Disney announced Tuesday that their much-delayed live-action adaptation of Mulan will be released on September 4 with a same-day theatrical and streaming release. Provided theaters reopen by September, you can watch it for the typical $12 ticket price. Those wanting to see the film from the comfort and safety of their own homes, however, will have to fork over $30 to rent the movie on the Disney+ streaming service.
But they should consider spending their money on something else. The repeatedly delayed release dates and outlandish rental costs are far from the darkest clouds hanging over Mulan. With a budget of $200 million and the casting of one of the Chinese film industry’s A-listers as its star, U.S.-based Disney has placed a huge bet on the Chinese market. The problem: they’ve sacrificed creative license to produce a product that spoon-feeds CCP propaganda.
The actress playing Mulan, Chinese-born dual-American citizen Liu Yifei, threw herself into the midst of the Hong Kong conflict by echoing support for the CCP and Hong Kong police’s suppression of pro-democracy protesters last year. Posting on social media in August 2019, she said, “I support the Hong Kong police. You can all attack me now. What a shame for Hong Kong.” These defenses of human rights abuses at the hands of the Hong Kong police were too much for many fans, and the #BoycottMulan hashtag was trending for most of the fall.
The narrative celebration of China that will result from Mulan will not be a celebration of the Middle Kingdom’s rich history but of the cultural themes promoted by the CCP.
The CCP responded with a government-organized #SupportMulan campaign. The official propaganda paper of the CCP, People’s Daily, defended the film in a statement: “The vicious attack on Liu Yifei and the mindless call to boycott the ‘Mulan’ remake is nothing short of an attempt to silence certain voices and to drag Hong Kong into an abyss.”
While backlash prompted Yifei to back out of attending Disney’s D23 expo last August, the movie itself has escaped serious criticism. Don’t be fooled, though: this version of Mulan is not like the ’90s Disney musical-comedy, a light-hearted story that takes its history lightly. The new, live-action Mulan is a full-throated retelling of the Chinese cultural epic. Mulan is a gritty war film that embraces the imperial majesty of the Middle Kingdom with not a song or Disney princess to be seen. Embracing the popular trend of Chinese-produced historical dramas, Mulan is bending over backwards to drive Chinese audiences to the box office.
The film’s writers and directors studied the source material of the ancient Chinese “Ballad of Mulan” and aimed to produce a Mulan movie at the scale of epics like Ben Hur and Lawrence of Arabia. In China, Mulan is a legendary figure akin to Joan of Arc. Mulan is thought to have fought while disguised as a woman in the imperial army of the fifth-century Northern Wei Dynasty in their war against the Rouran Khanate. Since the Tang Dynasty, the “Ballad of Mulan” has been considered a cultural touchstone essential to Chinese identity. Every child in mainland China is taught the story of Mulan. Now, Disney intends to bring that version of Mulan to the big screen.
Does Disney seriously expect parents to shell out $30 for a piece of Chinese propaganda?
The story of Mulan is one of the few aspects of imperial culture to survive Mao’s Great Leap Forward. The CCP has told a version of her story to young Chinese girls: that service to their state is the best way to make a name as a woman. The CCP’s influence on the cultural persona of Mulan can already be seen in the film’s trailers. Mulan is a “robotic warrior” meant to be an embodiment of the CCP’s homogenous values, Hong Kong playwright Jingan Young wrote. Subliminal messaging of Mulan drawing a chrysanthemum on her face even goes so far as to tie honoring Mulan with honoring the tech conglomerate Huawei, which has the flower as its logo.
The villain has been adjusted from the nomadic Rouran Khanate to a traitorous Chinese sorceress. With this change, Mulan becomes not a story about a conflict between warring powers but between tradition and modernity. A conflict between the spiritualism of traditional China represented by the sorceress and the technocratic order of the Communist Party in the form of the military. The selective use and alterations of Chinese history should be seen as expressions of the CCP’s vision for Mulan.
Director Niki Caro has said she wanted to make a war movie that was authentic to the Chinese legacy, but in execution the movie seems to have a marked agenda in its representation. What remains is the celebration of Chinese military might and Mulan’s fealty to the state. Imperial culture is portrayed as set pieces, but spiritualism and individuality are portrayed as evil themes that will be conquered by the state’s military power. The narrative celebration of China that will result from Mulan will not be a celebration of the Middle Kingdom’s rich history but of the cultural themes promoted by the CCP.
All this because that’s what will sell, and be allowed to sell, in the Chinese film market. In the past decade, foreign markets like China have made up 70 percent of the box office revenue for modern tentpoles. High-profile incidents like the removal of a Taiwanese flag from Tom Cruise’s bomber jacket in Top Gun: Maverick have shown just how much sway China has. Disney has been one of the worst offenders having entered into a close partnership with China’s Ministry of Culture, censoring Tibetan characters in Marvel movies and even shooting and including scenes solely for the Chinese market. Their lucrative partnership with CCP has extended all the way to content control over Disneyland theme parks in Shanghai and Hong Kong such that Disney CEO Bob Iger has said, “Disney’s mission is to ‘introduce more about China to the world.’ ”
Mulan presents a culmination of this pattern of Hollywood pandering: a Chinese-cast movie telling the story of a popular Chinese legend produced by Hollywood specifically for Chinese audiences. With months spent consulting with Chinese historians and officials, the movie is not just striving for accuracy but also a vision that coincides with the CCP’s propaganda department.
Disney has remained silent on Yifei’s comments and the human rights abuses committed by the CCP in Hong Kong. They have invested years and millions of dollars into this film, which they hope to make into a $1 billion epic blockbuster in mainland China. Building upon their intense nostalgia machine of remakes, the House of Mouse is hedging its bets it can entice children and adults to watch their movie celebrating China’s military might and its current cultural norms. Does Disney seriously expect parents to shell out $30 for a piece of Chinese propaganda? Apparently so. When picking out the next kids’ movie to watch in September, pick anything but Mulan.
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