The Panda as Provocateur

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From my colleague Wu Nan, some thoughts on the release of the film “Kung Fu Panda” in China:

Before the American movie “Kung Fu Panda” debuted in China, it seemed destined to set off controversy that foreign filmmakers were appropriating Chinese tradition for profit. Performance artist Zhao Bandi, who uses pandas in his own work, led the protest against the DreamWorks Animation film. He called for the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) to ban it for “uglifying the image of the panda … and harming Chinese’s feelings.”

His action seems to have not lessened interest on the film. Tickets of the movie have been sold out for weeks in Beijing film theaters. In the first 10 days of its mainland release the movie made $14 million. But the biggest debate was not over the popularity of the animated feature, but why Chinese couldn’t do it themselves. Film director Liu Bingjian says the film is “wonderful” and “I can’t help watching it twice.” Liu says he learned from this work, which handles the Chinese culture elements well and presents them in a global way. He explains the film includes classic humor, splendid martial arts, compelling story-telling and high tech animation.

Liu, like many others, wonders why if Hollywood can turn Chinese culture into a masterpiece, Chinese artists couldn’t do the same. Part of the problem is censorship, he says.

Any film made in China has to have its script first vetted by SARFT, which blocks works that delve too deeply into topics of sex, violence, horror, religion or politics. Liu’s 2002 film “Cry Woman” won international film prizes in South Korea, Switzerland and France, but the film has been banned in China simply because it didn’t meet SARFT’s approval. Liu, who had been planning an animated work himself but dropped it after seeing “Kung Fu Panda,” says that filmmakers can become so involved with satisfying the censors demands that they forget about appealing to moviegoers. “The biggest challenge for Chinese film directors is to pass SARFT’s regulations and make creative and fresh films,” says Liu. “Often, we stuck in the middle of searching for a topic that satisfies everyone.”

Censorship isn’t the only concern. “Kung Fu Panda” had a budget of more than $130 million. The priciest Chinese animation feature, “Lotus Lantern,” cost $2.6 million to make.