“We make sacred pact. I promise teach karate to you, you promise learn. I say, you do, no questions.” And so begins the martial arts initiation of Daniel-san (Ralph Macchio) in The Karate Kid (1984). His mentor Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) may have issues with English, an unorthodox approach with the unforgettable “wax on, wax off” mantra and an equally unconventional teaching of technique via housepainting, but this Asian sage has become a kind of prototype for the martial arts instructors in mainstream movies equally unconcerned with authenticity. Broken English. Weird metaphors. These attributes know no geographical bounds.
Think of Chiun in Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (1985). This martial arts master (played by a decidedly un-Asian Joel Grey) teaches the fictional art of Sinanju (“Karate, Kung Fu, Ninjutsu — they are but shadows.”). He’s even quirkier than Miyagi; he loves soap operas and hurling absurd insults (“You move like a pregnant yak”). But he shares his predecessor’s predilection for dispensing Confuscius-like words of wisdom: “Fear is just a feeling. You feel hot. You feel hungry. You feel angry. You feel afraid. Fear can never kill you.”
Even further afield is the parallel universe occuped by Liam Neeson’s Ra’s Al Ghul in Batman Begins (2005). This first meets Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) in Bhutan, putting the mentor in Asia — even if he’s not Asian himself. It helps that Ducard sports a goatee and trains Wayne in ninjutsu. He makes sweeping pronouncements too. At one point, he kicks Wayne and says, “Death does not wait for you to be ready! Death is not considerate, or fair! And make no mistake: Here, you face Death.”
Yoda is neither human nor Asian. He’s an otherworldly Jedi Master using a distinct phraseology (Galactic Basic) to instruct his charge in The Empire Strikes Back (1980). He is skeptical that the “reckless” Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) can be trained into a Jedi Knight. But once the training begins, the lessons are challenging — telekinetically lifting rocks and such — and sometimes appear more philosophical than practical. When Luke doubts he can levitate his X-Wing Fighter out of a bog but says he’ll try, Yoda imparts one of his most famous pieces of wisdom: “No. Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try.” That kind of talk has become universal for the sage.