When I was asked if I was interested in interviewing the director of Kung Fu Panda 2 (KFP2), it was im-Po-sible to pass it up. I mean, did you know that Korean-American film director Jennifer Yuh Nelson is not only just one of four women to have directed a feature film for DreamWorks Animation (the other three sharing director duties with men) but she has also very quietly become the first, yes the first woman to solely direct an animated feature film for a major Hollywood studio. Wow, man…or I should say, “Wow woman.”
So what better way is there to pander to this summer’s moviegoers and celebrate such an auspicious moment for Asian-Americans in Hollywood history? Bring back one of the most im-Po-rtant pandas in the world. No, it’s not Chi Chi, Ling Ling or Hsing Hsing but the star of KFP2, Po, who is one half of Christopher Robin’s famous toy bear (Winnie the Pooh, for those not familiar) and one whole lot of kung fu panda that is back on the path to saving animal kung fu-dom. Where did Yuh’s path begin in animation?
“I was born in South Korea and immigrated to the U.S. when I was 4 ½ years old,” Yuh shares. “As a little kid in S. Korea I would watch anime and Korean anime on TV. Television was only on for a few hours a day over there, but that look is what I grew up on.
“Then when I came to the U.S. I just searched it out as the craze was really coming into its own and more readily to watch. I’d read manga and watch the anime. Just the freneticism and level of detail and the beauty was really cool and it wasn’t necessarily a children’s medium, but a technique which was very liberating.”
For any of us that have learned martial arts, whether traditionally or today’s way, Kung Fu Panda offered many different emotional beats; my favorite being the elation that Po felt when he became ru men zi di, which in mandarin Chinese refers to that moment when you “officially” become your shifu’s real student. Yuh points out that KFP2 has similar moments, one of which is an important concept that children should be aware of, something that she knows is close to my heart, one’s chi (qi), the practice of which gave me the power to overcome cystic fibrosis and walk 3,000 miles across America.
“Chi is the thing that can bring out your achievement in martial arts,” Yuh avers. “It makes you do things you really ought not to be able to do. And that is also what makes Po an interesting character because you think he can’t do what he does, but he does and it’s that underlying factor, his internal strength. This is something that can inspire us all to do something amazing.
“One thing we tried to avoid was to show that kung fu was just about punching people, it’s a very righteous process. We get into kung fu to better ourselves internally and make sure that you’re grounded and find that inner peace, be the best that you can be and a big part of that is to tap into your inner strength, your chi. It purveys throughout the film, it’s not about how astute you are with skill but the internal strength that drives it.”
In KFP2, Dragon Warrior Po (Jack Black) and his Furious Five idols must face further pandemonium as they travel across China and fight the hyper intelligent and lethal, Lord Shen who plans to use a secret, unstoppable weapon to conquer China and destroy kung fu. To succeed, Po looks to his past to uncover the secrets of his mysterious origins and find inner strength.
Although there is more action in KFP2 than the first, Yuh is adamant in pointing out the important theme of the film. “It’s about inner peace and the true strength that comes from within,” she stresses.
“If you have this thing called chi, you can do anything. I’d like children to watch this film and feel empowered, because everyone goes through a lot of bad things in their lives, a lot of challenges in their lives, and so with such inner strength they can do a great deal.”