This new adaptation of the Chinese legend, whose theatrical release was canceled due to the pandemic, is coming out this week in France on Disney+. Shot in part in the area of abuses against the Uyghur minority, this big budget film symbolizes the opportunistic accommodations of the multinational entertainment company in the face of an authoritarian regime, in total contradiction with its commitments for social justice in the United States. A far from isolated case in Hollywood.
Industrial disaster. The expression to qualify Mulan does not seem exaggerated, this new blockbuster from the Disney multinational having a budget of 200 million dollars. And not only because of the lukewarm critical reception given to the feature film directed by New Zealand director Niki Caro. This re-make of the cult 1998 cartoon, itself taken from a popular Chinese tale, was to be one of the cinematic events of 2020. The origin of many unfortunate controversies for the image of Disney for more than a year, the film could not be released in American or European theaters, due to the pandemic.
In early September, the film premiered in the United States on the Disney+ streaming platform, costing $30 to watch, in addition to the subscription to the service. This American pricing strategy, with satisfactory results according to Disney, was not followed in France, where the film will be released on December 4th at no additional cost to subscribers. Behind the facade of self-congratulations, the experience will hold a bitter taste for Disney. While Mulan was tailor-made for the Middle Kingdom, where it hit theaters a week after it became available in the U.S, the film was a failure at the Chinese box office. The cocktail of piracy, negative criticism and state pressure to limit its promotion did not help.
In the U.S, Mulan has above all become, in the eyes of many observers, the symbol of self-censorship and the growing servility of Hollywood studios faced with China, a powerful partner that must not be upset, on penalty of economic sanctions. Even if it means renouncing its announced commitments to improve its progressive image in the Western world.
A closely scrutinised cast
Let’s go back to the build-up of this lead balloon. For several years, Disney has relied, often successfully, on recycling its own catalog to shine at the box office. We can notably cite Alice in Wonderland (2010), Maleficent (2014), Cinderella (2015) and The Jungle Book (2016), among others: so many film adaptations of their animated classics met with great success.
As of 2015, such an adaptation was announced for Mulan. Even before the name of the actress playing the title role was known, a petition that had collected 112,000 signatures demanded from Disney that an Asian actress be selected. An anticipated complaint due to the controversy over the casting of Scarlett Johansson, accused of whitewashing, in the re-make of the Japanese film Ghost in the Shell. At the end of 2017, a few months after the choice – not very frequent in Hollywood for this kind of big budget – to entrust the production to a woman, the Chinese-American actress Yifei Liu was chosen for the role. Everything seems to start off on the right foot in terms of image for Disney. The shooting of the film takes place mainly in New Zealand, during the second half of 2018. Several outdoor scenes are also filmed in China to take advantage of its natural settings with the support of the local authorities, which will have important consequences thereafter.
In August 2019, a year after the shooting of the film then in post-production, Yifei Liu puts Disney in a very embarrassing position by publicly expressing her support for the forces of law and order repressing the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. This special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China is in social turmoil, and police violence in the former British colony scandalises world opinion. The position of the actress, 31 at the time, is applauded in China but arouses international outrage from human rights defenders: the hashtag #BoycottMulan goes viral on Twitter.
China instrumentalises “Mulan”
Even more embarrassing for Disney, China jumps at the opportunity to launch a massive disinformation campaign against Hong Kong protesters by promoting the hashtag #SupportMulan on social networks: Twitter then removes more than 200,000 accounts suspected of anti-protest propaganda. In a press release, the American platform claims to have “credible evidence” of a “disinformation operation coordinated and supported by the (Chinese) state”. Ditto for Facebook, although with a lesser volume of deleted content. Embarassed silence from Disney’s side, which does not comment on these events.
A few months later, as the Covid-19 pandemic gains momentum, Mulan‘s world premiere is held in Hollywood on March 9 2020 – back then, it was still hoped that the film would come out in American theaters three weeks later. The worsening health situation forces Disney to postpone its release several times, until the announcement in early August of its later arrival on its streaming platform, to the chagrin of cinema operators around the world. The summer was marked by various key words to criticize the relations between Hollywood and China (which we will come back to) and which will serve as a breeding ground for the disastrous reception of the film when it is released.
The controversy culminates in the U.S at the beginning of September in the days following the arrival of the film on Disney+: observant spectators notice that a Xinjiang government body is one of the various Chinese institutions thanked in the final credits. This autonomous territory, the filming location of a few scenes of Mulan, is not trivial: this is where, according to many media and organizations, since 2017, China has been carrying out the extrajudicial confinement of at least 1,5 million Uyghurs (a Muslim minority) in re-education camps. By thanking institutions targeted with accusations of “genocide”, Disney unleashes a media and political storm. The L.A.Times explains How Disney’s ‘Mulan’ became one of 2020’s most controversial movies, the Washington Post publishes an op-ed titled Why Disney’s New Mulan Is A Scandal, the daughter of an Uyghur prisoner demands an apology from Disney in a very critical interview on Bloomberg, and a Republican senator writes a virulent open letter to the multinational, accusing it of “genocide laundering” and inviting it to account for its errors.
This scandal severely tarnishes Disney’s progressive image, which was notably brought forward, like other American companies, in the wake of the death of George Floyd (victim of police violence), which had spurred the Black Lives Matter movement. The three most senior officials of the company had thus published, on May 30, a letter addressed to their thousands of employees, in which one could read:
“We also realise that now more than ever is the time for us all to further strengthen our commitment to diversity and inclusion everywhere”.
Beautiful words particularly highlighted by adjustments made to an attraction of their theme parks in California and Florida broadcasting a song deemed racist, followed a few months later by warnings preceding fictional productions also deemed “dated” or “racist” on Disney+.
As mentioned earlier, the weeks leading up to the embarrassing association between Disney and genocidal practices had been marked by extremely critical speeches about the dangerous links between Hollywood and China. In July, the conservative William Barr, the United States Attorney General of the United States (more or less the equivalent to France’s Minister of Justice) had blasted Hollywood’s self-censorship, being in his eyes accomplice to the propaganda of the Chinese Communist Party:
“Hollywood’s actors, producers, and directors pride themselves on celebrating freedom and the human spirit, and every year at the Academy Awards Americans are lectured about how this country falls short of Hollywood’s ideals of social justice. But Hollywood now regularly censors its own productions to coax the Chinese Communist Party, the most powerful body in the world regarding human rights abuses. This censorship contaminates not only the versions distributed in China, but also many of those shown in American cinemas”
During his speech, Barr recalled the rise of the Chinese box office linked to the immense population of the country and the construction of numerous new cinemas, coupled with the Party’s stranglehold on American films authorised to be shown there. Regarding the influence of Chinese funds used to balance the budgets of big Hollywood productions, Barr argued that in 2018,“films with Chinese investors accounted for 20% of the US box office ticket sales, compared to only 3% five years earlier”.
A damning report on Hollywood submission
Barr’s accusations, based on examples that have been in the press for years, were confirmed a month after his speech by a hard-hitting report from the U.S branch of the PEN Club, a nearly 100-year-old NGO that brings together writers around the world. Entitled Made in Hollywood, censored by Beijing, this roughly sixty page document draws a damning report of Chinese influence in Hollywood, while for the first time, in 2020, the Chinese box office will dethrone that of the United States.
The report is divided into four parts:
- How (and why) Beijing is able to influence Hollywood
- The way this influence plays out
- Entering the Chinese market
- Looking Towards Solutions
Two videos predating the publication of the report, both titled How China Is Transforming Hollywood, summarise most of the examples. The first, published by the Vox site in November 2016, illustrates in particular the different options available to American productions to find their way onto Chinese screens; co-production with local companies, payment of fixed costs to local distributors, or selection from the quota of about thirty American films “admitted” each year. Among the Hollywood films thought (or modified) for the Chinese market, the examples of 2012: Iron man 3, World War Z, Alone on Mars and Looper are cited.
The other video, published at the end of October 2019, is a reportage from the CNBC channel which cites the example of Bohemian Rhapsody in terms of censorship (where any mention of Freddie Mercury’s homosexuality was redacted in the version distributed in China) or the sequel to Top Gun, expected next year, whose trailer has already shown pro-China changes compared to the first installment. The report also features an interview with political science researcher Stanley Rosen, a China specialist at the University of Southern California:
Although drawing on the same resources, the Pen Club report is more alarmist regarding the consequences, in terms of creativity and freedom of expression, of such dependence on China. So, while one might think that this relationship only affects “big movies”, Rosen warns in the report: “China will pay attention to anything that concerns it directly or indirectly. Don’t think that if you produce something without targeting the Chinese market, like an independent film for a limited market, for example, that China won’t notice it and that it can’t hurt your blockbuster. It will be the case”. To understand: if Disney produced via one of its subsidiaries specialising in arthouse films (for example Searchlight Pictures) a film that is too critical of Beijing, this could have consequences for the distribution in China of a future Pixar or Marvel (these two studios belonging to Disney).
Collective cowardice in Hollywood
As the report states, no official document spells out in black and white the boundaries not to be crossed, nor the subjects not to be mentioned in the films, even though certain taboos are known: mentioning Tibet or Taiwan is out of the question, for example, or even having LGBTQI+ romances. And when it is not a question of stricto-sensu censorship, Hollywood studios can, to increase their chances of being accepted in the Chinese market, modify the scripts of the films to include – sometimes forced and in spite of all good narrative sense – Chinese characters.
For Michael Berry, director of the Center for Chinese Studies at UCLA University mentioned in the report, these studio efforts to balance the desires of censors and foreign audiences through co-production is like “a dinner party where one would be vegetarian, the other intolerant to spices, the other allergic to fish… in the end, you get a bland meal”.
Even more than the hypocrisy of a Disney dedicated at home but cowardly in front of China, the report laments a collective shy-ness in Hollywood –in fact, many of the interventions collected by the PEN Club are anonymous, for fear of retaliation. One of the few leading professionals to speak regularly on the subject is director Judd Apatow, who wrote on Twitter in September:
“China has concentration camps with as many as two million people there and so few people dare mention it that it becomes a news item when I do. Shouldn’t everyone mention it? Just as a human being doesn’t it destroy you to know this is happening? Learn about it. Research it”.
Burst the bubble
This lack of courage can be explained by the fear of being accused of anti-Asian racism, even though China has been singled out for its handling of the Coronavirus crisis and that many hateful speeches (Trump in the lead) fueled Sinophobic (anti-Chinese) resentment. In its conclusion, the PEN Club report explains that a need for transparency is necessary to burst the bubble: “the industry should raise the curtain, deal with the dilemmas it faces, and honestly recognise these pressures in order to allow politicians, freedom of expression activists and audiences to be clearly informed”.
After a Trump mandate tinged with a clear hostility towards Beijing, will the arrival of Joe Biden at the White House be able to clean up relations between Hollywood and China? Whatever happens, it would be wrong to think of the debate as limited to the United States. On the French side, in a few months, the shooting of the next Asterix directed by Guillaumet Canet should start after being postponed due to the health crisis. Entitled Asterix and Obelix: the Middle Kingdom, this Franco-Chinese co-production with a 59.5 million euro budget, according to Variety, will have several sequences shot in China, with the consent of the local authorities. We can bet that viewers will read the acknowledgements in the end credits carefully when the film comes out 😏