The power of Po the panda
The first thing I noticed on the escalator to the third floor of Wanda cinema in Beijing is a wall of half a dozen legendary movie titles above the entrance. Aawara shares space with Gone With The Wind.
I was probably the only Indian watching Kung Fu Panda 2 with a Chinese audience that evening, and the Aawara signboard was a welcome touch making up for the lack of any popcorn except caramel flavour.
I adore pandas but I am not a fan of animation and action movies. I went to watch this sequel out of curiosity to see why it had some Chinese wringing their hands and signing petitions against the ‘cultural invasion’ from America.
The anti-Po brigade includes the dean of the Beijing film academy’s animation school. “It’s like selling Cadillacs and Cherys at the same price. Of course people would rush to get the former,” dean Sun Lijun told the Global Times. “What if our children think pandas and the Monkey King all come from the West?” Sun told the tabloid that American animation films are made with millions of dollars so they should be regarded not as entertainment but a ‘powerful cultural invasion’.
Peking University professor Kong Qingdong said Po’s chatty charm is all-American. “Rushing to see a Hollywood movie with twisted Chinese culture is the behaviour of brainwashed morons whose money is being robbed,’’ Kong ranted to the Global Times. Speaking of money, the sequel made over 15 million dollars in just the first two days in China and continues to smash records unmindful of the anger of artist Zhao Bandi who published newspaper ads telling people not to watch the movie.
The movie surprised me. Its endearing appeal and smart script inspires chuckles even when the bumbling warrior panda is in serious trouble. The noodle and bean bun eating panda wryly comes of age in the superbly designed 92-minute sequel with a better storyline compared to the first movie. Po discovers, much to his shock, that his noodle and tofu restaurant running goose dad is not his dad.
While the real China is busy saving pandas from extinction, this animated panda (less cute than the real ones who spend a lifetime sleeping and eating) has a job to save China. Po and the Furious Five fight an evil white peacock who manufactures weapons of mass destruction from gunpowder, heads an army of mean but stupid wolves, and dresses in exquisite silk robes.
While tumbling off cliffs, agitatedly seeking ‘inner peace,’ and being poked with acupuncture needles, Kung Fu Panda yanks you into a dreamily beautiful mountainous Chinascape. I left the cinema hall wishing I could wander that very evening into the mountainous by-lanes sprinkled with sloping grey eaves. I couldn’t do that in skyscraper city, but at least I had tofu for dinner.
This creative blockbuster is no cultural invasion. It’s an entertaining cultural advertisement of the soft side of a rising power currently fighting the image of an arrogant, muscle-flexing dragon.
The Chinese critics should be grateful that Kung Fu Panda kick-started a new tech age for red movies. In Tianjin city, which is connected to the capital by a 30-minute bullet train, culture minister Cai Wu last month inaugurated a sprawling 690-million-dollar animation centre. The official promised that the animation industry would be developed as part of a five-year plan to promote Chinese culture. For starters, watch the legend of the kung fu rabbit this summer.