People are taking issues with "Mulan" stars' political beliefs (or lack thereof) and the movie's apparent support of Uighur "re-education" camps.
Mulan is a beloved animated Disney film, but its live-action adaptation has run into some real-world problems.
The 1998 animated Disney film, based on a Chinese folklore tale "The Ballad of Mulan," received the classic 2020 live-action remake treatment this year. But its rollout was plagued by problems from the start.
Originally meant to debut on March 27, 2020, the film's release was delayed three times due to COVID-19. Finally, the studio decided to roll out the film on September 8, 2020, bypassing movie theaters entirely in the US. Instead, it exclusively dropped on Disney+ in the US for a tall fee of $30. The film will become available to all Disney+ subscribers on December 4th. The film is also being released in some recently reopened theatres in Asia, and it's expected to bring in millions of dollars in China when it debuts this Friday.
Mulan was directed by Niki Caro and stars Yifei Liu as the title character. It lacks some of the animated version's infamous flourishes, including the infamous music, the beloved talking dragon Mushu, and Mulan's charismatic love interest, Li Fang. (According to producer Jason Reed, Shang was removed because "particularly in the time of the #MeToo movement, having a commanding officer that is also the sexual love interest was very uncomfortable and we didn't think it was appropriate.") But the film comes complete with feminist politics, fight scenes, new enigmatic villains, and vivid scenes of China's countryside.
Disney's Mulan | Official Trailer www.youtube.com
It's also sparked a fair amount of drama—and even global protests. The problems existed long before the film's release. Last year, Liu expressed support for Hong Kong's police on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform. "I support the Hong Kong police. You can all attack me now. What a shame for Hong Kong," she wrote last August, sparking early calls to #BoycottMulan.
China has been plagued by intense anti-government protests since 2019. The protests reached a fever pitch in June, when China cracked down with an extremely restrictive national security law in Hong Kong.
Liu's co-star Donnie Yen was also recently criticized by protestors for posting a comment celebrating the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong's return to China after being released from British colonial rule. The comments sparked a resurgence of the #BoycottMulan hashtag and became part of the #MilkTeaAlliance, which is an expression of solidarity between pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Thailand.
While Liu and Yen's actions disappointed fans, they may also symbolize a wider trend. Many Chinese movie stars have voiced support for the government—and many have faced career implications after speaking out.
"Because Disney kowtows to Beijing, and because Liu Yifei openly and proudly endorses police brutality in Hong Kong, I urge everyone who believes in human rights to #BoycottMulan," wrote Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong on Twitter.
8/ It casts more doubts on whether Mulan is the propaganda masterpiece that Disney works hand in hand with the CCP… https://t.co/ACE9v7v5Qb— Joshua Wong 黃之鋒 😷 (@Joshua Wong 黃之鋒 😷) 1599656476.0
Supporters of the Hong Kong protests have even appointed Agnes Chow, a longtime pro-democracy activist and leader of the resistance who was recently arrested, as their "real" Mulan.
Mulan has always been about heroism, bravery, and sacrifice; and we already have countless stories like that in the… https://t.co/cMVA1gutm7— beη🏳️🌈 (@beη🏳️🌈) 1599186323.0
Disney's "Mulan": Conspiring with Genocide?
Most recently, Mulan found itself under fire when viewers noticed that the film's ending credits thanked eight government entities in Xinjiang, a Chinese province that is known to be the site of human rights abuses against the Muslim Uighur ethnic group.
Specifically, the credits thanked the public security bureau in the city of Turpan, where China is allegedly operating dozens or hundreds of re-education camps dedicated to imprisoning Uighurs and eradicating their culture. The credits also thanked CPC Uighur Autonomy Region Committee, which is, essentially, responsible for producing Chinese propaganda.
The exact details of the Mulan remake's relationship with Xinjiang is unclear, though Grant Major, the film's production designer, told Architectural Digest that his team had spent months filming in and around the Xinjiang province.
The exact circumstances of what's happening to the Uighurs in China are also difficult to know for sure, but detainees have said they experienced psychological and physical torture and are forced to work on some of the the country's major exports.
According to a BuzzFeed News investigation, the Xinjiang municipal departments are facilitating the "largest-scale detention of ethnic and religious minorities since World War II." Outside the camps, rumors include forced sterilization of Uighur women and organ harvesting.
While it's difficult to get to the Uighur camps, satellite photos have shown images of expanding facilities, and stories of China's abuses keep flooding in. "There is no gray area here: Disney chose to film Mulan in China—and in this region of China specifically—as part of an ongoing attempt to court favor with the Chinese government," wrote Gavia Baker-Whitelaw for The Daily Dot. "The film includes a credit to government departments in a region where Muslims are currently being detained and killed."
People on social media are furious with Mulan, accusing its creators of ignoring China's human rights abuses in order to score a hit in their lucrative movie market. Amnesty International tweeted a link to a report on the controversy and wrote, "Can you show us your human rights due diligence report?"
Representatives from Beijing have vehemently denied the existence of Uighur concentration camps, insisting their prisons are "vocational and educational training centers" to fight terrorism and prevent Uighurs from becoming "radicalized." (Sound familiar?)
Last October, the Trump Administration placed Xinjiang on a blacklist that forbids the US from supplying them with products, allegedly in defense of Uighurs but obviously also in protest of the country's political leanings.
The new Mulan movie was filmed in the region where China has Uyghur internment camps and there are “special thanks”… https://t.co/X1q7ylaJyO— Amnesty International (@Amnesty International) 1599556877.0
Mulan specifically thank the publicity department of CPC Xinjiang uyghur autonomous region committee in the credits… https://t.co/htHEZMLjuC— Jeannette Ng 吳志麗 (@Jeannette Ng 吳志麗) 1599439062.0
Please boycott Mulan! It was filmed in Xinjiang, where Uyghur Muslims are being detained, sterilized, exterminated… https://t.co/iZ1bcvpupd— CJ Werleman (@CJ Werleman) 1599516068.0
Money, Chinese Politics, and Hollywood Blockbusters: A Messy Tangle
Of course, Mulan—once a sure bet and a crown jewel of Disney's canon—has long been a symbol of the United States' increasingly tense and fraught relationship with mainland China.
In 1997, the release of the original animated Disney movie was delayed in China after Hollywood's Martin Scorcese movie Kundun portrayed the exiled Dalai Lama—viewed by China as a dangerous radical—in a way that angered the Chinese government.
This also far from the first time an American media juggernaut has sparked tensions with China. Dreamworks' Abominable was criticized in Asia for allegedly showing a map of China's maritime claims that neighboring countries found inaccurate. Last year, after one of the NBA's team managers tweeted in support of the Hong Kong demonstrators, extreme criticism and boycotts ensued in China.
Today, some see Disney's Mulan as a symbol of Chinese nationalism, while others view the backlash as anti-Chinese.
"The western anti-Chinese forces, Hong Kong and Taiwan independence forces and others are spreading hatred against China's soft power using Xinjiang," wrote one angry Twitter user. Admittedly, it's hard to know what's real on Twitter—last year, the site removed over 20,000 accounts it said were Chinese nationalist bots.
In America, right-wing anti-communists like Republican Senator Tom Cotton and Republican Rep Mike Gallagher are united with left-wing radical leftists in their hatred of mainland China, albeit for different reasons. Cotton and his ilk hate the Communist Party, while leftists hate the Chinese state's brutality and crackdown on the Hong Kong resistance. Mulan is quickly becoming a proxy war for these complicated battles.
"Part of this feels like a political pile-on," said Michael Berry, a professor at the University of California. "Companies like Disney are faced with difficult decisions when it comes to balancing where they stand with core principles like human rights and access to global markets."
It's fascinating to watch this all play out around Mulan, a film that is all about questions of war, loyalty, and identity. Mulan goes to war for her family and remains conflicted about disparate facets of her identity, unwilling to conform to the superstructures and expectations that control her.
Maybe her story could teach us all a few things—if we could get past all the propaganda and lies.