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."
Even an advisory body to China's parliament debated why China hadn't been first with such a big hit using Chinese themes. "The film's protagonist is China's national treasure and all the elements are Chinese, but why didn't we make such a film?" the president of the National Peking Opera Company, Wu Jiang, told the official New China News Agency last Saturday.
Wu was speaking at a meeting of the standing committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Committee, which in the end urged the government to relax its controls to further open China's cultural market.
"I cannot help wondering when China will be able to produce a movie of this caliber," award-winning film director Lu Chuan said in an essay in the state-run China Daily newspaper last week. Lu is known for his 2004 film "Mountain Patrol," about efforts to save the Tibetan antelope from extinction. He said he had been invited to make an animated film for the Olympics, but eventually quit because of too much government interference.
"I kept receiving directions and orders on how the movie should be like," Lu said in his essay. "The fun and joy from doing something interesting left us, together with our imagination and creativity."
In another state-run news article, CPPCC member and TV producer Chen Jianguo said China should pay more attention to "foreign psychology" and Western habits of television-watching to better understand and break into Western mainstream markets.
Chinese animated films tend to be more educational in nature and heavy with significance, but short on entertaining detail, "Kung Fu Panda" viewers say. Local directors would not have had the imagination to make Po's father a duck. Nor would they dare to portray a panda -- a cultural icon in China -- as lazy and fat as Po when "Kung Fu Panda" begins.
Foreigners who make cultural missteps are often accused of hurting the feelings of the Chinese people.
"If you asked a Chinese to make this movie, the panda needs to be lovable but in a perfect sense," said Sun Lijun, a professor of animation at the Beijing Movie Institute, in the July 10 issue of Oriental Outlook magazine. "In the end, he would be so perfect he would be unlovable."
News researcher Zhang Jie contributed to this report.