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Kung Fu Panda Kicks up Controversy in China

New America Media, News Report , Li Wen Yi Posted: Jul 08, 2008

Editor's Note: After breaking records at the box office in China the animated movie Kung Fu Panda has caused controversy, debate and introspection in the Chinese film community and beyond about the role of Western movies and the competence of Chinese animators. Li Wen Yi is a writer at New America Media.

SAN FRANCISCO -- DreamWorks Animation's cartoon comedy Kung Fu Panda made its premiere in China on June 20th, and its first day box office exceeded 10 million Yuan (1.4 million US Dollars). The film is expected to be the first cartoon to reach 100 million Yuan (around 14 million US Dollars) nationwide.

Along with breaking ticket records in China the movie has drawn protests calling for a ban of its release, making Kung Fu Panda a source of controversy.

Artist Zhao Bandi, whose works are mainly panda themed, was at the forefront of the movement against the release of the movie. He and other two men protested outside the offices of the State Administration of Radio Film and Television in Beijing last month and called for more supporters through their blog.

The blog listed their reasons for the petition: firstly, the movie is making money by taking advantage of Kung Fu and the panda -- both are Chinese national treasures and Chinese see it as a distortion of their culture. Secondly, the movie is made by DreamWorks, a studio founded by Steven Spielberg, who withdrew from his role as an adviser to the Beijing Olympics early this year over concerns about Chinas role in Sudan.

The protest was widely reported by media in China, and sparked a debate about how Chinese should react when their cultural elements are shown on the big screen and appreciated around the world.

This is the first time I feel a Hollywood movie is approachable, said Li Feng, walking out of a theatre after watch the movie, reported Chinese International Radio (CRI) I feel like the movie is a tribute to Chinese culture.

I can barely understand when our culture is valued by other countries, why we want to say no in the first place? We should be proud of ourselves, broaden our minds and stop those nationalists going extreme, said Sun Chong, in Sina.com.

If there is one thing all agree about the animated comedy, it is that its rooted deeply in the traditional Chinese culture. The movie is infused with traditional Chinese elements, from eating noodles and steamed bread to acupuncture and calligraphy; from music performed by Erhu -- bamboo flute -- to scenes inspired by landscapes in Yuan Nan and Wu Dang Mountain.

Its different from previous Hollywood Chinese movies like Mulan or Kung Fu King, which just touch the surface of Chinese culture, or only use Chinese as a symbol, said Loretta Chen, a Fu Dan university student. This time, however, they have done a lot of homework, and grasped the true value behind Chinese culture, for example, your mind is like this water, my friend, when it is agitated, it becomes difficult to see, but if you allow it to settle, the answer becomes clear, one of the lines in the movie which is actually the essence of Taoism.

Li Zhongqiu, vice permanent secretary of Chinese Animation Association does not agree with protestors claims. The reason why we Chinese are miles behind some developed western countries is that we always put traditional Chinese culture on the lips instead of focusing on exploiting its value with the times.

But the protest and petition did bring about some impact; the movies release postponement in Sichuan Province is a case in point. An 8.0-magnitude earthquake hit Sichuan Province, home of the endangered giant pandas this May and left thousands of people dead, millions of people homeless and a 9-year-old female giant panda killed. To appease the survivors of the quake region, the movie release has been postponed, according to the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television.

Filmmaker Lu Chuan however, offers a different picture. "The comedy is, as a matter of fact, a tremendous pleasant surprise to Sichuan people. In this calamitous season, the joy the movie brought about was truly precious."

The panda looks so cute and naive, I actually have been looking forward to watching the movie for a long time. The delay is a pity, said Ning Cai, a Chengdu citizen.

I find it hard to agree with the delay decision, said Liu Jin, a Cheng Du citizen. To some degree, the movie should be first released in Sichuan; the movie can pacify the disaster area children and help their psychological recovery. Besides, it can elevate our reputation because we are the home of pandas!

While people in Sichuan are still debating the release delay, another discussion was launched among Chinese animation cartoon makers: Why do Chinese fail to make cartoons as funny as Kung Fu Panda?

Shanghai Animation Film Studio for example, organized its workers to watch Kung Fu Panda, as a good example to learn from. In the face of a Hollywood Chinese movie being so popular in China, the studio manager Zheng Hu blames the weighty burden Chinese filmmakers have to bear. The word artist can be associated with pop stars, singers, actors in the West, but in China, however, it will naturally go with other heavy definitions, like responsibility, preaching.

When the Olympics are approaching, we are facing the same question, how to find the link between traditional Chinese culture and Western spirit, Zheng added.

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