By JUSTIN CAPPAL and MICHAEL SILBERSTEIN
Disney’s live-action remake of “Mulan” has continued to stir up controversy post-release, angering fans with the lack of accurate Chinese culture and ties to human rights violations.
The film had an all-star Asian cast of Liu Yifei, Donnie Yen and Jet Li. Yet, it is notable that the director, Niki Caro, is white. The premiere of the movie was scheduled for March 9, 2020, but due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the release was postponed until later in the year. Instead, Disney added the film on their streaming service Disney+ on Sept. 4, 2020, with a rental fee of $29.99. Unfortunately, the film failed to live up to the expectations, and instead of getting praise, it was met with criticism and controversy.
At first the film was supposed to be a less westernized version of the tale told in the 1998 animated film; a woman who disguises herself as a man by taking her father’s place to join the army. Critics blasted the movie for having flat characters and a bland story that didn’t make much sense to the viewers. Many UMW students were expecting a classic just like the animated version they knew as kids, but instead they were met with disappointment.
“Overall, I felt like it had potential but didn’t quite reach it,” said Sterling Barbett, a member of Asian Students Association. “While Liu Yifei did well, I didn’t see any character growth that is a common theme of Disney heroines. In my opinion, a big part of Mulan’s character is that she openly acknowledges and defies the part of her that is labelled as a ‘proper lady’…Disney’s live action ‘Mulan’ did not fulfill that.”
Barbett felt that the movie did not feel like a Disney production at all. He was let down by the lack of comic relief and music, both of which are traits that were emphasized in the animated original.
Many fans were also unsatisfied about how the film handles certain Chinese cultural elements. One of the most common criticisms of the film is its treatment of chi: a traditional idea in Chinese martial arts and medicine concerning a person’s energy flow. In “Mulan” however, chi becomes a magical power that the hero possesses. The power is actually limiting and keeps Mulan from realizing her full potential until she strips away her disguise as a man. Fans, critics, and reviewers complained that the film had flat characters and a bland story with details that did not make sense.
On top of being poorly received by audiences, the new Disney “Mulan” remake has a troubling production history that raises ethical concerns over supporting the film.
Calls for people to not see “Mulan” rose again following the movie’s release with #BoycottMulan trending on Twitter, but people began protesting the movie in the summer of 2019. Much of the protest surrounding the remake is related to cooperation between Disney and the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party.
People first called for a boycott due to comments made by Liu Yifei, the lead actress of the movie, on the popular Chinese social media platform Weibo. Liu Yifei reshared a People’s Daily post that read “I support the Hong Kong police, you can beat me up now,” adding her own words in support of the Hong Kong police. This post came out while the Hong Kong police were under fire for brutality against residents who protested a proposed bill that would allow for the extradition of citizens from Hong Kong to mainland China.
Liu later walked back her statements in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter.
“It’s obviously a very complicated issue, and I’m not an expert,” said Liu. However, Liu did not disavow Hong Kong police for police brutality, which continued to fan the flames for critiques online.
Donnie Yen Ji-dan, who plays Commander Tung in the “Mulan” remake, also received backlash following him celebrating Hong Kong’s return to mainland China in July. “Today is the celebration day for Hong Kong returned to motherland China 23 years,” wrote Yen in the caption of a Facebook post with footage of him playing the piano for Chairman Xi Jinping. Yen, who has become famous internationally for his role as Ip Man, disappointed fans as he celebrated Hong Kong’s return to mainland China during the ongoing turmoil in Hong Kong as protestors fight for freedom from the same.
“[Disney tries] to be non-political, apolitical when it comes to all this stuff,” stated Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn in another interview with The Hollywood Reporter. Disney hopes to distance itself from this controversy by claiming political neutrality. Yet, Disney has a clear vested interest in keeping Chinese authorities happy if they want their movies to do well in Chinese theatres.
The credits of “Mulan” specifically thank the Publicity Department of the Chinese Communist Party’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region Committee, along with the Public Security Bureau in the city of Turpan. The Public Security Bureau is one of the main administrational bodies within China that is responsible for ongoing human rights violations committed against the Uighur minority group within China, including internment camps, forced labor of Uighurs, and the sterilization of Uighur women. “Most of these policies were well in place – and some known in the West – by the time the film was shot, partially in Xinxiang, in 2018,” according to Foreign Policy.
“These camps have been criticized for significant human rights abuses, including torture,” said Susan Fernsebner, a histor professor at UMW specializing in Chinese history. “The Chinese Communist Party has also set forth repressive policies in the region including mass surveillance, family separation, birth suppression, and forced labor, among others. I’m not comfortable supporting the Disney Corporation when they are choosing to shoot scenes for a film in the Xinjiang region, so I won’t be attending the film this fall.”
According to International Business Times, two weeks after the release on Disney+, only 29% of subscribers actually purchased and viewed the film. Box Office Mojo reported that as of Oct. 19, the film has made only $66.8 million in theaters worldwide.
Those who did see the film were unimpressed. Rotten Tomatoes rated the movie 6.86/10 and Douban, a Chinese social networking service website, rated the movie 4.8 out of 10. The movie had incredibly high expectations, but viewers have agreed that it does not hold a candle to its animated counterpart.