China orders media blackout on 'Mulan' despite Disney's best efforts to cater to Chinese market

Disney's dashed hopes in China.

Kayla Wong | September 11, 2020, 05:36 PM

China has instructed its major media outlets not to cover Walt Disney's live-action Mulan remake, according to three sources who provided the inside information to Reuters.

Disney credits various Xinjiang authorities for Mulan filming

The media blackout was ordered after the movie received backlash for thanking the Xinjiang authorities in its credits.

While no reason for the order was given in the notice that some Chinese media outlets received from the Cyberspace Administration of China -- the country's internet regulator -- Reuters sources believed it was due to the overseas backlash over the Xinjiang controversy.

While the movie was mostly shot in New Zealand, some scenes were shot in 20 locations in China to show "the unique landscapes", Bloomberg reported Disney's CFO Christine McCarthy as saying.

The Xinjiang region houses as many as 1 million Uighur minorities in camps that Chinese authorities say are for "reeducation" purposes.

Corroborated testimonies from former detainees revealed that those detained were forced to erase their Muslim identity and learn Chinese Communist Party propaganda repeatedly in an effort to "assimilate" them into mainland Chinese culture.

Disney slammed for movie's Xinjiang links

For having special access to Xinjiang region at the authorities' approval but not shedding light on the situation of the Uighurs, critics have slammed Disney for failing to keep to its human rights commitment.

Saying the backlash is just "another manifestation of the extreme ideologies regarding China among U.S. public opinion", state-controlled media Global Times said the reality in Xinjiang now is that it has "rid itself of chaos, and people have been living a normal and stable life".

China has repeatedly justified its Xinjiang policy by saying counter-terrorism efforts are necessary so as to maintain stability.

The media blackout in China might be an attempt by authorities to put a stop to the discussions.

Disney's plans for Mulan in China failed

Disney had specifically planned for the US$200 million (S$273 million) production to cater to Chinese audiences, hiring big-name Chinese-born actors such as Liu Yifei, Donnie Yen, Jet Li and Gong Li to star in the movie.

But reviews of the movie in China were less than glowing, with the movie getting a dismal 4.7 out of 10 by more than 81,000 users on Douban, a popular film review site.

The top two reviews that were most liked by other users rated the movie two and one stars respectively.

"What a flop... the plot's everywhere, the acting's stiff, and the fighting scenes are comparable to the standard of domestically produced martial art shows more than 10 years ago. The witch character played by Gong Li is also a disaster, I almost died laughing at the scene of the eagle getting shot towards the end..."

"How did Liu Yifei maintain the same expression throughout the entire movie? Gong Li's character was completely unnecessary. The Mushu which I loved wasn't in the movie either. The scene of all the capital's residents kneeling before Mulan to thank her, which shook me the most when I was young, was not included too. Also, musicals --the thing that Disney is good at -- aren't in the show. The movie's absolutely horrible."

A bad reception with the Chinese audience is not the only problem plaguing the film.

In addition to the media blackout, with Chinese theatres limiting their capacity due to safe distancing measures, and limited time for the film's promotion -- Mulan received its official Sep. 11 release date only 10 days ago -- the movie is unlikely to fulfil Disney's high hopes in China.

Not the first controversy with Mulan

Besides bad reviews and criticisms towards Disney for allowing the Chinese government to "buy" its silence on the treatment of the Uighur ethnic minorities, the film was previously dogged by controversy when Liu, a Chinese-born American actress, sparked calls to boycott the movie after she expressed her support for the Hong Kong police at the height of the protests in the city.

She had reposted a Weibo post originally posted by official state-run newspaper People's Daily, which highlighted the words of a Global Times reporter who was beaten up by Hong Kong protesters after he was found to have hidden among them.

Protesters, who were on high alert at that time due to suspicions about Hong Kong police officers disguising themselves as protesters in order to arrest them, had found a t-shirt on the reporter that said "I support the Hong Kong police".

The reporter had subsequently said to the mob: "I support the Hong Kong police, you can beat me now."

Disney has an eye on the Chinese market

Disney has long sought a foothold in China, which is the world's second-largest film market.

According to The New York Times, in order to allow China to screen the original 1998 Mulan animated film, which was delayed for a year due to retaliation over Disney's support of Kundun -- a film seen to be sympathetic to the Dalai Lama -- Disney took a series of corrective actions.

The company bought the foreign distribution rights to two Chinese films, involved a Chinese performance troupe in the European release of Mulan, and proposed opening a theme park in the country.

China then approved the film to be released in February 1999.

Disney's stakes in China are high now.

It has a Disneyland resort in Shanghai, which it spent US$5.5 billion (S$7.5 billion) developing, in addition to the park it has in Hong Kong.

American businesses avoiding Chinese political sensitivities

Disney is the latest American business to have come under attack for apparently giving in to Chinese political censors.

The National Basketball Association (NBA) was embroiled in controversy last year after the Houston Rockets' general manager tweeted his support for the anti-government protests in Hong Kong, resulting in a swift backlash in China that impacted its Chinese-related business, though China later allowed games to resume.

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Top image by GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images