‘Mulan’ Fails To Break Barriers Amidst Clouds of Controversy

Subject to negative reviews and organized counteraction, “Mulan” runs the risk of being forgotten in the annals of Disney+’s digital library.

"Mulan," recently released on Disney+, is the company's newest live-action remake in 2020. Attracting worldwide controversy with the crew's political stance as well as poor ratings, the movie remains a disappointing watch. (Staff Illustration by Chelsea Li)

Several of the top eight reviews on “Mulan’s” Letterboxd are related to money, rather than the film itself, but the $30 Disney+ demands on top of its pricey subscription isn’t the only reason that this remake of “Mulan” has been condemned by so many. 

“Mulan” was originally set for release on March 27, of this year, but with the onset of the pandemic and cineplexes everywhere closing their doors on March 17, Disney was forced to change its release strategy. Following a graceful stroll in limbo that gnawed at both the audience and the studio’s patience, Disney finally decided to release this over $200 million budget project on its streaming platform, which is usually reserved for new films with low- to mid-tier budgets.

The intention behind releasing “Mulan” on Disney+ was that it would increase subscriptions to the streaming service and recoup revenue that would have been lost with a limited run in theaters. That being said, it will take 6.6 million purchases for “Mulan” to break even. That might explain why “Mulan” is now appearing on the homepage of every Apple TV and every billboard around the world, seeing as Disney is desperately trying to get a return on its investment.

The film’s political stance has made the situation worse for the film’s global market. After Liu Yifei, the film’s main star, posted a photo in support of the Hong Kong police on Weibo, activists began organizing a campaign to boycott the film upon release. The fact that Yifei’s comments are attached to “Mulan” as an internationally registered property distinguishes it from similar comments made by other celebrities in mainland China. At this point, posting “I support the Hong Kong Police” has become a sort of unwritten law for public figures based in mainland China, but Liu’s comments have been hurled into the global spotlight because of the film’s international fame.

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Social media users also noticed that “Mulan’s” filmmakers thanked Chinese government entities in Xinjiang that were suspected of being involved in the current human rights problem in the region. The problem entails the presence of a mass detention camp that was thrust into the global news spotlight following a series of riots that happened in Xinjiang from early 2009 through 2014. The controversy lies in the different interpretations people have of the nature of the camps themselves. Although the Chinese government stated they provided compulsory education, several scholars hypothesized they were intended as imprisonment.

The creation of the camps can be traced back to China’s Laogai Policy, which sought reform through labor. The policy was abolished at the end of 2013, four years after the July 2009 Ürümqi riots, during which many participants perished in a series of riots. With reports on the internet providing limited and vague information about what the goal of the re-education center is, it’s difficult to pin down exactly what’s happening in Xinjiang. The fact that only certain people are granted access to the center casts the Chinese government’s comments in a dubious light as the sole informational authority on the subject.

“Mulan” debuted in theaters in China on Sept. 11. With a release that consisted of low pre-sale orders and an onslaught of negative ratings in Douban — China’s biggest movie review website — “Mulan” did not fare all that well at the box office. Noting that the princess holds a tremendous fan base in China due to the epic poem’s place in Chinese culture and the animated film’s successful run in theaters back in 1998, Disney was banking on the release of “Mulan” in China buffing its box-office numbers. Disney even sought out a superstar cast of Jet Li, Donny Yen and Liu Yifei to boost its chances with the Chinese audience. Instead, “Mulan” only generated $23.2 million during its opening weekend.

Currently, “Mulan” holds a 4.9/10 on Douban, making it the lowest-rated live-action film Disney has ever made. “Mulan’s” reliability on action set-pieces over character development points to the algorithmic design behind Disney’s current productions, as each and every one of its films adopts the same schema as its popular Marvel flicks. Disney’s penchant for superhero-stories shines in “Mulan,” as it suffocates the elements of folklore with the trappings of a superhero story.

In this version of “Mulan,” the titular character naturally holds a unique “chi” that sets her aside from the rest of the soldiers, bestowing her a certain deification that belittles the rigor and devotion she’s typically portrayed to engage in upon joining the military. Additionally, the use of a character shield to make Mulan impervious to any attacks on her character makes her all the less relatable as a role model. Throughout the entire film, Mulan is never wounded or put in a difficult situation, a decision that renders the character entirely alien to audiences.

The original “Mulan” from 1998 acted as a beacon of encouragement for young girls to act bravely and independently by accentuating Mulan’s courageous demeanor. While the film makes attempts to deliver a feminist message, said attempts only end up belittling every female character in the film that isn’t Mulan. “Mulan’s” decision to compare Mulan against other female characters like her mother or her sister seem to make the argument that there’s only one ideal way of expressing womanhood as opposed to celebrating the many ways in which women in China have always had a great effect on the culture by virtue of their multi-hyphenate existences. In a scene that forces Mulan to untie her bun in order to show off her beautiful wavy hair and present herself as traditionally female in order to access the full power of her “chi,” the subversion of Mulan’s story is lost to a notion of women only being able to command power so long as they fit the aesthetic mold of traditional womanhood.

In “The Lord of the Rings,” a similar moment plays out when Eowyn kills the Witch-king of Angmar. But, the difference is, Eowyn never lies about her identity and she doesn’t have to resort to super powers in order to achieve this feat. Where Eowyn shows off the battle-proficiency that she’s built over the course of the trilogy and demonstrates how she holds the same command over the battlefield as the rest of the entirely male Fellowship of the Ring, Mulan is forced to resort to magic that strips her of the human quality of evolution-through-training young viewers typically look to in their Disney role models.

With a faltering story, message, production and distribution, Disney’s “Mulan” has proven to be quite the mess. That said, the “BoycottMulan” hashtag that surged in response to the situation has accrued a certain topicality that seems to favor the studio, as people from around the world have grown intrigued by the film’s overall controversy. But even putting the controversy surrounding the film aside, “Mulan” remains a disappointing watch. If Disney doesn’t change its model for adapting animated classics into live-action features, which can only be described as “old wine in new bottles,” the future of Disney’s cinema shall continue to look dry and formulaic. Maybe it’ll survive this time, but carelessly gambling with such powerful narratives and socio-political factors can’t be healthy for business in the long term.

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Sept. 21, 2020, e-print edition. Email Quan Zhang at [email protected]

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