Disney’s new highly anticipated live-action Mulan has finally arrived on Disney+, but surface level diversity does not excuse the problematic nature of the film.
Calls for a boycott of Disney’s Mulan began in August 2019, when actress Liu Yifei, posted on Chinese social media site Weibo saying, “I also support Hong Kong police. You can beat me up now. What a shame for Hong Kong.” In addition to this, Liu added the hashtag #IAlsoSupportTheHongKongPolice and a heart emoji to her post. Liu has more than 65 million followers on the site.
Her support of the police came at a time when they were being accused of human rights violations against pro-democracy protesters. Protests started because of a bill that would have allowed “criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China under certain circumstances.” Many people feared that this bill would be used to target activists, journalists, and other groups. The bill was suspended, but protests continued across the country and interactions between police and protesters became increasingly violent.
The actress did not retract or apologize for her comments, but instead in a February interview with The Hollywood Reporter said, “I think it's obviously a very complicated situation and I'm not an expert... I just really hope this gets resolved soon. I think it’s just a very sensitive situation.”
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, theatrical release of the movie has only occurred in a select few countries. The rest have been subject to alternate release on Disney+. It comes at the cost of a subscription and a $30 fee. If the price does not put viewers off, then the lack of Chinese and Cantonese subtitles might. The movie is set and filmed in China, yet there are no native language subtitles for the people who live there. This has come under scrutiny because of the range of European language subtitles.
The backlash began again over Labor Day weekend for being filmed in Xinjiang, China.
Xinjiang is a western region of China and home to about 11 million Uyghur people, a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority that speak a language related to Turkish. About one million Uyghurs are assumed to be detained in concentration camps. They are reportedly subjected to torture, sexual abuse, political indoctrination, and forced labor. The Chinese government denies these claims and says the camps are "vocational training centers" essential for preventing terrorism. After the film's release, many viewers noticed that, in the credits, Disney thanks multiple government entities in Xinjiang.
The new live-action Mulan is the result of corporate greed masked by ‘representation.’ Sure, the whole cast was Asian, and of course representation matters, but it should not have been done like this. The movie’s IMDb page lists four screenwriters, all of whom are white. None of them have any connection to China or Chinese culture. Disney hired four white screenwriters, a white producer, a white cinematographer, a white director, and a white costume designer. Because of this, there are many historical inaccuracies.
The story of Hua Mulan comes from an ancient ballad originally set between the fourth to sixth century. The oldest written transcriptions of the ballad date from the 11th century. Stories as old as Mulan’s are typically altered to suit the political and social needs of their particular adaptation. There are many errors in the recent adaptation that serve to advance China's political agenda.
For instance, in the original ballad, Mulan is loyal to her Khan, not the Chinese emperor. This means that Mulan was most likely a member of the nomadic Touba clan, a group who ruled part of north China from 386 to 534 as the Northern Wei Dynasty, not Han Chinese.
The Han are an ethnographic group, accounting for around 92% of the Chinese population. But China is home to around 1.4 billion people, meaning that around 129 million people are not Han Chinese. Erasing Mulan’s ethnic identity serves the same purpose as “whitewashing” in American history.
By doing this, Disney has erased the historical contributions that ethnic minorities have made to China. By turning Mulan into a patriotic Han Chinese serving an Emperor who is fighting off faceless invaders dressed in all black from the outside, the Rouran, Disney is rewriting Chinese history in line with state-driven narratives.
The Rouran were an actual tribe located in the area that is now the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia. They often did go to war with the people Mulan was said to be defending in the ballad, the Northern Wei Dynasty. But the presentation of Mulan as Han and defending her nation from invading faceless nomads serves to reinforce Hollywood tropes about “the other” and play into the rhetoric in China that people living on the outskirts are barbaric and need to be civilized.
Disney will not change its relationship with an oppressive government, and a boycott might force them to reconsider. It is important that you refuse to endorse Disney in this decision. Mulan is now more than a film. It has become a symbol of oppression, and we should not be supporting it.