Mulan: Controversies batter the film – and Disney’s – public image

Disney's MULANMulan (Yifei Liu)Photo: Film Frame© 2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Disney's MULANMulan (Yifei Liu)Photo: Film Frame© 2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved. /

The Chinese premiere of Disney’s Mulan received unimpressive reviews due to various controversies regarding human rights and representation of Chinese culture.

The live-action remake of Disney’s Mulan was made with China’s audience in mind, taking the time to hire Chinese-born actors and having a team of Chinese advisors to help make the film more culturally accurate for Chinese audiences. However, the movie still received a generally tepid response from Chinese audiences due to the multiple controversies surrounding its release.

On China’s movie rating website Douban, the movie got a 4.7 out of 10 ratings following its premiere last week. The ticketing platform Maoyan gives it a 7.7 rating, which is lower than other live-action Disney premieres in China. The original premiered in 1998 and received a rating of 7.5. On Saturday, “Mulan” had earned $ 17 million at the box office,  an increase from the $8.26 million made Friday.

The controversies surrounding the film involve the Uighur internment camps in the Chinese region of Xinjiang, star Liu Yifei’s support for Hong Kong police, and Chinese nationalist sentiments and whitewashing elements of the film. In the wake of all this, Disney is left to figure out where they stand in the complex relationship between China and the United States, and the company’s business interests vs. its purported values.

Disney’s MULANMulan (Yifei Liu)Photo: Film Frame© 2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Disney’s MULANMulan (Yifei Liu)Photo: Film Frame© 2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved. /

Disney gives a special thanks to the Xinjiang region in the movie’s credits

The most recent controversy relates to the “special thanks” given to “eight government entities in Xinjiang” and “the Chinese Communist Party’s ‘publicity department” in the movie’s credits. The Xinjiang region has been increasingly prevalent in the news since August 2018 for being the place where China’s Uighur Muslim internment camps are located. One of the entities is the Turpan public security bureau, which is on the U.S. Commerce Department’s sanctions list for being involved in putting Uighers in internment camps.

The alleged purpose of these camps is to erase the Uighur Muslim culture, with the assumption that Islam is an extremist religion. China claims these camps are actually “reeducation or vocational training centers” to help Uighurs, who could possibly otherwise become extremists, assimilate into China’s secular culture.

Vox has a nine-minute and twenty-three seconds video that explains China’s motives behind the camps and shows evidence of their existence. The  BBC was one of a group of selected news outlets that were invited inside a reeducation facility. In the BBC video, you can see government officials were watching all journalist interactions, and that there was a seemingly forced happy spirit among the Uighurs.

Disney’s CFO Christine McCarthy at the Bank of America investor conference on Thursday claimed that its common knowledge that the country’s government or agencies involved in the filming of any movie are to be thanked in the credits. She also admitted that the choice to film in Xinjiang has “generated some issues for us .”

The film was mostly filmed in New Zealand and only shot in Xinjiang for the scenery. They used 20 locations from the area. While McCarthy talks about the matter as an industry standard that has to be done, people are arguing that in order to film in Xinjiang, the crew would have had to interact with the system that is allowing these internment camps to exist. Timothy Grose, a Xinjiang expert, and professor of China studies at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Indiana said that the Disney film crew would have noticed that Xinjiang wasn’t a “normal” filming location when they were filming in 2018, without even seeing the camps themselves.

According to Sun Yu, a translator on the film, officials are usually “pretty sensitive” when a lot of foreigners visit Xinjiang, but their filming process went smoothly since they had the support from the local government.

Lead actress Liu Yifei supports Hong Kong police despite violence towards protestors

Lead actress Liu Yifei, who stars as Mulan, caused a boycott when she shared an image from China’s People’s Daily, repeating the words from a reporter from the Communist Party-run Global Times, on the Chinese social media site Weibo.

The reporter said, “ I support Hong Kong police. You can beat me up now. What a shame for Hong Kong.” Yifei added  “I also support Hong Kong Police” to the post. This was in relation to pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong last summer, where police violently attacked protestors. Activists and Hong Kong citizens supporters posted #BoycottMulan on Twitter to get people to boycott the film before its United States premiere on Disney + on September 4th.

Hong Kong has a long history of battling for their rights with the Mainland Chinese government. Although Hong Kong technically is a part of China, it is also an autonomous entity thanks to a treaty signed in 1997. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang signed a treaty where Britain gave Hong Kong back to China with the promise that China will allow Hong Kong to remain a two-party, democratic system until 2047.

The protests last summer were about Hong Kong’s pro-democratic citizens protesting against a bill that will allow extraditions to China. This would allow China to gain more power over Hong Kong. It was the largest protest in Hong Kong’s history. Although Hong Kong’s autonomy will end in 2047, China has been trying to gain control through different tactics like having schools teach Mandarin (the major language spoken on Mainland China) instead of Cantonese ( Hong Kong’s language), and news broadcasts being spoken in Mandarin, regardless of the timeline. Actress Yifei, who is the face of the new Mulan movie, supporting the Mainland China government possibly has a special sting for Hong Kong citizens.

Promoting Chinese nationalism and whitewashing a Chinese ballad

A significant portion of the Chinese audience for Mulan thought the film promoted a nationalist agenda. The Emperor in the film is portrayed as a divine being and there is a focus on going to war for the Imperial Dynasty, a sentiment familiar to the Chinese Communist Party.

There were high expectations for Mulan since it is based on an actual ballad many Chinese people grew up hearing in school, one which has inspired many plays, poems, and novels over the centuries. A review published from Southern Metropolis Weekly WeChat said, “…the film turned Hua Mulan into a palace guard protecting the emperor…the people that Hua Mulan wanted to defend became the background.”  The animated version’s feminist story of an unlikely woman becoming a defender for her family and people is not captured in this movie. This live-action version misses the importance of this story. Mulan is even given the magical power of “chi,” which takes away from the motivational growth she had in the original.

Some reviews have criticized the movie for “uglifying Chinese people'”, failing to understand the original story, and carrying ‘malicious’ messages against the nation.” The same review also mentioned there were Western stereotypes towards ancient China present in the film.

The result? Problems for Disney

Audiences who may want Disney to take responsibility for any or all of the controversies surrounding Mulan may end up disappointed. China is a huge market for Disney, but these controversies could put a strain on the wholesome, family-friendly image of the brand internationally. Alan F. Horn, co-chairman of Walt Disney Studios told the Hollywood Reporter last year that if Mulan didn’t do well in China it wouldn’t be good for Disney. He also claimed that Disney doesn’t get political and thought it was unfair to ask Disney to do so. Top Disney executives also said they had not seen the Xinjiang credits and no one on production warned that filming in the area would be a bad idea.

Unfortunately, criticizing China’s ways would likely mean no access to the Chinese market. Last year, the  NBA was an example.  The general manager of the Houston Rockets shared support for Hong Kong’s pro-democratic protests via Twitter, which caused the Chinese government to refuse to do business with the league.  The NBA lost “hundreds of millions of dollars,” but according to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, there might be some hope of rekindling the relationship. This is probably because of the financial assistance the NBA sent to China to help the country deal with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

Disney has profited well thanks to its work with China. Shanghai Disneyland opened in 2016 and the Chinese government co-owns the $ 5.5 billion Shanghai Disney Resort.

The Trump administration has been making  attacks against Hollywood for “pandering” to China. PEN America, a free-speech advocacy group, released a report on August 5th that details how Hollywood has censored themselves to be able to create movies with China. In any company working with China, they have to think about how far they will go to work with China for business.  Based on the few, brief responses given from Disney’s top people involved in the film, it is fair to conclude that Disney will do what it has to do to continue business with China.

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What do you think of the controversies surrounding Mulan? Did they impact your decision to see – or not see – the film? Let us know in the comments.