A political controversy over a filming location was a rare blunder for one of the world's savviest companies in dealing with China.
Executives at Walt Disney Studios were celebrating. Mulan, a US$200 million ($297 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 rumours 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 September 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 theatres 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 1 minute of background footage in a 1-hour, 55-minute film.
Disney declined to comment.
Asked about the credits fiasco at a Bank of America conference on Thursday, Christine 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," 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.
"If Mulan doesn't work in China, we have a problem," Alan Horn, co-chair 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 NBA 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 NBA 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 US companies had operations in Xinjiang in 2018, and some still source goods there.
Apologising 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 UCLA. "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."
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 Barr criticised 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 August 5 released a major report on Hollywood's censoring itself to appease China.
"Hollywood was already in the election-year crosshairs," said Chris Fenton, author of Feeding the Dragon: Inside the Trillion Dollar Dilemma Facing Hollywood, the NBA & 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 theatres have reopened, but most are still limiting capacity to 50 per cent as a coronavirus precaution. Rampant piracy and chilly reviews could also cut into ticket sales.
On Friday, theatres in China were decked out with large posters of a fierce-looking 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," 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," 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. To Disney, 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, New York.
Then, last summer, as tensions boiled in Hong Kong over the anti-government protests, 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.
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 September 4. The credits changed that.
As many as 1 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 US 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 bejewelled 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 Americanised 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," Luo said in a phone interview. "For them, the thinking is like, 'Who are you to appropriate our culture for your own benefit?'"
Written by: Brooks Barnes and Amy Qin
Photographs by: Keith Bradsher
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES