What Disney’s “Mulan” (2020) — and its backlash — could mean

By Olivia Montes

Lifestyle Editor

In an age of Disney sporting big budget remakes of some of their most popular animated Renaissance films, including “Beauty and the Beast” (2017), “Aladdin” (2019), and “The Lion King” (2019), “Mulan” (1998) was next to receive the live-action treatment. 

The film’s cast and crew were seeking to not only recreate messages of self- empowerment and individuality from its animated predecessor, but also to accurately portray the story that had previously been overlooked.

Despite decisions to cut some of the original’s animated characters and songs from the soundtrack, and lead actress Liu Yifei’s support of the Hong Kong police force amidst the pro-democracy protests on social media in 2019, production continued.

According to Brook Barnes and Amy Qin from The New York Times, backlash began when the film became available to stream on Disney+ Premium on Sept. 4, in lieu of a widespread movie theatre release due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The abundant controversies that had dogged ‘Mulan’ over its gestation — false rumors that Disney was casting a white lead actress, calls for a boycott after its star expressed support for the Hong Kong police — had largely dissipated…when the film arrived online,” they said. “Then the credits rolled.” 

In the credits, the movie gave an exclusive shout-out to the western Chinese province of Xinjiang — the site where two million Uighur and other Muslims are being forcibly held in concentration camps under the Chinese government — and with the city of Turpan — the site of the Municipal Bureau of Public Security, which is responsible for detaining large Uighur and other predominantly Muslim populations within the region.

“For several years now, China has been systematically repressing its Uighur Muslim minority in that region — subjecting men, women, and children to torture, sexual abuse, forced sterilization, family separation, and brainwashing, among other horrors…[adding] to the Chinese government’s other abuses, such as banning expressions of Islamic faith,” Vox Media’s Alex Ward said earlier in September. 

“[And] that’s simply shocking, as there’s no excuse for Disney executives to have been unaware of the human rights abuses taking place just miles from the filming sites,” he said. 

Other controversies both throughout production and with the film’s release came to light, including the significant lack of Asian representation behind the scenes, the promotion of Han chauvinism and supremacism through the main antagonists, and the overall cultural appropriation of adapting the tale to the big screen. 

As these and other issues continue to rise, activists behind the #BoycottMulan campaign, including those from Thailand and Taiwan, have since sought to further address these human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Turpan, criticizing Disney for its obliviousness towards this ongoing issue.

“When you watch #Mulan, not only are you turning a blind eye to police brutality and racial injustice…you’re also potentially complicit in the mass incarceration of Muslim Uyghurs,” Hong Kong democracy activist Joshua Wong said in a tweet, as recorded by The New York Times on Sept. 9.

The #BoycottMulan campaign also unveiled instances of “cultural imperialism,” or “cultural colonialism,” where unequal relationships between countries force one to have more significant power over the other. 

With Disney, who abided by the instructions of the Chinese government while bringing this movie to life, this imbalance in power meant that being under mandated authority of the country was a method to maintain international power. 

“[Because of the campaign] Disney found itself the latest example of a global company stumbling as the United States and China increasingly clash over human rights, trade, and security, even as their economies remain entwined,” Barnes and Qin said. “[While] Disney is one of the world’s savviest operators when it comes to China, having seamlessly opened Shanghai Disneyland in 2016…it was caught flat-footed.”

As with Shanghai, Disney attempted to appeal to the Chinese government in hopes to further expand the range of the film’s release, primarily as both means of creating in-lieu-of revenue that would have been made through Disney’s worldwide theme parks this past summer and as an offering to ease recent tensions between their respective companies to maintain access to the Chinese market. 

“Disney sees China as essential to the expansion of its business,” The Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor said in an excerpt from Today’s World newsletter earlier this September. “China’s box office revenue was expected to surpass [that of] the United States in 2020 even before the coronavirus pandemic hit, [and] the appeal of Chinese viewership has even left a mark on Hollywood casting. But rising U.S.-China tensions have changed the equation.”

“Calls to boycott the film come at a time when the American government is banning, or looking to ban, high profile Chinese companies that the Trump Administration deems national security threats,” The Verge’s Julia Alexander said on Sept. 7. 

In retaliation, the United States banned Huawei from selling its products, and placed a possible ban on the social media app TikTok unless it is sold to an American-based company like Microsoft and Oracle. 

This combination of political and social tensions between the United States and China will have significantly impacted the economic relationship to further fund potential projects, for both Disney and the film industry itself.

“For a company like Disney, that could mean not filming in the country anymore, delaying releases for their viewers, or — at the most extreme level — completely cutting ties with the country,” Ward said.

“But any one of those options, from the smallest to the nuclear one, are hard for any corporation to take, mainly because China is such a large and lucrative market…[and] there’s a chance Disney would lose access to that market,” he said.

As for future films, Disney has greenlighted other live-action productions. 

As the moviemaking industry remains on hold, and until the countries reach a compromise, Hollywood might also re-examine their overseas business relationship, particularly if this means bringing culturally diverse stories to the silver screen. 

“For now, though, big movie companies might do better to avoid filming in Xinjiang and not help the Chinese government paper over human rights atrocities,” Ward said.

Featured Photo caption: With the release of the live-action remake of “Mulan” (2020) earlier this September, the film received immediate backlash from several viewers —and sparked a widespread campaign for its boycott. Photo Courtesy of Brian McGowan.

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