Monday, 28 Sep 2020

Amid calls for boycott and bad reviews, Mulan heads towards opening weekend in China

BEIJING – Even before hitting the big screens in mainland China, Disney’s lavish US$200 million (S$274 million) live action remake of Mulan has been hit with controversy, delays and calls for a boycott.

Fresh calls to shun the movie erupted on Twitter earlier this week after it was revealed that filmmakers had shot scenes in China’s western region of Xinjiang, where the government has been accused of human rights abuses against its ethnic Muslim population.

In China, where the movie is set to open on Friday (Sept 11), early viewers have also panned the film on movie review site Douban, rating it 4.7 points out of 10, accusing producers of Orientalism and misinterpreting Chinese culture.

But it remains to be seen whether the online furore will be reflected in the box office for a movie that has broken 2020 box office records in both Thailand and Singapore.

The film by director Niki Caro about a legendary female Chinese warrior first attracted controversy last year when actress Liu Yifei voiced support for the Hong Kong police, who were accused of abusing their power against pro-democracy protesters.

Initially scheduled for a March release, screenings were rescheduled at least twice because of the coronavirus pandemic, with Disney eventually saying that it would go straight to its Disney+ video-on-demand streaming platform.

But the latest furore erupted earlier this week after hawk-eyed viewers spotted “special thanks” to eight government entities in Xinjiang – including the public security bureau in Turpan, a city in eastern Xinjiang where multiple internment camps have been documented.

Producers also thanked the Communist Party of China’s propaganda department in Xinjiang.

The incident sparked renewed criticism of Hollywood bowing down to China just for access to the world’s second largest movie market. 

While it is not surprising that Disney acted like a Chinese company just to operate in the country, much of the scenery could have been shot elsewhere, said University of Virginia’s Associate Professor Aynne Kokas, a media studies expert.

Yet calls for a boycott might not gain traction because those following the movement on Twitter might not be of the same demographic as those watching a movie on Disney+.

“A lot of companies make decisions that aren’t human rights norms but in the Disney case, it’s jarring, it’s because it’s a family company,” said Prof Kokas, who also authored the book Hollywood Made In China.

Rights activists have also criticised the company for choosing to film in an area where China has been accused of repression and human rights violations.

“They obviously know what’s happening there, the security situation that has been happening there and the repression that has been going on for many years, and to still film there? It’s disgusting,” said general secretary Arslan Hidayat of the Uyghur Revival Association, a rights group.

Though most of the filming took place at least two years ago, when the situation was slightly different, that Disney would thank the Xinjiang propaganda department smacks of “incompetence or a complete disregard for human rights in China”, said Mr Isaac Stone Fish, a senior fellow at the Asia Society.

“US companies like Disney should learn there are very real consequences in the US for partnering with Xinjiang. No matter what they think is necessary, there are human rights violations,” he told The Straits Times.

Meanwhile in China, netizens fixated on the film’s cultural representation, accusing it of presenting a westernised version of the country.

“The Chinese references stuffed into the middle of this taste like General Tso’s chicken,” read one comment on Douban, the Chinese version of movie database IMDb, where nearly 70,000 people have reviewed the movie, mostly giving two-star ratings.

Disney has “misunderstood” the story of Mulan while getting the Chinese story “horrifically wrong”, wrote an unsigned commentary on Sina News, one of China’s most widely read websites, meticulously picking out the various cultural, historical and geographical elements the movie got wrong.

“As a Hollywood family carnival movie, Mulan is actually a pass, but for Chinese audiences, this is far from enough,” the commentary said. “As one of the most important ticket banks in the world, Mulan’s box-office prospects are worrying.”

Disney might have meant to infuse Chinese elements into the movie but its understanding of the culture has been shallow, said Dr Wei Wuhui, who specialises in media studies at the Shanghai Jiaotong University.

“Chinese viewers aren’t going to be deterred by the controversy (over Xinjiang), but it’s just a truly bad movie,” he said.

The studio has hopes that it can do better than the animated version from 1998 – the film had its release delayed by a year after Disney’s relations with China soured over Kundun, its 1997 movie based on the life of the exiled Dalai Lama, whom China has branded a dangerous separatist.

It remains to be seen whether the current controversy would lead to reduced box-office takings this weekend – on its opening weekend in Singapore, the movie was the top grossing film.

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