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Mulan, once a sure money-spinner, becomes a problem for Disney

Movie proving to be political hot potato in view of fraying US-China ties; film company facing heat for filming in controversial Xinjiang province

A poster advertising the Mulan movie that is set to open in China this week. The US$200 million film faces a steep climb to profitability due to the Covid-19 epidemic shutting down so many theatres.

Los Angeles

IT WAS supposed to be another US$1 billion blockbuster for Walt Disney Co - a live-action remake of a 1998 animated hit featuring an all-star Asian cast, breathtaking cinematography and plenty of martial arts.

Instead, the new Mulan is proving to be a political hot potato, reflecting the United States' fraying ties with China, and the choices companies face when operating in the highly politicised, but lucrative environment that is modern-day China.

The US$200 million film, which was made available for purchase online in the US and Europe last week and is set to open in China on Friday, has seen a string of controversies - all while the coronavirus knocked out its chances of getting a successful run in theaters.

An online boycott that began last year, when one of the stars spoke supportively of the crackdown on anti-China protesters in Hong Kong, has continued. Now, Disney is facing heat for filming in a part of China where the government has detained up to one million ethnic Uighurs in camps called "voluntary education centres," and then thanking that region's authorities in the movie's credits.

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Disney is the latest US business to be embroiled in a political controversy involving China. Last year, the National Basketball Association was plunged into turmoil after a team manager tweeted in support of the Hong Kong demonstrators, triggering a backlash and a blackout of games in China. DreamWorks Animation's movie Abominable stirred up a storm in Asia after the film featured a map reflecting China's maritime claims disputed by its neighbours.

Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, slammed Disney on Twitter on Tuesday, saying the entertainment giant is "addicted to Chinese cash and will do just about anything to please the Communist Party".

Disney has a lot at stake in China. The company spent US$5.5 billion developing its Shanghai Disneyland resort and has been expanding its smaller park in Hong Kong. The movie market there is also on track to become the world's largest.

But with both Republicans and Democrats focusing on China trade and cultural issues leading up to the presidential election, the company could continue to find itself in the political crossfire.

"I wouldn't be surprised if they're called before Congress," said Stanley Rosen, a political-science professor and specialist on China at the University of Southern California.

It certainly didn't begin this way when Disney started work on the film more than five years ago.

The company sought to address cultural and social concerns about the earlier picture, which featured Donny Osmond and Harvey Fierstein voicing Asian characters.

For the new picture, they were replaced with a largely Chinese or Chinese-American cast, including Liu Yifei as the heroine who dresses as a male soldier to save her father, and Jet Li, as her emperor.

Disney chose a female director, New Zealander Niki Caro, because "she has a long tradition of going into very specific communities and telling a story", said Mulan producer Jason Reed. He pointed to films she had done, such as North Country, about Minnesota iron miners, and McFarland, USA, about a Latino track team in California.

Mulan, which is based on a centuries-old Chinese folk song, incorporates traditional Chinese architecture, costumes and spirituality.

"We spent a great deal of time with scholars, consultants and various creative people really listening to how they look at the world," Mr Reed said.

Then Liu, the film's star, voiced her support for the mainland Chinese government during Hong Kong pro-democracy protests last year. On Twitter, a #BoycottMulan movement began trending.

After the film's release last Friday, others began to notice that the credits included thanks to local authorities in Xinjiang for letting the company film there. The region is where members of China's Muslim minority are being held in camps as part of a crackdown that followed a series of Uighur attacks on civilians in 2013, including a flaming car attack in the heart of Beijing: Tiananmen Square.

International criticism has been building over the camps for several years, with the US sanctioning officials from the region and European governments condemning the repression of Uighurs.

Representatives for Disney did not respond to requests for comment.

The financial impact of the controversies on Mulan remains to be seen. The movie already faced a steep climb to profitability because so many theatres were closed by the coronavirus and Disney took the unusual step of releasing it online for US$30 on its Disney+ streaming service.

The company also spent tens of millions of dollars marketing Mulan, over and above its production budget. Given the state of the movie-theatre business, it will be tough to make back its investment.

Disney hasn't released numbers on online purchases of the film, although data from third parties suggest there was a lot of interest. Box-office results from China, currently the world's second-largest movie market, won't be available until the weekend. Some, like USC's Rosen, think it will do well there. Chinese theaters have come roaring back from the Covid-19 shutdown since reopening in July, and the film's stars are popular.

Rich Gelfond, chief executive officer of Imax Corp, which has a big presence in China, predicts no backlash against US pictures there - even with the trade war and other issues between the countries. The Warner Bros sci-fi thriller Tenet took in US$30 million in China last weekend, the biggest opening for a Christopher Nolan-directed film in the country.

The bigger problems for Mulan could be ones that studios are more accustomed to: piracy, for example, because the movie is already available online. The reviews have also been less than unanimous - 76 per cent of critics and 54 per cent of the audience gave it a thumbs up, according to the site Rotten Tomatoes.

But the woes for US companies doing business in China aren't close to being over, said Michael Berry, who teaches Chinese culture at the University of California, Los Angeles.

"Part of this feels like a political pile-on," he said. "Companies like Disney are faced with difficult decisions when it comes to balancing where they stand with core principles like human rights and access to global markets." BLOOMBERG

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