People near an ad for Disney’s film Mulan at a cinema in Hong Kong on September 8 2020. Picture: REUTERS/ALEKSANDER SOLUM
People near an ad for Disney’s film Mulan at a cinema in Hong Kong on September 8 2020. Picture: REUTERS/ALEKSANDER SOLUM

New York — It was supposed to be another $1bn blockbuster for Walt Disney — a live-action remake of a 1998 animated hit featuring an all-star Asian cast, breathtaking cinematography and plenty of martial arts.

Instead, the new Mulan is proving to be a political hot potato, reflecting the US’s fraying ties with China, and the choices companies face when operating in the highly politicised, but lucrative environment that is modern-day China.

The $200m film, which was made available for purchase online in the US and Europe last week and is set to open in China on Friday, has seen a string of controversies — all while the coronavirus knocked out its chances of getting a successful run in theatres.

An online boycott that began in 2019, when one of the stars spoke in support of the crackdown on anti-China protesters in Hong Kong, has continued. Now, Disney is facing heat for filming in a part of China where the government has detained as many as 1-million ethnic Uighurs in camps called “voluntary education centres”, then thanking that region’s authorities in the movie’s credits.

Disney is the latest US business to be embroiled in a political controversy involving China. Last year, the National Basketball Association was plunged into turmoil after a team manager tweeted in support of the Hong Kong demonstrators, triggering a backlash and a blackout of games in China. DreamWorks Animation’s movie Abominable stirred up a storm in Asia after the film featured a map reflecting China’s maritime claims disputed by its neighbours.

‘Addicted to China’

Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, slammed Disney on Twitter on Tuesday, saying the entertainment giant is “addicted to Chinese cash and will do just about anything to please the Communist Party”.

Disney has a lot at stake in China. The company spent $5.5bn developing its Shanghai Disneyland resort and has been expanding its smaller park in Hong Kong. The movie market there is also on track to become the world’s largest. But with both Republicans and Democrats focusing on China trade and cultural issues in the run-up to the US presidential election, the company could continue to find itself in the political crossfire.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re called before Congress,” said Stanley Rosen, a political-science professor and specialist on China at the University of Southern California.

High hopes

It certainly didn’t begin this way when Disney started work on the film more than five years ago.

The company sought to address cultural and social concerns about the earlier picture, which featured Donny Osmond and Harvey Fierstein voicing Asian characters. For the new picture, they were replaced with a largely Chinese or Chinese-American cast, including Liu Yifei as the heroine who dresses as a male soldier to save her father, and Jet Li, as her emperor.

Disney chose a female director, New Zealander Niki Caro, because “she has a long tradition of going into very specific communities and telling a story”, said Mulan producer Jason Reed. He pointed to films she had done, such as North Country, about Minnesota iron miners, and McFarland, USA, about a Latino track team in California.

Mulan, which is based on a centuries-old Chinese folk song, incorporates traditional Chinese architecture, costumes and spirituality.

“We spent a great deal of time with scholars, consultants and various creative people really listening to how they look at the world,” Reed said.

Controversial comments

Then Liu, the film’s star, voiced her support for the mainland Chinese government during Hong Kong pro-democracy protests last year. A #BoycottMulan movement began trending on Twitter.

After the film’s release last Friday, others began to notice that the credits included thanks to local authorities in Xinjiang for letting the company film there. The region is where members of China’s Muslim minority are being held in camps as part of a crackdown that followed a series of Uighur attacks on civilians in 2013, including a flaming car attack in the heart of Beijing —  Tiananmen Square.

In 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed to employ a “strike-first” strategy in Xinjiang. Officials in the region then set up a vast security state along with mass internment camps, which UN experts said in 2018 could hold as many as 1-million Uighurs.

International criticism has been building over the camps for several years, with the US sanctioning officials from the region and European governments condemning the repression of Uighurs. China has sought to defend them by calling them “education” camps that Uighurs attend voluntarily, even though a visit to one last year showed dormitories featuring bars on the windows and doors that only lock from the outside.

Representatives for Disney did not respond to requests for comment.

Marketing muscle

The financial impact of the controversies about Mulan remains to be seen. The movie already faced a steep climb to profitability because so many theatres were closed by the coronavirus and Disney took the unusual step of releasing it online for $30 on its Disney+ streaming service.

The company also spent tens of millions of dollars marketing Mulan, over and above its production budget. Given the state of the movie-theatre business, it will be tough to make back its investment.

Disney hasn’t released numbers on online purchases of the film, though data from third parties suggest there was a lot of interest. Box office results from China, the world’s second-largest movie market, won’t be available until the weekend. Some, such as USC’s Rosen, think it will do well there. Chinese theatres have come roaring back from the Covid-19 shutdown since reopening in July, and the film’s stars are popular.

‘Spreading hatred’

Meanwhile, in China, while many eagerly await the release of Mulan, some users of Weibo, the country’s largest social media platform, touched on the Xinjiang controversy in their posts and voiced support for the movie.

“The Western anti-Chinese forces, Hong Kong and Taiwan independence forces, and others are spreading hatred against China’s soft power using Xinjiang,” said one user. Another said, “I seriously don’t understand.”

Rich Gelfond, CEO of Imax, which has a big presence in China, predicts no backlash against US pictures there — even with the trade war and other issues between the countries. The Warner Bros sci-fi thriller Tenet took in $30m in China last weekend, the biggest opening for a Christopher Nolan-directed film in the country.

The bigger problems for Mulan could be ones that studios are more accustomed to: piracy, for example, because the movie is already available online. The reviews have also been less than unanimous — 76% of critics and 54% of the audience gave it a thumbs up, according to Rotten Tomatoes.

But the woes for US companies doing business in China aren’t close to being over, said Michael Berry, who teaches Chinese culture at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“Part of this feels like a political pile-on,” he said. “Companies such as Disney are faced with difficult decisions when it comes to balancing where they stand with core principles such as human rights and access to global markets.”

Bloomberg

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