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In 1984 Ronald Reagan was re-elected based on, so far as I can tell, two things: he was protecting us from the vicious Soviet armies abroad, and he was making us all rich back at home. That same year two different movies came forward to represent each of those 80s-era fears and desires. In Red Dawn, average high school kids took up arms for their country to fight off Soviet troops that, for some reason, were occupying a town in the middle of Colorado. In The Karate Kid, an average teenager landed himself in a suburb packed with upwardly mobile 80s types, and straddling the ever-widening gap between the middle and upper class, overcame it through martial arts.
At the time those movies didn't have much in common beyond a general appeal to young audiences, but 26 years later they're both back as remakes, and with an odd central connection: China. This Friday the new Karate Kid film transplants the action to Beijing, where young Dre (Hollywood progeny Jaden Smith) is trained in kung fu and woos a girl named Meiying, but basically all the other details stay the same. Beijing is depicted as a beautiful, modern, wholly accepting city, and a place where an American family would have no problem resettling. While the Red Dawn remake isn't due until later this year (or whenever MGM gets it together to release it), it was in the news earlier this week when Chinese newspapers criticized the fact that their country has replaced the USSR as the villain of choice. Two remakes, two different stories, two completely contradictory views of China.
What's interesting isn't that two Hollywood movies have different, somewhat incoherent political viewpoints-- that happens all the time. What's interesting is that these two films, apparently not on purpose, seem to crystallize the paradox of the current American attitude toward China. It's a country we simultaneously fear and marvel at, a country that processes our recyclables and makes our electronics, that puts on incredible spectacles like the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and that we know is capable of obliterating us entirely if we ever gave it a good reason. It would have been insane to set the original Karate Kid in the USSR as the Wolverines fought them off in Red Dawn, but the same reason China wooed the new Karate Kid is the same reason they're not quite our enemies now: we need China's money, and to get it we need to at least pretend they're our friends.
Following the money is how the new Karate Kid wound up in China to begin with-- the China Film Group agreed to help finance the picture, and in return the movie got to shoot at some fantastic locations with the government cooperating fully. It isn't just Hollywood heading to China with hands out though-- even as China cuts off military ties to the United States, our Treasury Secretary is asking Congress to help build our economic relationship with the country. The ever-shifting politics make China a whole different beast than the USSR was in the 80s, and for that reason most Americans-- including the audiences for both of these new movies-- haven't quite figured out how to feel about that massive country west of California.
In their original incarnations The Karate Kid and Red Dawn represented two very different kinds of fantasy, one about finding acceptance in a new home and the other about saving the world. The new versions presumably represent those same fantasies along with one more-- that the American relationship with China is simple and definable. The fact that they go in opposite directions only shows how far from the truth that is. We rely on Hollywood to help us filter and understand the world around us, but as our government and our businesses still struggle to balance the good and bad China has to offer us, the movies have fallen into the same trap. The Karate Kid and Red Dawn remakes, with their vastly different takes on what China represents for the U.S., have perfectly captured the average American attitude toward China. We have no idea what to believe, and for the moment, neither does Hollywood.