The controversy around Disney’s newest remake: “Mulan”


People protest Mulan in Korea.

Jessi Rich, Co-Editor-in-Chief

Early September marked the release of the newest addition to Disney’s growing list of live-action remakes, which already includes successful films such as “Aladdin” (2019) and “The Lion King” (2019). However, unlike those films, people across the world are refusing to watch this particular remake: Disney’s “Mulan.”


For American viewers, “Mulan” was released on Disney’s streaming service, Disney+, on Sept. 4. The movie hit several international theaters a week later. Yet to understand the controversy surrounding the film, we have to go back to over a year ago–the summer of 2019, to be exact.


In June of last year, outrage arose in Hong Kong over a new bill proposal. The bill, called The Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation Bill, would allow the region’s citizens to be extradited to mainland China. Many citizens saw the bill as a dire threat to democracy and personal freedom in Hong Kong. The growing violence between protestors (most of them young college students) and the police only exacerbated the rising tensions. Hashtags such as #StandWithHongKong and #FreeHongKong flooded Twitter, Instagram, and other social media outlets.


Notably, not everyone was in support of the Hong Kong protestors, or the democratic message for which they stood. Liu Yifei, who plays Mulan, is one such person. In a brief message she posted to Weibo, China’s most broadly used social media platform, she said: “I support Hong Kong’s police, you can beat me up now,” and added in English, “What a shame for Hong Kong.”


Disney hasn’t taken much responsibility for Liu’s comments, preferring instead to stay “apolitical.” “…Free speech is an important component of society, certainly, and folks ought to be able to say what they want to say,” said Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn in an interview in February. “I can’t speak for what Liu says in China–we didn’t know about it, what she was going to say–and that’s up to them.”


Liu’s comments, and Disney’s lukewarm response to them, create a perfect recipe for controversy. Hong Kong activist Joshua Yong tweeted on the release date, “Because Disney kowtows to Beijing, and because Liu Yifei openly and proudly endorses police brutality in Hong Kong, I urge everyone who believes in human rights to #BoycottMulan.”


Protestors’ reasons for boycotting the film don’t end there, however. Disney also reportedly filmed a portion of the movie in Xinjiang, a known location of several brutally inhumane Uyghur reeducation camps. 


The Uyghurs are an Islamic ethnic group in China, whose religion the Chinese government has deemed “a contagious ideological illness.” According to CNN, “more than one million Uyghurs, as well as members from other Muslim minority groups, have been detained in a sprawling network of internment camps in Xinjiang, where they are reportedly ‘subjected to torture, cruel and inhumane treatment such as physical and sexual abuse, forced labor, and death.’”


There’s a relatively obvious reason why Disney would keep quiet in the face of these outcries: money. Regarding the new movie’s financial success, Disney Studios expected to draw in more of their box office revenue from China than from domestic theaters. In fact, Disney chairman Horn said in the same February interview, “If ‘Mulan’ doesn’t work in China, we have a problem.”


Judging on the current numbers, Disney indeed has a problem. Variety reports that “the fantasy epic has made $36 million in China…[and] has generated $57 million globally, a dismal result for a movie that cost $200 million to produce.” 


When it boils down to it, controversy–or looking the other direction in response to that controversy–often isn’t good for business, and that was a lesson Disney had to learn the hard way. 


(Find out what you can do to help the Uyghur Muslims here.)


By: Jessi Rich

Image: The Korea Times