By Ryan Faughnder and Alice Su Los Angeles Times
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As Ryan Faughnder and Alice Su report, "Ahead of "Mulan's" Disney+ premiere last week in the U.S., #BoycottMulan trended on social media as activists blasted its Chinese American star Liu Yifei (aka Crystal Liu) for siding with Hong Kong police over pro-democracy protesters last year during a crackdown on demonstrations."
On paper, a live-action remake of "Mulan" was an obvious choice for the Walt Disney Co.'s next blockbuster. The studio has generated billions in box office sales by rebooting its animated classics for the big screen, and this one had a clear advantage: a massive audience in China.
But the film has became a political flashpoint in the run-up to its debut in mainland China this weekend, by far the biggest theatrical market for the movie.
Ahead of "Mulan's" Disney+ premiere last week in the U.S., #BoycottMulan trended on social media as activists blasted its Chinese American star Liu Yifei (aka Crystal Liu) for siding with Hong Kong police over pro-democracy protesters last year during a crackdown on demonstrations.
The online uproar escalated this week when it was revealed that Disney filmed part of "Mulan" in Xinjiang, a region where China is believed to have detained at least 1 million Muslims, mostly ethnic Uighurs, in internment camps.
To critics, the rollout of "Mulan" marks the latest example of Hollywood's hypocrisy and willingness to sacrifice values to do business in China.
"In L.A., there's a focus on freedom of expression," said University of Virginia media studies professor Aynne Kokas, author of the book "Hollywood Made in China." "Then we cross borders, and the democracy struggle in Hong Kong is erased, as are the human rights abuses in Xinjiang."
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., pounced on the revelation that Disney, in the end credits for "Mulan," gave "special thanks" to government entities including the Publicity Department of CPC Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomy Region Committee. Hawley, who previously criticized the NBA for "kowtowing to Beijing," on Wednesday published a letter addressed to Disney Chief Executive Bob Chapek, accusing the company of "whitewashing" the "ongoing Uighur genocide." Republican politicians have frequently attacked Hollywood and China amid the Trump administration's trade war with Beijing.
"Your decision to put profit over principle, to not just ignore the CCP's (Chinese Communist Party) genocide and other atrocities but to aid and abet them, is an affront to American values," Hawley wrote in the letter.
Disney declined to comment for this story and referred The Times to recent remarks by Chief Financial Officer Christine McCarthy.
McCarthy, speaking Thursday at a Bank of America investor conference, suggested that the film's ties to China were not as significant as people made them out to be but acknowledged that they had created "a lot of issues" for the company.
"Mulan" was "primarily shot, almost the entirety, in New Zealand," McCarthy said, adding that the studio filmed scenery in 20 locations in China "in an effort to accurately depict some of the unique landscape and geography of the country.
"(I)t's also common knowledge in the film industry that ... you acknowledge in the film's credits the national and local governments that allow you to film there," she said. "And so, in our credits, it recognized both China as well as locations in New Zealand. And I would just leave it at that, but that's generated a lot of issues for us."
The controversy engulfing "Mulan", based on a Chinese folktale and Disney's animated 1998 musical of the same name _ highlights the pitfalls that come with making films designed to play in the Middle Kingdom, experts said.
The entertainment industry has long faced scrutiny for self-censoring its movies to avoid the ire of the Chinese government, which tightly regulates what movies play in theaters there. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, blasted the producers of "Top Gun: Maverick" for removing symbols representing Japan and Taiwan from Tom Cruise's bomber jacket. DreamWorks Animation's "Abominable," a U.S.-China coproduction, took heat in Asian countries for including a map containing the so-called nine-dash line that signifies China's claim to disputed territory in the South China Sea.
James Tager, a researcher with free-expression advocacy group PEN America, which recently published a report on censorship of Hollywood movies for China, said the "Mulan" situation is particularly troubling. "Beijing's influence over Hollywood goes beyond having blind spots for certain policies," Tager said. "(This is) arguably more actively sending a message to audiences of, 'nothing to see here.'"
Disney had every incentive to make the movie work in China. With the COVID-19 pandemic still raging in the U.S., the studio opted to bypass domestic multiplexes by selling the film digitally for $30 to Disney+ subscribers. China, where Disney+ is not available, is one of the few significant markets where "Mulan" will screen in movie theaters.
The company has long considered China a key market. The country's fast-growing movie exhibition business helped Disney films including "Avengers: Endgame," "Zootopia" and "Coco" generate massive sums at the box office. The entertainment giant in 2016 opened a $5.5 billion theme park resort in Shanghai.
It remains to be seen whether political rancor will harm "Mulan's" commercial performance. China's theaters have begun to recover from coronavirus closures, having reopened to healthy numbers for movies including "The Eight Hundred," a local production that has generated more than $370 million so far.
"Mulan" got off to a tepid start, grossing $6 million in China on Friday, with analysts including Rance Pow of film consultancy Artisan Gateway predicting a soft $30 million opening weekend. In another hurdle, Reuters reported this week that Chinese authorities had ordered major local news outlets to not cover the release.
Disney collaborated with Chinese cultural consultants to ensure "Mulan" was authentic for the audience there, and the film features popular Asian stars such as Gong Li and Donnie Yen.
However, online audience reviews in China have been lukewarm. The film scored only 4.7/10 on Douban, a popular Chinese movie rating site. Many users criticized the film's handling of feminism and its portrayal of Chinese culture.
"The shell was Chinese but the soul was still foreign," wrote one user. "It was a foreign, superficial understanding of China."
A review published on the magazine Southern Metropolis Weekly's WeChat criticized the film for missing the heart of the original "Ballad of Mulan": not a glorification of patriotism and filial piety, but a story of one woman's courage amid a cruel imperial system that conscripted the frail and elderly and placed little value on regular people's lives.
"The background story of 'Mulan' is that she wanted to take her father's place, protect her family and defend the people. But the film turned Hua Mulan into a palace guard protecting the emperor," the review said. "The people that Hua Mulan wanted to defend became the background."
Even if the political situation doesn't harm ticket sales for "Mulan," it could do damage to Disney's brand, said Michael Berry, director of the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies.
"Disney prides itself on its image as a wholesome, family-friendly entertainment company ... yet now they find themselves associated with murky political controversies and alleged complicity with human right abuses," Berry said. "The fact that 'Mulan' is a film that touts lofty values like honor, bravery and loyalty further heightens this tension."
"Mulan" has been praised by U.S. reviewers as a major milestone for representation of Asians on the big screen and women behind the camera.
The picture is a rare example of a big-budget blockbuster directed by a woman (New Zealand filmmaker Niki Caro helmed "Mulan" for Disney).
According to Rotten Tomatoes, 75% of critics' reviews were positive.