Monday, December 6, 2010

THE KARATE KID (2010) - Can a Kid "Get" any Respect?

All photographs and clip in this blog are Copyrighted by Columbia/Sony. They are used in this blog under the educational use provision. 

Directed by: Harald Zwart
Written by: Christopher Murphey (screenplay), Robert Mark Kamen (story)
Revisions (uncredited: Mike Rich, Mike Soccio, Will Smith)

CAST

DRE PARKER (Jaden Smith)
MR. HAN (Jackie Chan)
SHERRY PARKER (Taraji P. Henson)
MEI YING (Wenwen Han)
MASTER LI (Rongguang Yu)
CHENG (Zhenwei Wang)

Training a top the Great Wall of China.
STORY LINE (Columbia Pictures)

12-year-old Dre Parker could've been the most popular kid in Detroit, but his mother's latest career move has landed him in China. Dre immediately falls for his classmate Mei Ying - and the feeling is mutual - but cultural differences make such a friendship impossible. Even worse, Dre's feelings make an enemy of the class bully, Cheng. In the land of kung fu, Dre knows only a little karate, and Cheng puts "the karate kid" on the floor with ease. With no friends in a strange land, Dre has nowhere to turn but maintenance man Mr. Han, who is secretly a master of kung fu. As Han teaches Dre that kung fu is not about punches and parries, but maturity and calm, Dre realizes that facing down the bullies will be the fight of his life.

BOX OFFICE

As the subtitle of The Moral Premise expresses, (Harnessing Virtue and Vice for Box Office Success) a movie's financial success is tied directly to a consistent application of a true moral premise, which gives the character's purposeful motivation in all the
through-lines of the story, and the actors clear objectives to play. (Can you tell I've have been reading Judith Weston's DIRECTING ACTORS)  Giving actors something to "play" in an "objective" sense is exactly what The Moral Premise is all about, and Jaden seems to do this naturally.


KARATE KID (2010) was more than a hit. With a budget of $35M, it did $177M domestically, and $343M worldwide. A sequel is in development.

Will and Jada Smith, from my perspective, were the driving force behind the script's development. Mom and Dad were with Jaden every step of the process. The credits of the movie feature a number of stills of Will and Jada with Jaden during production that are best described as "family album" not marketing images. What is most impressive with this movie is Jaden's outstanding performance. The choices he made (objectives to play) allow us to easily identify with Dre's character. He is always believable -- from his very personal and at times quiet relationship with Mr. Han to the excruciating pain in the ring. I marveled. This young man proved himself every bit talented and hard working actor.

Dre reacts to the antagonist's Final Incident
Jerry Weintraub, the producer of the first four Karate Kid pictures, was also on board for this movie.

BACKGROUND

In August 2008 I was asked by Overbrook Entertainment (Will and Jada Smith) to analyze two scripts. One was titled KARATE KID V.  Over the next year I was involved in several meetings with Will, Jada, Mike Soccio, and others, read several versions of the script and then wrote several reports that dealt mostly with the moral premise arcs, metaphors, and turning points.

In my workshops, classes and writings I explain that the Moral Premise Statement -- or the Moral-Physical Premise Statement (MPPS), as I've been lately trying to call the device -- will in all likelihood change over the course of the story and script's development. Like the log and tag lines, the more a story matures, the better the writers and other team members understand what it is really about.

With that iterative process in mind, I think it will be instructive to look at how the MPPS for KARATE KID (2010) changed over time, or didn't change depending on your perspective. Then we'll take a look at how the moral premise that finally resides in the film is articulated by two for the various arcs in the protagonist's story.

In the fall of 2008, after reading a July 24 draft of the script it was clear that "disrespect" and "respect" were major moral values in the story – the terms found on the left side of the MPPS. Related to disrespect, of course, is arrogance, and similarly respect is related to humility. On the consequence (or right) side of the MPPS there was animosity vs friendship and conflict vs. cooperation. At the time I articulated a number of ways the moral premise of the movie could be stated. Here's the short version:

Prejudice leads to animosity;
But acceptance leads to friendship.

Here's a longer version that helped focus the arcs:

Arrogance and an unwillingness to learn form others unlike us
leads to isolation, conflict and animosity; but
Humility and a willingness to learn from others unlike us
leads to community, cooperation, and friendship.

Playing hookie has its consequences.

In that July 24, 2008 script the Moment of Grace seemed to be when Dre and his mother go to Mr. Han's and find him on the bottle. But Dre making a notable moral realization of his own arc in that scene was not fully realized.

What was beginning to be evident, however, was a character rounding for Dre that gave him goals on several levels, thus making him more real, and thus deepening the character's connection with the multiple interests of those in the audience.

There was concern among the producers that this new KK story carry a similar tone to the original. The producers knew that even if the new movie followed the physical beat-for-beat of the original, there was no guarantee it would emotionally connect.

In January 2009 I wrote a short report comparing the emotional tone of the original 1984 KK with the current script. While the both movies follow similar plot lines, there were differences, and I hoped the producers would allow Jaden's movie to become its own. At the time I remarked on how significant the China setting was compared to a California beach. The beauty that is China, physically and culturally, gave immense visual and spiritual depth to the story. To the audience it was subliminal, but very important I argued. Hollywood is always reminding us that movies are supposed to be "emotional" events. What they sometimes fail to recognize is that the essence of what makes a movie "emotional" is the moral and spiritual subtext of the story – the moral premise.

What was clear in looking at the 1984 version was how "disrespect" v. "respect" played a significant role along with the values of "disloyalty" v. "loyalty," and "intolerance" v. "tolerance."

When the team was in China filming I was asked to look at the current shooting script and give any insight that I might have regarding the current version as it was being revised on the set.

Interestingly, what I got out of the shooting script was sent was a subtle shift toward "rejecting opportunity" v. "finding opportunity"; or being "undisciplined" v. "disciplined." In breaking those values down I saw more clearly, then, the various goals and subtext that Dre had developed. In the shooting script Dre's character had matured and now, as with other successful leading character roles over cinema's history, Dre had multiple lives. Three were obvious:

1. Dre's FAMILY life center around his mom, showing disrespect and then respect. We also see the arc from fighting preparedness to working hard toward what will come. There was an arc across the Moment of Grace, from disrespect (throwing his jacket on the floor) and respect (picking up his jacket), and other less explicit behaviors and attitudes toward his mother.

2. Dre's ROMANTIC life, or cultural life centers around Mei Ying, her parents, the "evil" dojo, and what Dre learns from Mr. Han about China, including Chinese, something he did not care to learn before his moment of grace.

3. Dre's PROFESSIONAL life, or learning Kung Fu. The Kung Fu story repeatedly crosses the family story with the jacket routine. What he needs to learn with his mother (showing respect by picking up his jacket) is used by Mr. Han to teach Dre respect toward Kung Fu. 

Dre with his mother, Sherry, in tow, crosses the threshold in his pursuit of Kung Fu.
Although the shooting script changed during the stay in China, I believe the essence of the moral premise stayed constant. Here is what I came away with after reading the July 2009 version:

The undisciplined, unprepared life
leads to a missed opportunity and failure; but
The disciplined, prepared life
leads to a gained opportunity and success.

And the short version:

Rejecting opportunity in a crisis leads to defeat; but
Finding opportunity in a crisis leads to victory.

A MOVIE IS MADE THREE TIMES

Once when writing the script. Twice, when shooting the footage. Third, when editing the film.

That seems evident in KARATE KID 2010. When the movie came out, it seemed to have all the spurious good elements that I had read in the earlier versions of the script, but now it was more consistent, focused, and clearly about one thing. And that one thing, while similar to the 2008 script version and the shooting version, was still different in the edited movie version.

Here's what I perceive the movie, in its finished form, to be really about.

Disrespect for what we don’t know

leads to getting knocked down; but

Respect for what we need to learn 

leads to getting back up.

This is not too different from the MPPS I came up with for FINDING FORRESTER, the blog post of which is interestingly the most popular on this blog...as of this writing. There the MPPS statement is:

Ignorance and avoidance of the unknown

leads to fear, isolation, and despair; but

Knowledge and embrace of the unknown

leads to faith, friendship, and hope.

ONE MPPS FOR ALL CHARACTERS

In successful movies, like KK 2010, a true moral premise (above) is consistently applied to the arcs of all the major characters. Let's take a look at a few. This is an important reason the movie was such a success.

Dre disrespects China and the Chinese until his co-muses (Mei Ying and Cheng) give him reason to learn a few things. When Dre is disrespectful of Chinese culture he is defeated and knocked down both in his romantic and martial arts pursuits. But when he leans something about these things he becomes respectful, and that leads to his success and "getting back up."

Mr. Han also has some things to learn. But before he does we find him depressed (knocked down) much the same way his sirocco is beat down. When he learns to respect what he teaches to Dre ("Kung Fu, is everything we do."), he stick dances in the shadows at Dre's insistence. An inspired and exhilarating scene that is full of meaning. That is, Mr.  Han gets back up. We are left with the sense that the sirocco will once again be repaired to perfection and never again take a beating (or be knocked down). Yes, the sirocco is a character with an arc that metaphors Mr. Han's arc.

Mr. Han leans from his student the meaning of self-respect.

Mei Ying's arc is less than Dre's and Mr. Han's but when she disrespects her parent's wishes she too gets knocked down. She apologizes to her father (off camera) and explains to him that she respects Dre and that she promised to attend Dre's tournament. That respect, to learn from her mistakes resonates with her Father, who has learned from his, too, if his status as a businessman is anything to be recognized in his arc. He then accepts Dre's apology and allows Mei Ying to get "back up."

The antagonist in a movie always seem to get the "upper" hand over the protagonist at the onset; and Cheng and his bully friends do that to Dre. But it is not long before they get knocked down a peg or two when Mr. Han appears on the scene. Their disrespect of Dre (and Mei Ying) also creates some embarrassment (knocked down) in front of Master Li. It is not until they admit that Dre has learned a great deal and thus respects some of the things in their culture that they hold valuable (e.g. Kung Fu), that they bow to Dre and Mr. Han. Ironically, their physical "low bow" is psychologically "getting back up."

A STRONG PROTAGONIST HAS A MULTI-FACETED LIFE

As I mentioned earlier, and explain extensively in the book, a well-rounded protagonist has multiple goals that test the moral premise's truth in different ways. Each goal has its own story thread, and its own major turning points. To illustrate that let's examine Dre's (1) Kung Fu thread and his opposing (2) Romantic story thread. Notice how the threads are combined and organized with respect to each other. The chart at the end of this blog shows how the romantic thread moves earlier in the overall story to get all its beats in, leaving the majority of Act 3 for the more visual and visceral Kung Fu thread. In addition to these two threads there is also a thread about Dre's (3) family (e.g. his relationship with his mother) and his relationship with his (4) schooling (e.g. with Mr. Han), which is different than his relationship with Kung Fu per se.

Because the columns in this blog are narrow, I'll do each turning point antiphonally. (In the workshop it's easier to put the slides and discussion side-by-side.)

INCITING INCIDENT (Ideally 12.5% / 16.7 minutes -- these minutes are based on the story length of Karate Kid 2010. Be sure to compare these ideal times with those of the dynamics of the story found in the caption to each picture.)

The Inciting Incident is the moment when our protagonist matures in his realization that there is something he may want. From here to the climax of Act 1, however, our protagonist shies away from passionately going after the goal. Nonetheless, this is where the drama begins.


Dre's Romantic Goal – Acquire Mei Ying's Friendship – begins at 16 minutes in the park when he starts to dance for her. Of course Dre's dance is not unlike the forms he'll learn in Kung Fu. (Sidenote: I live just outside Detroit, MI where the losing Detroit Lions make their home. Here at the beginning to the film, I can't help but notice that the presence of the Detroit Lion logo indicates that our Detroit hero is about ready to get trounced – i.e. knocked down.)
Dre's Krung Fu Goal – Learn Kung Fu – begins at 17 minutes, when Cheng shows up to beat Dre to a pulp and demonstrate that Dre does not yet have the respect he needs to be a fighter.

ACT 1-2 BREAK (CROSSING THE THRESHOLD) – (Ideally 25% / 33.4m)

We know our protagonist has decided to pursue the goal (go on the journey) when he crosses a threshold in pursuit. Of course the "real threshold" is in his mind. We can't see that, so filmmakers must create a metaphor in the visual realm of the screen. KK 2010 does this with charm, pushing Dre into the Special World, two places he's never been.

Dre's Romantic Goal – Acquire Mei Ying's Friendship – THRESHOLD occurs at 30 minutes when Dre not only enters the auditorium where Mei Ying rehearses, but takes the stage with her. Staying behind or in the audience might represent unrequited love, but jumping up on stage and hamming it up is clear evidence of pursuit, and now the stakes are raised. He has an "audience."

Dre's Kung Fu Goal – Learn Kung Fu – begins around 33 minutes. There were many good images for this one. The look on his face just after he and his mom pass through the gates (see image earlier in this blog) is priceless. But this is what they see. You want Kung Fu? You got it. Of course the more dangerous threshold is when he peeks into Master Li's dojo a moment later. He'll need Mr. Han at his side to actually go inside. But, one way or another, Dre is in pursuit of the goal. And notice the allusion to his audience. It's not just one person (like Mei Ying), now there are hundreds that will be watching. The differences between the two images (empty seats v. a crowd) implies that the romantic goal is a private, inner, journey that is not so public. But the Kung Fu goal is for the world to see. Higher stakes.

MOMENT OF GRACE (MID POINT) – (Ideally 50% / 67m)

Dre's Romantic Goal – Acquire Mei Ying's Friendship – takes the major psychological turn from 67-69 minutes, when Dre begins to deal with the issues of real friendship and the commitment it requires. In the shadow box theater sequence (as Mr. Han and his mother Sherry watch from the audience) Mei Ying and Dre make a commitment to each other. For the kids in the audience they first "pinky swear" (and I swear I never heard of this before this script). Then, for the older folks in the audience they kiss. I objected to the kiss between kids this old in the script, but the way it was executed was sweet, tender and I though it was beautifully innocent...making a strong point about relationships — that relationships are not just psychological but that they extend into the physical realm as well. It is here that Dre makes that commitment that this friendship is to be pursued with respect and a humble heart toward learning Chinese culture. It is here that he begins (off camera) to start learning Chinese, which later plays a critical role in his romance arc.


Dre's Kung Fu Goal – Learn Kung Fu – takes place in a wonderfully directed and edited sequence at 71-74 minutes, immediately after the above scene with Mei Ying. It begins with an ironic mention of the vice side of the moral premise statement. Dre says to Mr. Han that he "gets the respect stuff" and has put his jacket "on and off a thousand times." But Dre's attitude is completely disrespectful, as he throws his jacket down into the dust with disgust. Mr. Han stops sipping his water. It's time for Dre to be transformed from a disrespectful young man, to one of respectful awe. The pacing of this scene is worth an hour's analysis in any editing class. It's masterfully put together as Dre transforms before our eyes.  I have attached a clip of this scene just below. Notice how perfectly this scene is placed in the story's timeline. Notice carefully the words that this scene ends with: "Everything we do is Kung Fu" – i.e. "respect". In other words Kung Fu in this movie is about the virtue of "respect" of everything in life.  The Wikipedia article on kung fu says this:
In Chinese, kung fu can also be used in contexts completely unrelated to martial arts, and refers colloquially to any individual accomplishment or skill cultivated through long and hard work.
As my preacher friend Deacon Alex Jones would say, "Touch the person next to you and say, 'Kung Fu is a metaphor!'"

Click here for


ACT 2-3 BREAK (ALL IS LOST, NEAR DEATH) – (Ideally 75% - 100m)


Dre's Romantic Goal – Acquire Mei Ying's Friendship – dies at 95 minutes. After her recital she is forced by her parents (standing behind her) to tell Dre that he is bad for her and that they can no longer be friends. And she leaves, escorted by her parents. This is the climax of Act 2, which is supposed to be the result of the protagonist's moral decision to attack even more vigorously his goal. And it is. This defeat is the direct result of Dre pushing Mei Ying out the door of her school so they can play hooky, or so it seems. As a result they are on top of a nearby mountain overlook when her father calls and says her competitive recital time was moved up and because she isn't where she's suppose to be (at Dre's insistence) she'll be late. Her parents pick her up in a car (her phone must have a GPS inside it) and she does arrive at the hall late, much to the judges' displeasure. So, this defeat is the consequence of Dre's disrespect, which, being imperfect, he still has not learned fully as he should.


Dre's Kung Fu Goal – Learn Kung Fu – takes a step toward death at 96-100 minutes, immediately after the above sequence. Here Dre finds Mr. Han bashing in the recently restored Sirocco. As Dre learns what is going on, Mr. Han indicates the glove box and Dre takes out the picture of Mr. Han's wife and son that Mr. Han was responsible for killing in a car accident. Mr. Han relives his family's death, and it appears that Mr. Han will not have the spirit or life in him to keep training Dre for the tournament. Notice also that both of the images of these turning points (romantic and Kung Fu) are Dre's POV, and they are of people his age starring back at him. One, Mei Ying might as well be dead, and the other, Mr. Han's son, whom Dre is standing in for, is dead. And, if that's not enough, the young man and the lady in the picture Dre holds in his hand reminds us of Sherry and Dre. All does appear to be lost in these two story threads.

FINAL INCIDENT (Instigated by the antagonist) – Ideally 87.5% - 117m)

Dre's Romantic Goal – Acquire Mei Ying's Friendship – takes a hit at 104 minutes as Mei Ying ignores Dre in school when she could have very easily said, "Hello." She is breaking his heart – like Cheng will attempt to break his leg in the scene below. Two notes here: (1) This is a passive attack, but it is true to the dynamic of the story. You can't have Mei Ying become a villain and do something ugly to Dre. The bad stuff has already been done by her parents' decision that, "You can't be his friend." (2) Notice also that these turning points in Dre's Romantic story are moved earlier, to allow space for the more dramatic and visceral Kung Fu story. You'll see how these latter turning points for Mei Ying dove tail in the graphic at the end of this post.


Dre's Kung Fu Goal – Learn Kung Fu – takes a turn instigated by the antagonist at 119 minutes when Master Li tells Cheng, "I want him broken." Notice that the timing of this incident is close to the ideal. Cheng does a pretty good job of Li's instructions, sending Dre to the locker room unable to continue the match. Cheng may have received a warning from the referee, but he'll win by default.

ACT 3 CLIMAX (Ideally 98% - 132m)

Dre's Romantic Goal – Acquire Mei Ying's Friendship – finds its climax at 109m, early into Act 3. Mr. Han hides in the shadows ready to coach Dre's apology in Chinese to Mei Ying's father. The scene looks similar to Cyrano de Bergerac coaching Christian reading Cyrano's love poem to Roxane. Dre has learned a great deal about Chinese culture and the importance of families. The respect is evident by his ability and desire to speak his words in Chinese, although he is reading what Mr. Han has written and taught him to say. As soon as he's done, his humility and effort is rewarded. Mei Ying's father promises that their family respects their promises, and that Mei Ying had promised to attend Dre's tournament, so their family will come and cheer for Dre. Success! Friendship won, and with a father's blessing. Priceless.

Dre's Kung Fu Goal – Learn Kung Fu – finds its climax at 132 minutes. Right on time. After Cheng injures Dre and Cheng is about to take the trophy by default, Dre comes limping back to the ring, puts everything he's learned into practice and falls Cheng for a decisive victory.  In order for this physical climax to rule the structure, the romantic story climaxed a full 23 minutes earlier. I can't help but notice that Dre's shirt in the romantic climax is the same shade of blue as that of flag the referee holds in his left hand.

DÉNOUEMENT (Ideally 99% - 133m)

Dre's Romantic Goal – Acquire Mei Ying's Friendship – finds its Dénouement at 115 minutes with this shot of Mei Ying and her family sitting next to Sherry and Dre's friend during the tournament. It's the first visual indication that Mei Ying and her family respect their promises, and that Mei Ying's friendship into the future is assured.

Dre's Kung Fu Goal – Learn Kung Fu – finds its Dénouement peak at 133 minutes when Cheng hands Dre the championship trophy.

This is followed with the deep respect paid by Master Li's class to Mr. Han.

THE TURNING POINT STRUCTURE

This final graphic shows the ideal location of story turning points as the dots or half-dots on the story's timeline. From left to right the half-dots and full dots on the timeline respect: INCITING INCIDENT, ACT 1-2 BREAK, MOMENT OF GRACE, ACT 2-3 BREAK, FINAL INCIDENT, ACT 3 CLIMAX, and DÉNOUEMENT. The top arrows (pointing down) relate to Dre's Romantic storyline. The bottom arrows (pointing up) relate to Dre's Kung Fu storyline. Notice how each story has all the major turning points, but how the romantic story was moved earlier in Act 3 to allow for the visual-visceral action of the Kung Fu story to dominate the movie's ending. Notice too how the romantic MOG took place at the true mid-point, allowing it to occur a tad earlier than the Kung Fu mid point. This paced-out the romantic story over a longer period of time than had the Kung Fu MOG been placed earlier. The Kung Fu MOG could move latter because the latter Kung Fu turning points were matched ideally with a story's classic structure. But the rule here is NOT to hit these "ideal" turning points, but to let the story's dynamic nature determine what is truly ideal.

CONCLUSION

The purpose of this long blog was to illustrate visually how the moral premise of a properly structure movie does the following:
a. Keeps the movie about one thing
b. Paces the action and turning points to keep the audience interested.
b. Affects and effects the various story lines of the various characters
c. Allow a protagonist to be well-rounded by having various story threads with different goals but the same MPPS.
d. Gives each turning point meaning to the whole story.

Your comments are appreciated.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In the Mainland Chinese cut, they shorten the scenes of the bullying so it looks more like Dre is getting his troubles because of his inability to adjust.

In the original cut of the film it's clear that he's having problems because of the viciousness of the bullies, like in the original 1980s film set in California