Even having the right ingredients, Hollywood movies can still get it wrong, and that appears to be the case with Disney’s live action “Mulan.” The remake seemed to strike all the right notes to be a Chinese hit. Disney cast beloved actor Liu Yifei as Mulan and removed a dragon sidekick popular in the animated original to cater to Chinese tastes.
Disney actually poured five years and $200 million into the film trying to ensure that it appealed to a as a wide a Chinese audience as possible. Along with casting popular Chinese actors, they also enlisted Chinese consultants, shared the script with Chinese authorities and even cut scenes audiences didn’t care for.
“In many ways, the movie is a love letter to China,” “Mulan” director Niki Caro told state-run Chinese news agency Xinhua before the film’s release.
With all that, the movie drew decidedly mixed reviews after its coronavirus-delayed release in China last week, with thousands panning it online. It’s the old adage, when you try to please everyone, you please no one. HBO used to make movies by committee like this until they realized it just wasn’t working as they wound up becoming sterile.
Rampant illegal downloading meant that many viewers in China had watched “Mulan” days before it came out in Chinese cinemas on Sept. 11. Within hours of the film becoming available on Disney’s streaming platform Disney+ on Sept. 4, it appeared on illegal streaming sites worldwide. (Disney+ is available to subscribers in more than two dozen countries in Europe, Asia, and North America. It’s not available in mainland China, but users with a virtual private network can bypass regional restrictions.)
Bad reviews started appearing on platforms like Douban, a Chinese social networking site, and Maoyan, China’s largest online movie ticketing site, from users who had watched pirated versions, creating “negative buzz” around “Mulan” days before it hit Chinese theaters, Rosen said. “Piracy led to those bad reviews, which kind of turned people off from booking a ticket.”
The movie was rated 4.9 out of 10 by more than 165,000 people on Douban, a leading website for film, book and music ratings. Negative comments and jokes about the film outnumbered positive reactions on social media.
“Mulan” has earned an estimated 198 million yuan ($28.8 million) since its opening last week, and was the second most watched movie in China as of Thursday, according to ticketing platform Maoyan. It scored a higher 7.5 out of 10 on Maoyan, but also with mixed reviews.
Chinese critics, both at home and abroad, said they were disappointed with the film’s inaccurate and stereotypical portrayals of Chinese history and the main character, infused with nationalist tropes.
Others were not as bothered.
“It’s fine that different screenwriters make up different stories,” Zhang Qin, a military veteran, said after watching the film in Beijing last week. “They can play with imagination and it’s a good thing.”
IT engineer Zhang Fan also had positive things to say about the film. “What touched me is the humanity,” he said.
The remake of Disney’s popular 1998 animation is based on the ancient tale of Hua Mulan, a young woman who takes her father’s place in the army by dressing as a man.
The animated version was a global hit but earned just $30 million in China, where viewers found the movie too Americanized, according to reports at the time.
The original tale, “The Ballad of Mulan,” has gone through multiple renditions. Themes such as filial piety and being loyal to the central government have remained as core tenets, which some find outdated and problematic.
“It’s a very touchy subject in modern China because a lot of people find (filial piety) very constraining, including me,” said Xiran Jay Zhao, the Chinese Canadian author of an upcoming book about the only female emperor in China. “It’s like a moral shackle for people.”
Critics also pointed out inaccurate details such as the use of a southern-style house when Mulan is likely from the north and a depiction of “qi” as a power that only boys should wield — when in fact there is no such gender restriction. Some called the makeup and costumes ugly and inauthentic.
Zhao said the film comes off more like European fantasy than a Chinese story, and noted that the film’s crew was mostly white, including the director, four screenwriters and costume designer.
“They didn’t really get any Chinese people on the writing staff, and it really showed,” she said.
Jeannette Ng, a Chinese fantasy writer based in the United Kingdom, said the film perpetuates a narrative of China’s majority Han people that assimilates and excludes minorities including ethnic Mongolians, Tibetans and Uighurs.
“The mainland Chinese people aren’t the mainland Chinese viewers from 20 years ago,” she said of the lukewarm response. “The culture has moved on.”
Her comments mirror the latest in a series of controversies that have hit the film outside mainland China.
The movie’s final credits thank propaganda departments and a public security bureau in Xinjiang, where part of it was filmed.
China has come under widespread criticism for detaining Uighurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities in Xinjiang as part of a campaign to snuff out sometimes-violent struggle against Chinese rule.
Earlier, a boycott movement was sparked after Liu, the actor who portrays Mulan, publicly supported Hong Kong police as they battled pro-democracy protesters last year.
Hong Kong resident Sarah Chan said she does not plan to see the film, which opened in her city on Thursday.
“The main actress … supports Hong Kong police, so I don’t want to watch it,” Chan said. “Furthermore, I think they changed the historical background of the story. It’s not the same story anymore.”
Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian defended Liu last week, calling her a “Mulan of the modern times.”
As China’s $9.2 billion box office is poised to surpass the U.S. as the largest cinema market in the world, Hollywood movies’ share of it has declined as Chinese films’ share has grown. The quality, quantity, and budgets of domestic films are improving, and local films accounted for 64% of China’s total box office in 2019, compared to 62% in 2018 and 54% in 2017.
But joint productions between U.S. and Chinese movie makers like “The Great Wall” and Hollywood movies with Chinese cultural themes like “Crazy Rich Asians” and “The Farewell” have flopped at the mainland box office. Their failures underscore the difficulty of making a movie with Chinese themes that appeals to U.S. and Chinese audiences and succeeds critically and commercially in both markets.
“Crazy Rich Asians,” a movie about a Chinese American woman who travels to Singapore to meet her Chinese Singaporean boyfriend’s wealthy family, was a hit across the globe, but flopped in China, where reviewers said it negatively stereotyped Chinese culture and was too American.
“The Farewell,” a film about a Chinese-American woman who travels from the U.S. to China to visit her dying grandmother, has a higher Douban score than “Mulan” and “Crazy Rich Asians,” but it still bombed when it premiered in China last year. Positive reviews praised the film’s authentic depiction of a Chinese family in China; negative reviews said the director was showing China through an American lens, and the depiction was unflattering.
“Mulan,” more so than the other two films, was crafted with the explicit goal of appealing to Chinese audiences—but if its online ratings and early box office figures are anything to go by, it failed to do so.
“Politics aside, the new live-action [“Mulan”] film is a half-baked story that caters neither to the West nor to the East,” said Ying Zhu, an expert on China-Hollywood relations who’s a cinema studies professor at the City University of New York and a faculty member at the Film Academy of the Hong Kong Baptist University.
“It’s the inbetweenness that ruins an otherwise fascinating tale. Hollywood should leave “Mulan” alone,” Zhu said.
The film’s “inbetweenness” is exemplified in the contrasting responses to the question of whether Mulan can be considered a ‘feminist’ hero. Some Western and Chinese viewers praised the film’s feminist messaging and its strong female protagonist, while others disliked the characterization for the same reason. One viewer told The New York Times that the film’s director had “stubbornly twisted [Mulan] into this role as an extreme feminist and hero.”
“Mulan” sparked controversy outside of mainland China, too, long before it was released, when actress Liu Yifei, who plays Mulan, expressed support for the Hong Kong police in August 2019 at the height of the protests in Hong Kong. Calls to boycott the movie over Liu’s remarks resurfaced when “Mulan” was released on Disney+ earlier this month, and protests supporting the boycott cropped up in Hong Kong, South Korea, and Thailand.
After “Mulan” appeared on Disney+, another controversy emerged. The credits revealed that parts of the movie had been filmed in Xinjiang, a far-western region of China where China’s government has been accused of human rights abuses towards Xinjiang’s Uighur Muslim minority.
Those criticisms, though, were largely unrelated to the movie’s poor box office performance in mainland China, where the government censors the Internet and the news is dominated by state-run media.
“The fact that it hasn’t been successful in China has nothing to do with the [Hong Kong] boycott movement or the attitude towards Xinjiang in the United States…it has to do with the quality of the film,” Rosen said.