Featured as one of Disney’s most promising movies for 2020, Mulan has been a disappointment following the movie’s poor performance in both western countries and China. As of Sept. 23, Mulan has raked in $58.3 million, a number that is significantly lower than its $200 million budget.
The movie has struggled in international markets, including the Chinese market that the production team had intended to impress. Mulan currently holds a 4.9 out of 10 rating on Chinese social media platform Douban, a mediocre performance for a Disney movie in China. Negative comments, criticisms, and mockeries of the movie outnumber positive reviews on social media.
Chinese state media Global Times said the movie has a “poor artistic level, and a misunderstanding of Chinese culture has led to the film’s failure in China.” The government-sponsored media organization also calls Mulan a “Disney style princess” movie rather than “a Chinese movie.”
The 2020 Mulan movie was a remake of Disney’s popular 1998 animated film. The story is based on an ancient fictional character named Hua Mulan, a young woman from the Northern Wei dynasty who volunteered to replace her father for military duties. The figure originated from an ancient folk song named Ballad of Mulan, and was later amplified by Disney to promote gender equality and feminism.
Yet in the context of the folk song, Mulan was not perceived as a positive figure advocating gender equality or feminism. Instead, the folk song featured ideas of filial piety, loyalty to the King, and the urge to complete one’s mission regardless of hardship. These themes and ideas are problematic and are negatively perceived in today’s modern Chinese society: Family ties often act as a constraint to the younger generation’s career developments, whereas loyalty and excessive commitments contribute to toxic work cultures and long overtime hours.
In the folk song’s historical context, it is also important to note that Mulan would not be a Han Chinese, nor would she necessarily speak Mandarin. The Northern Wei dynasty was established by the Xianbei people, members of a nomadic tribe which originated in Manchuria. However, Disney’s Mulan remake made little effort to address these historical nuances, and most of its scenes were based on the 1998 animation.
Several other scenes from the movie were also criticized by Chinese viewers. From fighting against a female antagonist with superpowers to inaccurate historical scenes and items, Chinese viewers see the movie as a form of disrespect to the country’s history, as well as a failure to pay attention to details.
Mulan earned roughly $28.8 million in its first week in China. The figure is low compared to other major Disney productions, and failed Disney’s strategic goals of appealing to Chinese audiences.
In other Chinese-speaking regions and the rest of the world, Mulan was met with calls of boycott and backlash over the movie’s lead actress who commented on police brutalities in Hong Kong and the production team’s cooperation with China’s Xinjiang regional government. Mulan credited the public security bureau in the city of Turpan and the “publicity department of CPC Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Committee”, the regional propaganda government entity, in the credits.
The Chinese government has faced criticism from the international community for its mistreatment of the country’s Uighur minorities. Citing the need to combat terrorism and ensure regional stability, the Chinese government set up detention camps that arbitrarily detain ethnic Uighurs without a fair trial or due process. The latest reports from Bloomberg suggest that China is continuing to invest in detention camps in Xinjiang amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Liu Yifei, who plays the titular character, vocally supported the Hong Kong police during the anti-extradition protests last year. On Chinese social media platform Weibo, Liu joined several dozen other Chinese celebrities amplifying the Chinese government’s position oppressing the demands for full democracy in Hong Kong. Pro-democracy activists have repeatedly advocated for the public to boycott Mulan in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and other countries around the world.
When asked by the Hollywood Reporter on her social media comments, Liu declined to further elaborate on her stance: “I think it’s obviously a very complicated situation and I’m not an expert. I just really hope this gets resolved soon.” After being pressed by the reporter, Liu seemed to have exhausted the rehearsed lines and simply repeated “I think it’s just a very sensitive situation.”
Chinese government officials also joined the heated discussions regarding ‘boycott Mulan’. Zhao Lijian, the spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, accused pro-democracy activists and reporters of ‘politicizing the movie’. On the contrary, Zhao defended Liu Yifei’s social media post, claiming that the Chinese-born American actress is “a real Chinese.”
Seeing major blunders and political controversies in the international market, Mulan also struggled to appeal to Chinese audiences. The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted movie theaters, and many see the Disney+ price of $30 being too expensive for a movie.
The Mulan production team is also facing criticism for its lack of diversity. There is a lack of Asian representation in a movie that features ancient stories from Asia. From the director to the costume designers, the production team did not seem to have a good understanding of the historical nuances and cultural background knowledge that would have been critical to the movie’s success. The reactions from Chinese audiences, who are sensitive to those details, prove that the lack of efforts in composing a diverse team jeopardized the movie’s performance in the international movie market.
Looking back at the disappointing performance of Mulan, Disney should reflect on its overall strategic goals in its international markets, as well as its intended targets at home. Without a concrete target to work towards, Mulan failed to appeal to both Chinese audiences and its domestic audience. Amidst the global pandemic and growing ideological differences around the world, Disney will need to make a strategic decision on its future targets in this rapidly changing international movie industry. Following thorough and frequent discussions on the issues of race, gender, and equality in American politics, Mulan should also serve as a good opportunity for Disney to think about diversity and inclusion.
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Nowadays, live-action remakes have become a popular way for film studios to rake in millions of dollars by appealing to people’s sense of nostalgia. However, many have failed to impress audiences and Mulan is just the latest in a string of movies that haven’t fared as well as the originals. Perhaps movie studios like Disney should focus on creating new and original films instead of embroiling themselves in controversy in an attempt to give audiences something that no one asked for in the first place.