It was supposed to be another $1 billion blockbuster for Walt Disney Co. — a live-action remake of a 1998 animated hit featuring an all-star Asian cast, breathtaking cinematography and plenty of martial arts.
Instead, the new “Mulan” is proving to be a political hot potato, reflecting the U.S.’s fraying ties with China.
The $200 million film, which was made available for purchase online in the U.S. and Europe last week and is set to open in China on Friday, has stumbled from one controversy to another — all while the coronavirus knocked out its chances of getting a successful run in theaters.
An online boycott that began last year, when one of the stars spoke positively about the Chinese government’s crackdown on civil liberties in Hong Kong, has continued. Now Disney is facing heat for filming in Xinjiang, a region of China where the government has detained up to 1 million ethnic Uighurs in camps called “voluntary education centers.”
Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, slammed the company on Twitter on Tuesday, saying Disney is “addicted to Chinese cash and will do just about anything to please the Communist Party.”
Disney has a lot at risk in China. The company spent $5.5 billion developing its Shanghai Disneyland resort and has been expanding its smaller park in Hong Kong. With both Republicans and Democrats focusing on China trade and cultural issues leading up the presidential election, the company could continue to find itself in the political crossfire.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re called before Congress,” said Stanley Rosen, a political-science professor and specialist on China at the University of Southern California.
It certainly didn’t begin this way when Disney started work on the film more than five years ago.
The company sought to address cultural and social concerns about the earlier picture, which featured Donny Osmond and Harvey Fierstein voicing Asian characters. For the new picture, they were replaced with a largely Chinese or Chinese American cast, including Liu Yifei as the heroine who dresses as a male soldier to save her father, and Jet Li, as her emperor.
Disney chose a female director, New Zealander Niki Caro, because “she has a long tradition of going into very specific communities and telling a story,” said “Mulan” producer Jason Reed. He pointed to films she had done, such as “North Country,” about Minnesota iron miners, and “McFarland, USA,” about a Latino track team in California.
“Mulan,” which is based on a centuries-old Chinese folk song, incorporates traditional Chinese architecture, costumes and spirituality.
“We spent a great deal of time with scholars, consultants and various creative people really listening to how they look at the world,” Reed said.
Then Liu, the film’s star, voiced her support for the mainland Chinese government during Hong Kong pro-democracy protests last year. A #BoycottMulan movement began trending on Twitter.
After the film’s release last Friday, others began to notice that the credits included thanks to local authorities in Xinjiang for letting the company film there. The region is where members of China’s Muslim minority are being held in camps.
The troubles show that political winds can shift much faster than the time it takes to make a big-budget Hollywood movie, said Chris Berry, a China expert and professor of film studies at King’s College in London.
“Xinjiang was just an exotic desert landscape when Disney picked it, and not associated with concentration camps and cultural genocide,” he said.
About Liu Yifei he said: “They probably expected her to stay out of politics, but now staying out is not acceptable anymore.”
The financial impact on “Mulan” remains to be seen. The movie already faced a steep climb to profitability because so many theaters were closed by the coronavirus and Disney took the unusual step of releasing it online for $30 (about ¥3,200) on its Disney+ streaming service.
The company also spent tens of millions of dollars marketing “Mulan,” over and above its production budget. Given the state of the movie-theater business, it will be tough to make back its investment.
Disney hasn’t released numbers on online purchases of the film, although data from third parties suggest there was a lot of interest. And we won’t know how it fares in China for a few days. Box office results from the country, the world’s second-largest movie market, won’t be available until the weekend. Some, like USC’s Rosen, think it will do well there. Chinese theaters have come roaring back from the COVID-19 shutdown since reopening in July, and the film’s stars are popular.
Rich Gelfond, chief executive officer of Imax Corp., which has a big presence in China, predicts no backlash against U.S. pictures there — even with the trade war and other issues between the countries. The Warner Bros. sci-fi thriller “Tenet” took in $30 million in China last weekend, the biggest opening for a Christopher Nolan-directed film in the country.
The bigger problems for “Mulan” could be ones that studios are more accustomed to: piracy, for example, because the movie is already available online. The reviews have also been less than unanimous — 76 percent of critics and 54 percent of the audience gave it a thumbs up, according to Rotten Tomatoes.
But the woes for U.S. companies doing business in China aren’t close to being over, said Michael Berry, who teaches Chinese culture at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“Part if this feels like a political pile-on,” he said. “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.”
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