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Success of 'Kung Fu Panda' touches a cultural nerve in China |
By Richard Bernstein
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
BEIJING: You wouldn't think, with all the things on the collective Chinese mind these days - Tibet, the Sichuan earthquake, and especially the looming Olympics - that an American animated film about a panda would generate any pained discussion.
But you would be mistaken, as the evidence of the commentary about "Kung Fu Panda," Dreamworks' blockbuster cartoon feature about an overweight bear named Po who saves the world, would amply demonstrate.
A few weeks ago, when the movie opened in China, there was already a call for a boycott - on the grounds that foreigners had lifted one of China's most precious symbols, the panda, and were using it for their own profit.
The boycott, as David Barboza of The New York Times reported, never got off the ground, and "Kung Fu Panda" was an immediate box office hit. In the last few weeks the movie has provoked a deeper discussion, even a degree of soul-searching and critical self-examination of the sort that China, a country of an amazing mix of ambition, self-confidence and insecurity, goes through from time to time.
The main question being asked is: how could Western filmmakers have used Chinese themes to create such a brilliant animated movie with such widespread appeal to the Chinese themselves?
Why, in other words, doesn't China itself doesn't seem to be able to use its rich traditions to such brilliant cinematic and commercial effect?
"Besides borrowing a number of sequences from classic kung fu movies in China, the animated comedy grasped the essence of our culture," Lu Chuan, a young Chinese movie director wrote in a much noted commentary in China Daily.
"As a movie director, I cannot help wondering when China will be able to produce a movie of this caliber," Lu said.
Or, as Wu Jiang, president of the China National Peking Opera Company, said, according to Reuters: "The film's protagonist is China's national treasure and all the elements are Chinese, but why didn't we make such a film?"
Certainly the movie's themes do evoke some important Chinese elements, and not all of them as obvious as the panda. Overriding the whole story of Po and his triumph over his own bungling nature is a recognizably Buddhist sensibility, embodied by the Shaolin Monastery-like setting where spiritual enlightenment is fused with the mental discipline and mastery over the self that are prerequisites to enlightenment.
Perhaps in bemoaning their failure to be the ones to exploit these themes, the Chinese are being a bit hard on themselves. The truth is that "Kung Fu Panda's" success is taking place within a context of a considerable cultural flourishing that seems to have used China's traditions and history to tremendous effect, in movies by directors like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, and by the terrific explosion of contemporary Chinese painting.
In a way, "Kung Fu Panda" is only the latest illustration of a centuries-old tradition whereby Western artists have used China and other Asian countries to produce enduring works of art. You only have to think about Gilbert and Sullivan's "Mikado," or Puccini's "Turandot," or, for that matter, the animated feature "Mulan" of a few years ago to recall the strength and age of this tradition.
Indeed, all of these works illustrate a sort of ongoing historical imbalance in cultural cross-fertilization. The West's use of China as a cultural and artistic setting is unmatched by any Chinese use of Europe or America as backdrops for its own cultural productions.
That is connected to another element in the picture, which is simply that American animators, from Walt Disney on, have been developing animation as a cinematic form, even as China, in this particular area of the arts, has not developed that much.
"When we look back at it, we see that most of the animations we've made has been junk," Jiang Bo, the dean of the school of art at the Shanghai Film College, said. This is the case despite the fact that a very large number of Chinese film students actually do study animation.
But what might be most interesting in this matter are some yearnings provoked by "Kung Fu Panda" that transcend the call to boycott the film, which was largely the initiative of just one person, an artist, Zhao Bandi. Indeed, Zhao's boycott call seems to have drawn at least as much derogatory comment as support.
As Hong Tao of Beijing People's University put it, "To criticize Hollywood for stealing Chinese cultural resources is a shallow nationalism."
There are even a few signs that a different lesson is being drawn from the film's success, a lesson that goes to the heart of China's cultural situation, namely that a movie like "Kung Fu Panda" could only have been produced in an atmosphere of cultural and artistic freedom that China doesn't enjoy. Or at least a few comments along those lines have leaked through the country's carefully monitored and censored Internet sites.
"China has first-class directors, first-class playwrights, first-class actors, but it's a shame that we have censorship by government officials," one anonymous blogger wrote. "If they don't like your work, then there's no way."
Lu, the commentator in China Daily, had a telling story in this regard, about a project he undertook to produce an animation for the Olympic Games. "I kept on receiving directions and orders from related parties on what the movie should be like," he recalled. "We were given very specific rules on how to promote it.
"Under such pressure, my coworkers and I really felt stifled," he continued, and, in the end, "the planned animation was never produced."