China Power | Society | East Asia

Disney’s ‘Mulan’ Debacle

The film has come to exemplify the trade-offs made by Hollywood to seek big gains in China — and the reputational costs involved.

Eleanor Albert
Disney’s ‘Mulan’ Debacle
Credit: Flickr/ amaz

Disney’s much anticipated “Mulan” was released on the company’s streaming service in early September after a number of delays and will hit theaters in mainland China on September 11. The film is Disney’s latest live-action remake, recounting the Chinese folk tale of a girl who takes her father’s place as a soldier in the imperial army.

In making the film, the entertainment giant likely hadn’t anticipated that the hoped-for blockbuster would become marred in controversy, with choruses of people calling for a boycott. This debacle exposes yet again the ways in which business and politics are not so far removed from one another when it comes to China. Last fall, the NBA learned this the hard way after walking into the Chinese political arena with an executive’s comments over Hong Kong, a spat that likely cost the organization hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars.

Calls to boycott “Mulan” first emerged long before its release in 2019 when Liu Yifei, who stars as the film’s eponymous heroine, voiced support on social media for Hong Kong police amid accusations that authorities were using excessive force to crack down on protests. Ahead of the film’s U.S. release on the streaming platform Disney+, Hong Kong protesters and pro-democracy peers in Taiwan and Thailand — dubbed the Milk Tea Alliancerallied around calls to boycott and ban Mulan. In a pointed critique, they also took to calling activist Agnes Chow “the real Mulan” after she was arrested under Hong Kong’s new national security law.

The controversy was just beginning, however. The film’s credits thank a handful of political entities, including several tourism bureaus and a public security bureau in Xinjiang, for their assistance. Among the organizations thanked in the “Mulan” credits was the Turpan Public Security Bureau, which has been listed by the U.S. government as an entity involved in “human rights violations and abuses” in the western region for the treatment of Muslim Uyghurs.

Investigative reporting and analysts have uncovered swaths of evidence of vast infrastructure building to support an extensive campaign to imprison and “re-educate” Muslim minorities. While only a small portion of the film is likely to have been shot in China, the acknowledgement of Xinjiang political bureaus raises real concerns as Chinese authorities are said to be operating a slew of internment camps, sold publicly as part of an anti-terrorism and anti-extremism policies. Human Rights Watch’s Yaqiu Wang urged Disney to provide transparency, disclosing the assistance Xinjiang authorities provided and the agreements made for production.

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This is not Hollywood’s, or even Disney’s, first controversy linked to China, though prior tensions typically involved negative responses from Beijing and the Chinese public, not the other way around. For example, Martin Scorses’s “Kundun,” released in 1997, tells the story of the Dalai Lama living in exile from Tibet. After its release, Beijing pulled much of the production house’s business from the Chinese market. The animated “Mulan,” released in 1999 in China, hoped to mend the frayed relationship, but was met with a poor reception and seen as a mainland box office flop, despite its worldwide success.

In the past decade or so, Hollywood appears to have changed tack, adopting new approaches to try and appeal to Beijing and a Chinese domestic audience. Films including “Transformers: Age of Extinction” and “Iron Man 3” awkwardly added extraneous Chinese characters, scenes, or product placements to little apparent success when compared to Chinese film house productions like “Wolf Warrior.” One film, “The Great Wall,” even attempted to create global box office hit set in China and starring Chinese actors – as well as Hollywood superstar Matt Damon – only to bomb at the box office.

This new approach and a flurry of deals between U.S. and Chinese production houses and media companies are no doubt motivated by mainland China’s domestic market size. In 2019, the Chinese cinema market ranked second largest in the world and in light of the ongoing restrictions in place to combat the coronavirus pandemic, this year, China’s box office may slide into the top spot. Disney may be even more uniquely invested in the Chinese market due to its theme park, which opened in Shanghai in 2016. The Shanghai park reopened in May with limited capacity and has since bumped capacity up to 50 percent at the end of August.

Overall, for Hollywood, there are two distinct levels of risks when seeking to benefit from entry into the Chinese market. The first are indirect and may arise from developments outside of a production house’s control: e.g. comments on political phenomena by Chinese actors or producers who have worked on a film. The second category of risks result directly from decisions in the movie making process, be it by feigning ignorance in the face of human rights concerns in order to conclude production agreements or in the form of censorship (e.g. the removal a patch of Taiwan’s flag from a character’s jacket as was done in “Top Gun: Maverick,” set to be released in 2021, or the animated film “Abominable” displaying a map depicting China’s “nine-dash line” claims in the South China Sea).

These broader concerns over censorship featured prominently in a recent report on the Hollywood-China connection by PEN America. The report argues that “while individual compromises may seem minor or worthwhile in exchange for the opportunity to engage with China’s population, the collective global implications of playing by Beijing’s rules need to be recognized and understood before acquiescence to Chinese censorship becomes a new normal in countries that have prided themselves for their staunch free speech protections.” With respect to “Mulan,” the film’s story arc reflects possible self-censorship or worse, explicit nods to a “Beijing approved” presentation.

Even with Disney’s intense research to “get the story right,” analysts are critical of the adaptation of the Chinese folk tale, claiming that it helps put forward Beijing’s own narratives. For example, Jane Hu, a Ph.D. candidate in English and Film & Media Studies at UC-Berkeley writes in the New Yorker that Mulan, “is, put crudely, an Americanized celebration of Chinese nationalism, on a two-hundred-million-dollar budget.” Separately, Dr. Aynne Kokas of the University of Virginia and author of “Hollywood Made in China” argues that “‘Mulan’ exemplifies how Beijing has deputized it [Hollywood] to advance China’s political interests and national narrative.”

Despite the intense backlash in the West, it may be Chinese audiences that make or break the film’s fate. More than that, many of the Hollywood-China partnerships may be riding on the reception of “Mulan” by Chinese moviegoers. Ahead of the film’s mainland China theatrical release, the Global Times hinted that Hollywood’s window for success may be narrowing. “If Mulan fails to win the hearts of Chinese moviegoers and does poorly after it premieres, Hollywood will need [to] reflect on its understanding of Eastern culture.”

And while Disney has stayed silent amid the latest spate of criticism, the firm will have to ask itself if the backlash and trade-offs will have been worth it. Does the promise of financial gain trump other business considerations?