'Kung Fu Panda' Hits A Sore Spot in China

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 12, 2008

BEIJING -- The blockbuster success of an American animated movie that's set in ancient China, highlights Chinese culture, mythology and architecture and stars a kung fu fighting panda has filmmakers and ordinary Chinese wondering: Why wasn't this hit made . . . in China?

"Kung Fu Panda" follows a slacker panda named Po, who works in his father's noodle shop and eventually fulfills his dream of becoming a kung fu fighter, and features the voices of Hollywood stars Jack Black and Angelina Jolie. So far it's taken in $350 million at theaters worldwide.

Many here blame a lack of imagination that comes as a result of tight government controls over the film industry and hypersensitivity over how China is portrayed to the outside world. With a month to go before Beijing invites the world's attention by hosting the Olympic Games Aug. 8 to 24, the conversation is a timely reflection on whether China can view itself as the rest of the world sees it.

"It's very ordinary stuff for us, the story of 'Kung Fu Panda.' It appears in every classic story," says Huang Rui Lian, a sports marketing manager who joined the throngs of Chinese who saw the film over the weekend. Huang says she enjoyed the film but was trying to explain why Chinese directors might not see the subject matter as unusual enough to merit such feature-length treatment nor such a box-office reception.

"Chinese are giving up the traditional culture left to us by our ancestors, that's why no one cares about what we have," says Wang Huamin, 26, a money manager. "Directors don't cherish the culture, and audiences want to watch Western things, so people don't think there's a big market for films about Chinese culture. Our education system only focuses on students' ideology instead of encouraging them to be creative. If we only watch ourselves from our position, we can't get the whole picture."

Wang says he did not regret that Americans had come up with "Kung Fu Panda" first. "Why shouldn't we allow foreigners to make these kinds of movies? Sooner or later, Chinese people will realize that the best things we have are the things we already have."

Viewers here have praised Hollywood's ability to nail the cultural elements of the film so accurately, from the martial arts scenes to its depiction of family expectations and how the ancients were believed to pass into the afterlife. While the humor is distinctly American, the matching Chinese subtitles are sharp and witty.

"I was looking for flaws, but it was very authentic," Huang says. "Kung Fu Panda's" filmmakers consulted experts on Chinese culture to shape the content and look of the film, according to DreamWorks Animation.

"Kung Fu Panda" has earned $19.29 million in China between its June 21 opening and July 6, making it a box-office smash by Chinese standards.

Some viewers have said the only reason China hasn't come out with something similar is a lack of money ("Kung Fu Panda" cost more than $130 million to make; Chinese-produced films tend to cost less than $1.5 million) or animation-technology know-how.

But many are leaving comments on online bulletin boards, such as this remark by an anonymous user on QQ.com, a popular online community: "If people are educated only to pass exams, then it's very hard to be imaginative. Nowadays, this is an era when people are only stymied by a lack of imagination, not a lack of ability."

Wu Kaidi, a college student who saw the film last weekend, says many Chinese are so busy worshiping Western trends that they overlook their own culture. "Spectators always see a chess game better than the players," Wu says. "So as Chinese, we can't always catch the characteristics of China. I agree that Chinese people should try to observe themselves from outside in order to get the essence of our culture."

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