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What You Need to Know About the Mulan Controversy

Official Disney Promotion Image

Like many other people on September 4th, 2020, I watched the newest Mulan movie with my family. To shortly give my opinion, the movie was decent. I mean, I would be surprised if it wasn’t anything short of that. The film had 200 million Disney dollars poured into it and the story was like Game of Thrones meets the political implications of Crazy Rich Asians. After watching the movie, I decided to do a little research, and contrary to my own opinion, a lot of people did not like the movie. As of right now, the film is sitting at a 5.4/10 divide on IMBd and a 67 on Metascore. This was the first blockbuster released by Disney during the COVID-19 pandemic, and it was going straight to Disney Plus. With the success of other corporate platforms like Netflix and HBO Max, Mulan by all means should have been a massive hit. So today, I want to talk about what went wrong with Mulan.

Coming out of seeing the movie, my mom and I were having a conversation about the quality of the film. She commented on how regardless of the actual film, we need to promote movies like this and Crazy Rich Asians because we need more Asian representation in Hollywood. I, as a mixed race American, have the privilege of being white-passing and a native Californian, and so I’ve never really had to experience racism. However, my mom, being a fully Korean woman who grew up in the Midwest, felt the full cultural impact of xenophobia. For her, it is extremely important that her children grow up in a world where Asians have a place in Hollywood and our culture is celebrated and respected. She believes that movies like Mulan are steps on our way to becoming more diverse and accepting of people who are different from us. This opinion seems to be reflected among many other Asian Americans who have had to face similar situations. With that being said, the controversies surrounding Mulan mitigate the messages of diversity and acceptance. These controversies also expose the shallowness of corporate Identity Politics not as a means to help minorities but to bring in the most amount of money.

Let’s start by analyzing the first controversy.

Violence in Hong Kong. Lam Yik Fei/The New York Times

In August, lead actor Liu Yifei stated “I support the Hong Kong police. You can all attack me now. What a shame for Hong Kong,” on Weibo, a Chinese messaging app. In order to understand this statement, we have to break down what’s happening in Hong Kong. In the 1980s Britain and China began negotiations for the return of Hong Kong back under Chinese rule after being a British Colony for 150 years. They signed a treaty where Hong Kong would return to China in 1997, but they would maintain high autonomy for 50 years. Meaning that Hong Kong enjoyed many of the freedoms given to countries and western states, such as the freedom of assembly, the freedom of speech, independent borders, and capitalist practices. The schism between China and Hong Kong lead to heightened tensions between the two regions with only 11% of Hong Kongers considering themselves Chinese according to the University of Hong Kong. With the closing of the deadline and China’s alleged “meddling” of Hong Kong politisphere has resulted in major protests erupting across the state. These protests have been met with what can only be described as acute authoritarian police brutality. An Amnesty International Investigation has uncovered the abuses of the Hong Kong Police Force from arrests to beatings to torture. Pro Hong Kong Journalists have been taken into the custody of the police despite the state’s policies on the freedom of the press. Brutal beatings of Hong Kong citizens have been recorded and posted all over the internet. One protestor reported in August, “I felt my legs hit with something really hard. Then one [officer] flipped me over and put his knees on my chest. I felt the pain in my bones and couldn’t breathe. I tried to shout but I couldn’t breathe and couldn’t talk.” In police stations, it was discovered police officers used a laser pointer to blind a protestor for up to 20 seconds. The records of excessive tactics go on. So to see Liu Yifei use her influence to comment in support of this police force is absolutely repugnant to many Hong Kong supporters.

A demonstrator in Istanbul denounces China's treatment of ethnic Uighur Muslims. Ozan Kose/AFP - Getty Images

This controversy wasn’t all, however. In the credits of the film, Disney thanked the Xinjiang Province Security Agency for letting them film there. This included the "publicity department of CPC Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomy Region Committee.” This specific government body has been criticized for setting up unethical reeducation camps in order to detain the Uighur Muslims in the region. For context, this would be the equivalent of thanking Nazi Germany for creative input on Disney’s Pinocchio back in 1940. The Uighur Muslim situation has been publicly defended by the CCP (Chinese Communist Party). Their response to criticisms from the UN and other global entities comes down to two major arguments: security and philosophical sovereignty. The first argument is more political. The CCP argues that since the destabilization and heightened cultural unrest in 2009, they had to take more action to mitigate this sort of damage. The CCP fundamentally believes that Islam is a threat to national security. With this sort of justification, it’s interesting to see that rather than establishing infrastructure to tend to the epicenter of unrest that they instead chose to set up reeducation camps in the Xinjiang province. This ties into the philosophical argument of mitigating the the influence of the “three evil forces” (terrorism, separatism, and extremism). However, this philosophical criteria is not one held by any other entity but the CCP, meaning that it’s interpretation is completely subjective. Overall, these are not good justifications for the existence of the camps. Especially with what private investigations discover about the nature of the camps. BBC Data leaks have revealed that Muslims with certain practices such as facial hair, veils, and internet histories are locked up and detained as prisoners. Activist Shawn Jiang additionally uncovered evidence of forced sterilizations for Uighur women. Of course, the CCP denies these allegations, but the UN has yet called for the end of these concentration camps. With little success the issues regarding the camps perseveres.

The shallowness of the messages in Mulan are pronounced by these controversies. Disney is not in this for minorities like my mom. They are doing this as a ploy in order to win over Chinese audiences because that generates more money. 70% of Hollywood studios’ revenue is generated overseas. Writer Xueting Christine Ni comments that “Chinese takings can make or break a movie.” I’m sure that the writers had a good intention on making sure this film hit the beats closer to the source material. However, this is completely overshadowed by the fact that Disney is openly willing to throw some minorities under the bus as a means to improve their relationship with China.

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