"Yeah, I stayed. I stayed because every time you threw a brick at my head or said I smelled it hurt, but it could never hurt more than it did every day of my life just being me. I stayed because I thought if anyone could change me, could make me not me, it was you, the greatest kung fu teacher in all of China."
You might confuse this for dialogue from some self-confessional mumblecore indie dramedy, but for those last few words, but no, this is, in fact, from Kung Fu Panda, a movie that is ostensibly for children.
When Americans say, "kung fu," we're talking about martial arts, usually referring to China's equivalent of our B-westerns, movies cranked out by the dozens and mostly seen here with grainy, low-quality film stock and awful dubbing. However, "kung fu," means, for the Chinese, human achievement or self-improvement. You could talk about someone's sword fighting kung fu, but also their calligraphy kung fu, or, for that matter, their animation kung fu. ("Wu shu" is martial arts, if you're not talking about a specific school of martial arts, such as Wing Chun, the form popularized by Bruce Lee before he invented Jeet Kune Do.) The film features a good deal of well-animated martial arts, but it also trades heavily in that more accurate definition. And when you're talking about self improvement, you have to go to dark places, because you have to look at your weaknesses and your failures honestly.
Po, the titular panda, hates himself. He never comes out and says, "I hate myself," but it's not hard to read between the lines. He says, in so many words, "every day that I wake up as myself is worse than having a brick thrown at my head." That's a heartbreaking sentiment, and the movie doesn't shy away from that moment, because Po's teacher, Master Shifu, is just as lost as his pupil. Shifu has spent the majority of the movie trying to drum Po out of his kung fu training, convinced that the tubby panda is worthless as a student of martial arts. Now, with Master Oogway, Shifu's own master, having disappeared in a burst of cherry blossoms and Tai Lung, the villain of the piece, on his way to the valley, bent on taking the secrets of the movie's MacGuffin, the Dragon Scroll, for himself, Shifu has no choice but to believe in Po, as Oogway did.
"Believe in yourself," is one of those hoary old cliches that pops up in young adult (and old adult) literature. For good reason! I'm not shitting on that message; it's a beautiful message. It's also like an old cassette tape that's been played so many times that it's just a bunch of unintelligible squeaks and scratches. (Do we still know what cassette tapes are, here on the Internet?) When it comes up in most stories it's almost impossible to process on its face, so unable are we to make it new. And yet.
Shifu doesn't have an answer for Po in the scene above, because this isn't a movie that's just about Po and his improvement. It's also about Shifu, who is not incredibly wise in the way of his own master, but who is an incredible teacher of martial arts. Shifu is fallible; the action of the plot is driven by his failures in training Tai Lung, his old student. He doesn't always have the answers. He is, in his own way, lost. Po asks, desperately, what they're going to do, and Shifu answers, "I don't know! I don't know."
Tai Lung is a terrifying villain. The scene where he breaks out of prison is exhilarating, in a way, because no matter what his captors throw at him, he adapts, overcoming every obstacle thrown in his way. He is presented as unstoppable, reinforced by his next fight scene with Po's idols, the Furious Five. Tai Lung defeats them as well, handily, sending them back to the monastery in order to instill panic. Later, he takes on Shifu in possibly the darkest scene in the movie, a vicious fight that ends with Tai Lung victorious and on the verge of murdering his former mentor. Every time Tai Lung is met with violence he wins, because he is more dedicated to destruction than anyone he fights. In other words, whenever anyone tries to fight Tai Lung as Tai Lung, as a force of destruction, they fail.
The goal of kung fu is not to be someone else. The goal of kung fu is to be a better you.
Po's battle with Tai Lung is brightly colored and fun not because Kung Fu Panda is a kid's movie, but because Po himself is a fun, friendly guy. He wins the Furious Five over not by being the best at kung fu but by making them laugh and cooking for them; in other words, by being himself. The Tai Lung fight repeats maneuvers used earlier in the film, except now that Po has undergone his training montage with Shifu (who realizes that the way to motivate his student is with food), he's the one in control.
The Dragon Scroll is blank, but reflective; the secret is that there is no secret. If it were just blank, that would be one thing; in fact, it would be kind of shitty. And when Po finds it out, he does think it's shitty. He leaves the temple to evacuate the valley, meeting up with his father (who is a goose, and voiced by James Hong, who also voices the head of the Sun On Yee triad in the GTA-clone Sleeping Dogs, an eclectic pairing if ever there was one), who tells him the secret of his special noodles; nothing. There is no secret ingredient.
Tai Lung defeats Po, initially, and takes the Dragon Scroll for himself. He unfurls it and looks. The camera is over the shoulder as he says he sees nothing. And we see his own face, reflected in the scroll. Tai Lung can defeat any warrior who comes his way, but he has sunk into a pit of anger and rage because he cannot even see himself. He looks at his own face and sees nothing. Po, when he speaks to his father and takes a second look at the scroll, sees himself.
There is no secret ingredient. There is no solution outside of yourself, no peace, no success, no satisfaction. This doesn't mean these things don't exist; it means that they're not found in a Dragon Scroll, or a secret ingredient, or even the act of apprenticeship to an acclaimed teacher. Po's study under Master Shifu doesn't produce results simply because Shifu is a good teacher, but because Po became a good student. Po's fight with Tai Lung is ultimately successful, even after Tai Lung takes the scroll, because Tai Lung's victory condition was meaningless, and because Po has embraced his own strengths. Shifu is successful as a teacher because he learns to trust his student; just as Po has his own journey to make before he can be as skilled as the Furious Five, so Shifu has his own realizations and improvements, his own kung fu, to go through before he can be Oogway. And neither of them will truly be these things; Po will never be Tigress, or Mantis, or Viper or Monkey or Crane. Shifu will never be Oogway. They will be themselves, every morning, and as long as they don't give up, they will awaken a better Po, a better Shifu. This is the message of my new favorite movie, Kung Fu Panda, a movie that shows us what happens when we believe in ourselves.