Losing the plot

Disney in the dock as Mulan fails to flower with Chinese moviegoers


Liu Yifei: her movie Mulan finally hit Chinese cinemas last week

When Disney first released Mulan as an animation in 1998, it was a flop in the country where the story was set: China. Local moviegoers complained that the beloved heroine was “foreign-looking and ugly”. And her mannerisms were decried as too different from the Mulan of Chinese folklore for local audiences to accept.

Two decades later, when Disney announced a live-action remake, the studio was much more focused on appealing to the China market. To make a culturally authentic film, it cast Liu Yifei and other familiar Chinese faces like action star Donnie Yen, Jet Li and actress Gong Li. According to the New York Times, it even shared the script with Chinese officials – a highly unusual practice for Hollywood – in advance of production.“In many ways, the movie is a love letter to China,” Niki Caro, the film’s director, told Xinhua.

The latest offering was initially scheduled for release in March but its debut was delayed as the coronavirus first began to rapidly spread in North America. Six months on, Disney did not want to wait longer, making Mulan available in early September in the US on Disney+, its on-demand streaming platform, for $29.99.

The film also got a broader release in cinemas in China in a bid to maximise box office takings.

However, it only made it into Chinese theatres on September 11, a week after its Disney+ debut. That proved costly for the studio, which had plunged $200 million into the remake. According to Yiyu Guancha, a showbiz blog, almost as soon as the movie arrived on Disney+, pirated copies were appearing on the Chinese internet (in high definition, no less). Ratings were soon appearing on Douban, the film and TV series review site, starting out with a dismal score of 4.7 out of 10 (it has since crept up to 4.9). So even before the film’s official release, negative word-of-mouth was already spreading.

The story is a well-known one in China: a dutiful young woman goes off to war in place of her aging father. But for many Chinese, the character is more than a piece of folklore. “For audiences, Mulan is almost a historical figure. But Disney has turned her into a commercial fairy tale, similar to Beauty and the Beast,” the Beijing Evening News thundered.

Disney collected just Rmb150 million ($23.2 million) in the first three days after the film opened in China. For comparison, The Lion King made Rmb300 million in its first weekend and the domestically-made The Eight Hundred (see WiC507) had surpassed Rmb2.6 billion in ticket sales as of last Sunday. The latter looks set to be the big hit of the year, and not Mulan as many had forecast.

“If it weren’t for the rampant piracy, the poor reputation of Mulan may not have spread so quickly. But if the quality of the film is good, a lot of audiences would still be happy to pay to watch the film again on the big screen out of respect for the filmmaker. This time round, who is going to spend the money to watch a movie with a Douban score of less than 5? And let’s not mention the extremely poorly designed movie poster,” Yiyu Guancha explained.

While audiences elsewhere have been more positive – Mulan was given a high rating of 75% on Rotten Tomatoes, the US review aggregation service, surpassing the Lion King (55%) and Aladdin (53%) – Chinese audiences were a lot more critical. Some complained about the action sequences, saying they were reminded of a “dated costume drama”. But a bigger theme was that Disney still hadn’t captured the essence of the story in the way that Chinese audiences expected. “In my mind, Hua Mulan is a girl who, out of her filial duty, reluctantly impersonates a man to fight in the army for her sick father. She is not someone, as portrayed in the film, who loves swordfights and is eager to be drafted into the army. The whole time watching the film I felt very awkward: of course, foreigners can’t capture the emotions,” another reviewer wrote.

Domestic audiences also picked up on discrepancies with the original tale. The story of Mulan is believed to be rooted in the Northern Wei period (386-534) but her house in the film is designed in an architectural style that did not exist until centuries later. In another scene, a famous couplet hangs on a door. Critics were soon pointing out that it was composed by a playwright from the Yuan Dynasty, around 800 years after the story is set.

The make-up in the film was also a topic of controversy. Liu’s heavily rouged cheeks and the decorative flower on her forehead (it was even compared to Huawei’s logo) were subjects of ridicule. Gong, who plays the villain, looks like she’s wearing an eye mask. Actress Zheng Peipei, who plays the matchmaker, wears make-up that is so ghastly that it looks like she “has rubbed plaster on her face”, another fan fumed.

“The female characters’ make-up reminds me of the royal family in Versailles [in France] during the 17th century,” another neitzen complained on weibo.

But the biggest irks were about cultural clumsiness. One scene shows Mulan performing an acrobatic stunt in the middle of a matchmaking event. “It is so strange to me that she can do acrobatics in the film, because that is how Westerners perceive Chinese people. When I was studying abroad, everyone asked if I could do kung-fu or acrobatics,” one netizen mused.

In the plot, the heroine also uses qi as a supernatural power to fight off an enemy, when in traditional Chinese medicine, qi simply denotes flows of energy (as one critic puts it, “and suddenly, Mulan becomes a superhero?”).

“Let’s not discuss the relevance of these elements to the story of Mulan, but what this tells you is that it is a film that uses Chinese cultural elements as cover but tells a totally Western story,” reckoned film critic Ciwei Gongshe.

“The movie gives me the feeling of watching a Western film. In the Chinese culture the concept of ‘qi’ is not like the ‘force’ in the Star Wars franchise. Giving her superpowers also takes away her hard work and what makes her relatable to the [Chinese] audience.”

“All in all, this version of Mulan is laden with Chinese cultural elements. But at its core, it reflects Western aesthetics and values and a lot of foreign misunderstandings and misinterpretations about Chinese culture,” another netizen agreed.

The rebukes will sting Disney, which put a lot of effort into trying to make the plot acceptable to a broader audience. For instance, in the animated film, Mulan’s love interest is also her general Li Shang. But worried about the issue of power dynamics in the #metoo era, the screenwriters split the character into two, with Donnie Yen’s Commander Tung acting as mentor to Mulan, while actor An Yoson’s fellow soldier Chen Honghui becomes her romantic partner.

“For Disney, which has always attached such importance to political correctness and respecting cultural characteristics of many countries, the landslide of criticism against Mulan in China is perhaps the biggest irony,” Yiyu Guancha believes.

Shunned by many moviegoers in China, the film is also being pilloried from some quarters in the US over its final credits, where a local government in Xinjiang is thanked for allowing the studio to film there. This caused anger in Disney’s home market because government entities in Xinjiang are “accused of serious human rights violations,” the BBC reported.

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