Hollywood vs. China: the Panda has his day in court (updated)
Kung Fu Panda , which opened on 20 June, passed the 100-million-yuan (£7.4m) threshold in the box offices at Chinese cinemas this week, a major milestone for a Hollywood film that was always going to be controversial in the home of kung fu. By Wednesday, the amusing tale about an overweight panda-cum-noodle chef who aspires to be a kung fu master had taken in 110 million Chinese yuan (£8.1m).
Grown-ups interviewed after the screening said they felt the film was a sensitive and amusing depiction of a Chinese story. The children, once they stopped high-kicking and neck-chopping each other, said they thought the kung fu was really cool.
Lu Chuan, a leading Chinese director, said in his blog that Kung Fu Panda was a challenge to the Chinese film industry to make a film as good. "From a production standpoint, the movie is nearly perfect. Its American creators showed a very sincere attitude about Chinese culture," he wrote.
And opinions like those have ruffled some feathers - especially those of performance artist Zhao Bandi, who thinks that the movie is in bad taste, being disrespectful to the martial arts and to China's national symbol: the panda.
So much so, he's taking Dreamworks to court.
The Beijing court drama, which began this week, includes a call for a full apology from the Hollywood studio for its apparent slur on the panda. Mr Zhao, who carries a stuffed panda in public and whose art revolves around motifs of the animal, has expressed his outrage at the fact that Po's father is a duck in the film. This, he interprets as offensive characterization which amounts to an insult to the Chinese. Moreover, the panda's eyes are green, which, Zhao points out, represents an evil colour.
"Designing the panda with green eyes is a conspiracy," he said. "A panda with green eyes has the feeling of evil. I have studied oil painting, and we would never use green eyes to describe a kind-hearted figure. So I ask them to open their creative meeting records of this film and explain why the green eyes? Next, why is the panda's father is a duck? Many foreigners think the giant panda is not just China's symbol, but also the Chinese people's symbol. Drawing the father of the giant panda as a duck is an insult to the Chinese people. In a few years' time, I'm worried some young Chinese people will think their ancestor is Donald Duck."
Mr Zhao said he was not seeking financial remuneration and merely wanted an apology from the film-makers. He said Beijing Chaoyang District People's Court had accepted his lawsuit. In his blog, he said the court's decision to proceed with his case showed it could not be interpreted as a publicity stunt.
But is this just a case of sour-grapes - that Hollywood has beaten Zhao to the punch? Zhao's depictions of the panda can't always be considered 'tasteful.'
...Zhao Bandi, best known for carrying around a toy panda and using panda images in his work, including clothes designs for panda prostitutes and panda concubines, called for a boycott of the film. He said it was in poor taste and disrespectful to victims of the 12 May earthquake in which 90,000 died or are missing.
Because of Zhao's complaints, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, the state body which tightly controls the entertainment business, decided to delay the film's release in the Sichuan earthquake zone, fearing it might offend victims. This prompted a huge online backlash. "Ridiculous! It is a very good film. Why do they not think about the reasons that Chinese people cannot produce such a film?" wrote one blogger.
An editorial in the Shanghai Evening Post asked: "Why the boycott? What's with the postponement? Is it about Zhao's own fragility, or does he genuinely believe that the quake-hit victims are too sensitive? The panda is cute, the kung fu is Chinese, the story is hilarious, and the theme is inspiring! Is this not what the people in the disaster area need most right now?"
Sure enough, audiences in the quake zone loved the movie.
-- UPDATE --
It turns out that I was right about "sour grapes." This from The Times, Nov 2007:
Panda couture took China Fashion Week by storm with models sporting black and white negligées and fluffy ears, but censors failed to see its funny side. They were so incensed by the pictures, considered demeaning to an animal that has become a symbol, that any more uncomplimentary images will be banned under a draft law.
They were moved to act against the self-styled panda artist Zhao Bandi, whose trademark is a cap designed to resemble a panda cub and who is often photographed with scantily clad models in panda-ear head-dresses. His Bandi-Panda fashion show at China Fashion Week sparked nationwide concern that the panda’s image as a friendly symbol was being abused.
The fashion designer said it was most unexpected that his styles could be outlawed. “To me human beings are always more important than pandas. I have no intention of making fun of pandas. I am a fan of pandas. People deem giant pandas to be China’s state treasure. I am also a treasure for China, no less significant than the panda.”
So it's hubris that takes him to court...