they are so powerful.

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