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Disney Wanted to Make a Splash in China With ‘Mulan.’ It Stumbled Instead.

LOS ANGELES — Executives at Walt Disney Studios were celebrating. “Mulan,” a $200 million live-action spectacle five years in the making, had arrived on Disney’s streaming service to strong reviews, with critics lauding its ravishing scenery and thrilling battle sequences.

The abundant controversies that had dogged “Mulan” over its gestation — false rumors that Disney was casting a white lead actress, calls for a boycott after its star expressed support for the Hong Kong police — had largely dissipated by Sept. 4, when the film arrived online. Success looked likely around the world, including the crucial market of China, where “Mulan” is set and where Disney hoped its release in theaters on Friday would advance the company’s hold on Chinese imaginations and wallets.

“In many ways, the movie is a love letter to China,” Niki Caro, the film’s director, had told the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

Then the credits rolled.

Almost as soon as the film arrived on Disney+, social media users noticed that, nine minutes into the film’s 10-minute end credits, the “Mulan” filmmakers had thanked eight government entities in Xinjiang, the region in China where Uighur Muslims have been detained in mass internment camps.

Activists rushed out a new #BoycottMulan campaign, and Disney found itself the latest example of a global company stumbling as the United States and China increasingly clash over human rights, trade and security, even as their economies remain entwined.

Disney is one of the world’s savviest operators when it comes to China, having seamlessly opened Shanghai Disneyland in 2016, but it was caught flat-footed with “Mulan.” Top studio executives had not seen the Xinjiang credits, according to three people briefed on the matter, and no one involved with the production had warned that footage from the area was perhaps not a good idea.

The filmmakers may not have known what was happening there when they chose it as one of 20 locations in China to shoot scenery, but by the time a camera crew arrived in August 2018 the detention camps were all over the news. And all of this for what ended up being roughly a minute of background footage in a 1-hour-55-minute film.

Disney declined to comment.

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Credit…Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Asked about the credits fiasco at a Bank of America conference on Thursday, Christine M. McCarthy, Disney’s chief financial officer, noted that it was common practice in Hollywood to credit government entities that allowed filming to take place. Although all scenes involving the primary cast were filmed in New Zealand, Disney shot scenery in China “to accurately depict some of the unique landscape and geography for this historic period drama,” Ms. McCarthy said.

“I would just leave it at that,” she said, before allowing that the credits had “generated a lot of issues for us.”

No overseas market is more important to Hollywood than China, which is poised to overtake the United States and Canada as the world’s No. 1 box office engine. Disney has even more at stake. The Chinese government co-owns the $5.5 billion Shanghai Disney Resort, which Disney executives have said is the company’s greatest opportunity since Walt Disney himself bought land in central Florida in the 1960s. Disney is also pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into upgrades at its money-losing Hong Kong Disneyland in hopes of creating a must-visit attraction for families.

Disney worked overtime to ensure that “Mulan” would appeal to Chinese audiences. It cast household names, including Liu Yifei in the title role and Donnie Yen as Mulan’s regiment leader. The filmmakers cut a kiss between Mulan and her love interest on the advice of a Chinese test audience. Disney also shared the script with Chinese officials (a not-uncommon practice in Hollywood) and heeded the advice of Chinese consultants, who told Disney not to focus on a specific Chinese dynasty.

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Credit…Keith Bradsher/The New York Times

“If ‘Mulan’ doesn’t work in China, we have a problem,” Alan F. Horn, co-chairman of Walt Disney Studios, told The Hollywood Reporter last year.

The “Mulan” controversy underscores the dilemma companies face when trying to balance their core principles with access to the Chinese market. The Chinese government shut out the National Basketball Association last year after the general manager of the Houston Rockets shared an image on Twitter that was supportive of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. The backlash cost the league hundreds of millions of dollars. (After mounting pressure from American politicians to sever ties with a basketball academy in Xinjiang, the N.B.A. disclosed in July that it had already done so.)

Disney has long argued that its infractions are unfairly magnified because its brand provides a convenient punching bag. A lot of American companies had operations in Xinjiang in 2018, and some still source goods there.

Apologizing for the Xinjiang credits could anger China and threaten the release of future movies. China blocked the release of Disney’s animated “Mulan” for eight months in the late 1990s after the company backed Martin Scorsese’s “Kundun,” a film seen as sympathetic to the Dalai Lama. The animated “Mulan” bombed in China as a result.

“On one hand, Disney supports Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movement and has been responsive to calls for inclusion by making a movie like ‘Mulan’ with an all-Asian cast and a female director,” said Michael Berry, director of the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. “On the other, it has to be very careful on the topic of human rights in China. That’s business, of course, but it’s also hypocritical, and it makes some people angry.”

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Credit…Greg Baker/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The political realities have shifted drastically since 2015, when Disney started working on “Mulan.” As part of its escalating confrontation with the Chinese government, the Trump administration has started to attack Hollywood for pandering to the country. In July, Attorney General William P. Barr criticized studios for making changes to films like “Doctor Strange” (2016) and “World War Z” (2013) to avoid trouble with China.

The pressure is not coming just from conservatives. PEN America, the free-speech advocacy group, on Aug. 5 released a major report on Hollywood’s censoring itself to appease China.

“Hollywood was already in the election-year cross hairs,” said Chris Fenton, the author of “Feeding the Dragon: Inside the Trillion Dollar Dilemma Facing Hollywood, the N.B.A. & American Business.” “This situation with ‘Mulan’ only makes it worse.”

At least 20 members of Congress have already written Disney to express outrage over the Xinjiang matter and demand more information.

It remains to be seen how “Mulan” will fare in China. The country’s 70,000 theaters have reopened, but most are still limiting capacity to 50 percent as a coronavirus precaution. Rampant piracy and chilly reviews could also cut into ticket sales.

On Friday, theaters in China were decked out with large posters of a fierce-looking Ms. Liu as Mulan, clad in a red robe and wielding a sword as her long black tresses billowed behind her. At one Beijing cinema, moviegoers were invited to test their archery skills.

By the end of the day, “Mulan” had taken in a humdrum $8 million. “The Lion King,” released last year, collected $13 million on its first day in China.

Detail-oriented Disney set out to make a movie that rang true to Chinese audiences in aspects big and small — much as the company approached Shanghai Disneyland. It infused the park with myriad Chinese elements and avoided classic Disney rides to circumvent cries of cultural imperialism.

“I had an army of Chinese advisers,” Ms. Caro, the film’s director, told the Xinhua News Agency. Many Chinese feel an intense ownership of the character of Mulan, having grown up learning about the 1,500-year-old “Ballad of Mulan” in school. The poem has been the source of inspiration for countless plays, poems and novels over the centuries.

In the quest to make a culturally authentic film — and to give “Mulan” sweep and scale — Disney sought to showcase the diverse scenery of China. In keeping with China’s rules on filming in the country, Disney teamed with a Chinese production company, which secured the necessary government permits. A crew filmed in the Xinjiang area for several days, including in the red sandstone Flaming Mountains near Turpan, said Sun Yu, a translator on the film.

“Usually when a lot of foreigners go to Xinjiang, officials there are pretty sensitive,” Ms. Sun said in an interview. “But actually our filming process went very smoothly because the local government was very supportive and understanding at the time.”

To find the perfect Mulan, Disney casting directors scoured the globe before choosing the Chinese-born Liu Yifei. To Disney, Ms. Liu was ideal: physically fit, a household name in China (for playing elegant maidens in martial arts dramas) and fluent in English, having spent part of her childhood in Queens.

Then, last summer, as tensions boiled in Hong Kong over the antigovernment protests, Ms. Liu reposted an image on Weibo, the Chinese social media platform, expressing support for the police there.

The backlash was swift. Prominent Hong Kong pro-democracy activists quickly called for a boycott of the movie.

Mr. Horn told The Hollywood Reporter that her post had caught Disney by surprise. “We don’t wish to be political,” he said. “And to get dragged into a political discussion, I would argue, is sort of inherently unfair. We are not politicians.”

As Disney’s marketing campaign for “Mulan” ramped up this year, other contretemps surfaced. There were complaints about a lack of Asians among the core creative team; cries of sacrilege that Mushu, a wisecracking dragon in Disney’s animated version, had been jettisoned; and grumbles that this telling of the Mulan tale seemed to pander to Chinese nationalism.

The internet storms had mostly died down by the time “Mulan” arrived on Disney+ on Sept. 4. The credits changed that.

As many as one million Uighurs — a predominantly Muslim, Turkic-speaking ethnic minority — have been rounded up into mass detention centers in Xinjiang in what advocates of human rights have called the worst abuse in China in decades. The entities mentioned in the movie’s credits included a local police bureau that the Trump administration blacklisted last year from doing business with U.S. companies.

As the backlash over Xinjiang mounted, China ordered major media outlets to limit their coverage of “Mulan,” according to three people familiar with the matter.

Still, on Friday night, the Emperor Cinema in Beijing was set for a “Mulan” party.

Some moviegoers wore red, in homage to the title character, while others opted for a more traditional Chinese look: flowing robes and bejeweled hair accessories. After the screening, two traditional Chinese opera singers dressed in elaborate red-and-yellow costumes took the stage to perform an excerpt from a well-known Henan Opera rendition of “Mulan” called “Who Says Women Are Inferior to Men?”

The movie had already been playing in China, thanks to pirated versions on the internet. By Friday’s opening, there were more than 76,000 reviews on Douban, a popular Chinese review website. Most were tepid, averaging 4.7 out of 10 stars. (The 1998 animated version had 7.8 stars.)

In a review posted on Weibo, Luo Jin, a Chinese film critic who goes by the nom de plume Magasa, called the film “General Tso’s Chicken” — an Americanized take on Chinese culture.

“Some people are just going to be against these Hollywood takes on Chinese movies no matter how well made the movie might be,” Mr. Luo said in a phone interview. “For them, the thinking is like, ‘Who are you to appropriate our culture for your own benefit?’”

Brooks Barnes reported from Los Angeles, and Amy Qin from Taipei, Taiwan. Keith Bradsher contributed reporting from Beijing, and Amy Chang Chien from Taipei. Claire Fu contributed research from Beijing.

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Disney’s ‘Mulan’ Criticized for Filming in Xinjiang

Disney’s live-action remake of “Mulan” has drawn a fresh wave of criticism for being filmed partly in Xinjiang, the region in China where Uighur Muslims have been detained in mass internment camps.

The outcry, which has spread to include U.S. lawmakers, was the latest example of how the new film, released on Disney+ over the weekend, has become a magnet for anger over the Chinese Communist Party’s policies promoting nationalism and ethnic Han chauvinism.

For months, the film has been facing calls for a boycott by supporters of the Hong Kong antigovernment protests after the movie’s star, Liu Yifei, said she backed the city’s police, who have been criticized for their use of force against pro-democracy demonstrators.

Last month, as Disney ramped up promotion for the new film, supporters of the Hong Kong protests anointed Agnes Chow, a prominent democracy activist who was recently arrested under the territory’s new national security law, as their own, “real” Mulan. The criticism of the movie this week also points to broader concerns about China’s aggressive efforts to assimilate minorities, leading to rapid cultural erosion.

Such fears drove protests last week that erupted in China’s northern Inner Mongolia region over a new education policy that would reduce the teaching of the Mongolian language in local schools in favor of Chinese, the language used by the dominant Han ethnic majority.

The latest backlash against Mulan began on Monday, when several social media users noticed that in the film’s credits, Disney thanked eight government entities in Xinjiang, a region in China’s far west that is home to the Uighurs. The predominantly Muslim, Turkic-speaking ethnic minority have lived for years under increasingly expansive surveillance and repression in the region.

The entities mentioned in the movie’s credits included the police bureau in Turpan, an ancient Silk Road city in eastern Xinjiang that has a large Uighur population. Last October, the Trump administration placed that bureau and other police organizations in Xinjiang on a blacklist that forbids U.S. companies from selling or supplying products to them.

In Washington, politicians began firing off fiery missives against Disney. Rep. Mike Gallagher, Republican of Wisconsin, wrote on Twitter that “while the CCP is committing crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, @Disney thanked four of the propaganda departments that are lying to the world about these crimes. It also thanked the Turpan Public Security Bureau, which is on the entity list for its role in these atrocities.”

The details of Disney’s partnership with the authorities in Xinjiang are unclear. The company did not respond to an emailed request for comment on Tuesday morning. Calls to the regional and local propaganda departments in Xinjiang and Turpan on Tuesday also went unanswered.

“Mulan” is scheduled to be released in theaters in China on Friday. But the timing of the preproduction and the filming suggest that the cast and crew may have been in Xinjiang after the government expanded its crackdown in the region in 2017.

Production for the movie, which is about a Chinese folk heroine who disguises herself as a man to stand in for her ailing father in the army, reportedly began in 2018, with filming taking place mostly in China and New Zealand.

The Chinese Communist Party has rejected international criticism of the internment camps in Xinjiang and has described them as job-training centers that are necessary to fight Islamic extremism. But leaked documents and testimonies by former detainees have described a ruthless and coercive environment in which physical and verbal abuse, as well as grinding indoctrination sessions, are widespread.

Human rights advocates and legal scholars have called the crackdown in Xinjiang the worst collective human rights abuse in China in decades.

Grant Major, the film’s production designer, recently told Architectural Digest that the production team spent months in and around Xinjiang to do research before filming. In September 2017, Niki Caro, the film’s director, posted a photo of a vast desert landscape on her Instagram with the location marked as “Asia/Urumqi.” Urumqi is the capital of Xinjiang.

The area surrounding Turpan, in addition to being known for its vast, rugged landscapes, is also the site of a number of detention camps. That includes the earliest documented case of what China has called “transformation through education” targeting Muslims, from August 2013, said Adrian Zenz, a researcher at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington who has studied Chinese policies toward the Uighurs.

In 2016, Zhu Hailun, a former deputy party secretary in Xinjiang, inspected Turpan’s “centralized re-education de-extremification” work, which Mr. Zenz said was an indication that “the region was an early leading example of such work.” Mr. Zhu was one of a group of Chinese officials sanctioned by the Trump administration in July for human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

“This film was undertaken with the assistance of the Chinese police while at the same time these police were committing crimes against the Uighur people in Turpan,” said Tahir Imin, a Uighur activist based in Washington. “Every big company in America needs to think about whether their business is helping the Chinese government oppress the Uighur people.”

Disney, which has long eyed China’s booming box office and growing middle class, has a history of running into political sensitivities in China. In 1996, the company was shut out of China’s film market after it angered officials with its backing of “Kundun,” Martin Scorsese’s 1997 film that is seen to be sympathetic to the Dalai Lama. In 2016, C. Robert Cargill, a screenwriter on “Doctor Strange,” said filmmakers had decided to scrub a central character of his Tibetan origins out of fear of treading on the Chinese government’s political sensitivities over Tibet.

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Credit…Ed Jones/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The release of Disney’s original “Mulan” animated film from 1998 was delayed for a year as a result. It was not until Disney bought the foreign distribution rights to two Chinese feature films, hired a Chinese performance troupe to participate in the European release of “Mulan” and floated the idea of opening a theme park in the country that Chinese officials finally approved the release of the film in February 1999. Later that year, Disney announced plans to build a park in Hong Kong.

Disney is just the latest American company to come under fire for its affiliation with Xinjiang. In July, an ESPN investigation described reports of abuse of young players at the National Basketball Association’s player-development training camps in China, including in Xinjiang. After the investigation was published, the N.B.A. acknowledged for the first time it had closed its Xinjiang academy, but declined to say whether human rights had been a factor.

Thermo Fisher, a Massachusetts company, has also sold medical equipment used by the police in Xinjiang to collect DNA from Uighurs for social control purposes. Last year, the company, in the wake of criticism, said it would stop selling its gear to the authorities in Xinjiang.

On Monday, calls to boycott “Mulan” began growing on social media. Among the critics was Joshua Wong, a prominent Hong Kong pro-democracy activist, who accused Disney of bowing to pressure from Beijing. Supporters in Thailand and Taiwan had also urged a boycott of the movie, citing concerns about China’s growing influence in the region. The pro-democracy movement has become known as the #milkteaalliance, named after their shared love for the drink.

Edward Wong contributed reporting from Washington, and Amy Chang Chien contributed reporting from Taipei.