Disney has made a lot of meaningful movies and even have a history of trying to develop their characters in a manner that quashes traditional stereotypes. Films such as Zootopia’, ‘Frozen’, ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ are among those credited with the evolution of the production company’s cast of characters. However, when it comes to their 2019 live action remake of the animated film Mulan, Disney has fallen far from the mark. Even before its August 2020 release, the film was garnering criticism from people around the world, leading to the hashtags #BoycottMulan and #Boycott Disney trending on the Internet. The film, which held much promise for fans around the world, was supposed to put an end to the stereotypes it was responsible for in their animated version of the tale, such as small eyed characters, evil nomads and clear orientalism. However, critics argue that despite the changes made to the film, it continues to use a western centered interpretation of Chinese culture.
The film was not only criticized for its content, but also many non-content elements became problems for Disney. In August 2019, the film’s lead actress Liu Yifei posted on Twitter, “I support the ‘Hong Kong’ police, you can hit me.” She was referring to the demonstrations where police used heavy hands to disperse anti-government protesters, causing many injuries and even deaths. Her post in support of the Hong Kong police triggered people fighting against the Chinese and Hong Kong governments to a call for the boycott of Mulan and Disney. Joshua Wong, a leader in the Hong Kong protest posted to his Twitter account “We urge Disney to take down this controversial movie from its platform & clarify its stance on the issues regarding Xinjiang.”
|▲ Protesters are calling for a boycott for Mulan, demanding answers from Disney of Mulan filmed in Xinjiang region where the cultural genocides are performed. (Photo from. Middle East Monitor)|
With the main actress taking a pro-police stance in the Hog Kong protest conflict, it came as a shock to many people that Disney further credited four propaganda departments in the Chinese Xinjian Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) for their help in creating the film. Isaac Stone Fish a reporter with the Washington Post, pointed out that XUAR is where the Uyghur and other ethnic minorities live and also where the Chinese government is accused of committing cultural genocide against them. Many Uyghurs in this region are undergoing forced labor camps, sterilization, abortions, and many other forms of abuse. In response to the company’s decision to overlook the cultural genocide and instead praise the Chinese local government for their support, on September 12, 2020, 19 members of the US congress sent a letter to Disney CEO Bob Chapek demanding answers over their decision to film Mulan in the region. Disney maintained it was trying to keep politics out of its filmmaking decisions.
|▲ Among the ending credits of Disney film "Mulan," subtitles are expressing gratitude to the XUAR, China.(Photo from Seoul Shinmun)|
Apart from these well-established controversies, is ‘Mulan’ a well-made film? The Dankook herald interviewed movie critic Jo han-ki to hear this expert’s view of the movie and his professional opinion regarding the surrounding controversies. From a cinematic perspective, he pointed out the problems the film had in the adaptation process. He said, “The movie had to be adapted for the fun and completeness of the film itself, but in this case I think the film was made with a lot of external factors in mind.” He added, “It may or may not be fun to watch a movie without having seen the original animation, but from my point of view, I did not see it as anything more than a spectacular, but ordinary martial arts film.”
We wondered about the film’s ability to effectively portray Chinese culture to the world. He said, “The power of this film, to highlight Chinese culture, is still being studied and various papers are being written about it, so it is not easy say if it was effective. However, it is clear the film has managed to create global resentment for both the production and the content.” In order to avoid controversy when portraying the culture of another country the movie critic said, “Producers need to carefully study the culture and the communities that belong to it.” He added, “I think there was an attempt to be more culturally sensitive in ‘Mulan’ with the deletion of authoritative characters, but I believe this became a problem because the villains were reminiscent of certain ethnic groups, expressed in an unappealing manner while using them functionally.”
Overall the boycott left ‘Mulan’ with an audience of 230,000 people, forcing Disney to take a huge hit for a film that cost 220 million US dollars to produce. The film has suffered from several massive public relations disasters from all sides. The resulting reexamination of human rights abuse claims of the Uyghur people has led to a ban on reporting on ‘Mulan’ in China. Boycotts by anti-government supporters in Hong Kong and conscientious people who support the investigation into the human rights abuses in Xinjian have hampered efforts to garner support for the high budget production. Under the circumstances, if the company wants to recover, Disney needs to step up and deal with this public relations disaster as soon as possible and should be sure to not repeat these mistakes in future blockbuster productions.
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