Friday, January 2, 2009

"Kung Fu Panda" apes "Circle of Iron"

If you saw "Circle of Iron," the martial arts movie based on a story by Bruce Lee, you got to watch David Carradine walk all over Lee's vision. It's the kind of story that would have been fantastic had it been handed to better actors and a better director. The movie has only two great moments: first is the nose-breaking scene, in which Carradine's blind sage wordlessly smashes the face of a handsome, tyrannical teen. The sage's protégé, a warrior named Cord, is shocked and asks his mentor why he has done this. The sage replies that the boy's previous comeliness fed his arrogance; disfigurement will teach him humility. The second great moment comes at the end of the film, when Cord is finally allowed to see the codex that is supposed to bring him enlightenment after all the hardship he has gone through. He opens the book... and what do you think he sees?

The conclusion of "Circle of Iron" is quite Asian, and a student of Asian culture and religion can probably guess what's inside the book (full disclosure: I saw this movie long before I began any serious study of Asian religion, and at the time had no idea what would be inside the book). The same answer lies inside the so-called Dragon Scroll in the movie "Kung Fu Panda." If you haven't guessed by now, the answer is: nothing.

Well, that's not exactly right. At the conclusion of "Circle of Iron," Cord opens the book and is confronted with a series of mirrors-- objects with deep and varied symbolic significance in Asian thinking. When Po the Panda unrolls the Dragon Scroll, his first impression is that nothing is there, but what the filmmakers wordlessly show us is that something is there: Po's reflection in the scroll's golden surface.

In Zen, the mirror represents suchness: a mind like a mirror merely reflects what is around it; when objects pass away from a mirror's scope, the mirror doesn't retain them. The mind should be like that mirror, not attaching to things, only reflecting what is. But more generally in Asian thinking, the reflection we see when we look into a mirror throws us back onto ourselves, so in a sense, the mirror's message is about coming full circle. Po the Panda goes through a hellish crash course, and in the end, he unrolls the scroll and discovers that the wisdom and skill he needed were already inside him. This nondiscursive message works well on the screen. Unfortunately, the dialogue in "Kung Fu Panda" doesn't reflect the Asian teaching as well as it could have.

Toward the end of the movie, Po leaves the warrior temple with the Furious Five, kung fu masters who initially resented Po's presence among them, but who have grown to like and even respect him. Their task is to evacuate the Valley of Peace before the evil Tai Lung arrives; Master Shifu* is to face Tai Lung-- his former student-- alone. Once back down in the valley, Po encounters his father, a chef who reveals that the secret ingredient of his Secret Ingredient Soup is... nothing. We're not asked to contemplate the morality of false advertising; instead, we hear this bit of "wisdom" from Po's father: "To make something special, you just have to believe it's special." Po has a flash of enlightenment: he's still clutching the Dragon Scroll, and he unrolls it a second time, now clearly noticing his own reflection in it. Finally understanding the meaning of the scroll, Po heads back up the mountain to help his master face Tai Lung.

If the dialogue between Po and his father had stopped right when the father revealed that the secret ingredient was nothing, I would have been fine with that. But by adding that very American tagline about belief in specialness, the scriptwriters Disneyfied (Dreamworksified?) what could have been a truly Cultural Moment. There was already a good, profound Asian lesson unfolding in that scene; the father's line was a jarring incongruity, not to mention a gross violation of the artist's rule that you "show, don't tell."

But despite my focus on this one problem with the script, I ended up thoroughly enjoying "Kung Fu Panda." The movie had a few excellent scenes positively dripping with Asian philosophy-- one of the best being the scene where Po's training comes to an end. Po's final test involves trying to eat a dumpling that his master skillfully keeps just out of reach from him. What makes me love the scene is what Po does with the dumpling after he finally gets it away from Shifu. Po's behavior at that moment reflects his understanding of the other, deeper lesson the master had been trying, all along, to teach him.

"Circle of Iron" is painfully corny, and I recommend it only hesitantly. If you're a fan of B movies, you might enjoy it. Otherwise, find the script or original treatment online somewhere and just read the story. By contrast, I heartily recommend "Kung Fu Panda," which contains more than enough Matrix-y kung fu combat to entertain action fans, and tells us a story that resonates on many different levels, including the level at which some of us religion students operate.

*The term "sifu" already means "master," especially in the context of kung fu training. Master Master?


1 comment:

Unknown said...

Ha ha, a comment five years later, not too bad, lol.

Yes I immediately noticed the similarities between Kung Fu Panda and the Cirle of Iron/silent Flute. (never did figure out why it was called the Circle of Iron.) I happened to enjoy most of the Circle of Iron- just recently re-watched it, and it did at any rate get the viewer to the mirror moment.

But honestly, isn't the corniest moment in both movies the mirror moment - where looking into the mirror tells you that you are all you need. What if our panda friend had opened the mirror before all is vaunted training. If he had thought he was okay just the way his was before his training he would have ended up kung pow panda.