Hong Kong Protesters Are Boycotting the New ‘Mulan’ Movie. Will Disney Care?

The live-action remake of the 1998 animated film has been accused of pandering to the Chinese government but the negative reactions may not matter to Disney in the long run.
September 7, 2020, 11:29am
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Actress Liu Yifei attends the world premiere of Disney's Mulan at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood on March 9, 2020. Photo: AFP / Frederic J. BROWN

Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement continues to call on moviegoers to boycott Disney’s live-action remake of the animated classic Mulan, after the film premiered on streaming platform Disney+ and select theaters over the weekend. This, following pro-Beijing remarks two of the film’s leading stars made, which infuriated protesters and threatened the bottom line of a highly-anticipated film.

The $200 million film sees Chinese-born American actress Liu Yifei bringing the character of Hua Mulan to life — a legendary Chinese heroine who defies law and patriarchal tradition by disguising herself as a man, enlisting in the imperial army, and taking the place of her ailing father on the battlefield. The 33-year-old leads a star-studded cast that includes heavyweights Gong Li, Jet Li, and Jason Scott Lee, as well as Hong Kong martial arts star Donnie Yen in the role of a high-ranking commander and mentor to Mulan. The film has gotten mixed reviews from critics and moviegoers.

Calls for a boycott of the movie were sparked in August 2019 when Liu voiced her support for the Hong Kong police force, sharing a state media news post about the protests that rocked the city on her official Weibo account that read: “What a shame for Hong Kong. I support the police, you can hit me now.”

Liu’s post angered many in Hong Kong, where hundreds have been arrested in protests tied to the pro-democracy movement. In recent months, protests have been against Beijing’s new national security law, which bans all forms of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign countries and carries a harsh punishment of life imprisonment.

Liu’s co-star Donnie Yen has also incurred the wrath of many protesters throughout the years for expressing his open support of China’s Communist Party government (CCP), in comments that drew parallels with separate remarks made by fellow controversial Hong Kong actor Jackie Chan.

Though Liu’s comments date to last year, Hong Kong protesters remained undeterred in their fight. The Boycott Mulan movement reignited on Friday, Sept. 4 ahead of the movie’s official weekend release on Disney+. The new streaming platform is not available yet in Asia, but Mulan was released in theaters in various countries in the region including Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand over the weekend. It is set to premiere in China on Friday, Sept. 11. Calls for a boycott exploded on Twitter, with many users voicing their distaste for the movie and slamming the “disgraceful views” of its stars.

Prominent Hong Kong voices like activists Joshua Wong and Jeffrey Ngo led the charge, calling on moviegoers to stand with Hong Kongers and boycott the film.

“Because Disney kowtows to Beijing and Liu Yifei openly and proudly endorses police brutality in Hong Kong, I urge everyone who believes in human rights to boycott Mulan_,_” Wong wrote in a tweet that swiftly went viral.

He slammed the cast, calling Liu “an icon of authoritarianism” and Yen “another outspoken admirer of the Hong Kong police.” In another tweet on Monday, Sept. 7, Wong drew attention to the film’s alleged “complicit involvement” with the CCP regime, highlighting a tweet that captured the show’s end credits which thanked the Chinese government for allowing “extensive filming” to take place in China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang, home to the persecuted Muslim Uighur community.

Washington-based Hong Kong activist Jeffrey Ngo echoed Wong’s sentiments, telling VICE News that he didn’t watch the original 1998 Mulan animated film and doesn’t plan on watching the new release either.

“My opposition to the movie has nothing to do with its plot. Like many in Hong Kong, I am not watching it because of Liu Yifei and Donnie Yen who are willing to voice their open support for dictator regimes and sell out for the sake of monetary profit.”

The Hong Kong boycott campaign also drew support from fellow pro-democracy activists in Thailand. Bangkok student activist Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal pledged his support to the boycott on Twitter, sharing pictures of himself and other young protesters posing with signs in front of a Mulan poster.

“We have not forgotten that the Mulan actress supports police violence against protesters in Hong Kong fighting for freedom and democracy. Boycott Mulan so Disney and the Chinese government will know that state violence against people is unacceptable,” he wrote.

Calls for a boycott highlight the difficult moral calculations that western entertainment companies must make when producing films on Chinese topics or shooting within China, where voicing concerns over human rights abuses could mean paying the price with one’s career or losing access to the lucrative Chinese market.

Stripped of the original’s iconic songs, comic relief, and cartoonish elements, the new version of Mulan is much more serious and has been accused of pandering to mainland Chinese audiences. The country’s economic power, with box office revenues valued at almost $10 billion, pulls an incredible amount of influence over decisions made by powerhouse players like Disney in Hollywood and other western entertainment markets, according to John Lee, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington D.C. and adjunct professor at the U.S. Studies Center in Sydney.

Lee told VICE News that while he doesn’t expect a widespread overseas boycott of the film, Disney has to “tread carefully” with the situation in Hong Kong to avoid damaging its brand image among international audiences.

“The latest reaction from Hong Kong will ignite global interest in Beijing’s values and intentions. The Disney brand will be damaged if it’s seen defending or excusing Liu Yifei in her political views. That said, it has been fortuitous that prominent red carpet events for Mulan featuring Liu could not be held,” Lee told VICE News.

Originally scheduled for release in late March, Mulan was one of the first major films to be postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic which forced the closure of cinemas across the world.

China expert Stanley Rosen, a political science and international relations professor at the University of Southern California, said that with the North American movie market currently struggling to return to normal, “success in China is more important than ever.”

“This will be a big test for Disney. The Chinese government likes Disney’s family-friendly fare and reputation — evident in its Shanghai Disneyland theme park — and Disney has put an enormous amount of effort into pleasing China. Former CEO Bob Iger even met with President Xi Jinping and Disney has been treated very well in the country for years,” Rosen noted.

He said that although calls for a boycott are popular online, it may not matter much for Disney in the long run.

“Disney is unlikely to be deterred by the Boycott Mulan campaign, even less so now that the Hong Kong protest movement has been substantially reigned in by the national security law. Any ugly incidents will probably boost _Mulan_’s box office success within China, especially among those who consider themselves Chinese patriots,” he said.

Indeed, in mainland China, the film skyrocketed to the top of Weibo’s trends last week — attracting millions of comments and discussions among users on the microblogging site. The boycott from Hong Kongers ignited defiance and patriotism among many Chinese netizens, who said that the negative publicity only prompted them to want to watch the movie.