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Disney makes controversial move in the credits for 'Mulan'
03:36 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Kelly Hammond is an assistant professor of East Asian history at the University of Arkansas. Her first book, “China’s Muslims and Japan’s Empire: Centering Islam in World War II,” will be released in November. Follow her on Twitter. The views expressed here are the author’s. Read more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

With the new live-action version of “Mulan,” Disney missed the mark with viewers in China and the United States. How did they mess this up so badly? There are numerous controversies surrounding the film’s release, but most of them do not even have to do with the fact that the movie itself is a boring, drab and inaccurate mess. Although the story is well known around the world, the live-action movie is slow, repetitive, and lacking in any substantial character development.

Kelly Hammond

In an era when diversity and representation should mean more than simply putting Asian actors on screen, Disney missed a chance to make a movie that was broadly inclusive and widely appealing. With a timeless story as beloved as “Mulan,” it seemed Disney had backed a winning horse. But they managed not only to completely blunder the movie itself, but also to wade into a political quagmire that could prove to undo the precarious balancing act they have been trying to manage between making a profit and kowtowing to China.

The movie, which cost $200 million to make, was expected to be a hit in both China and the United States. Instead, the studio is on the receiving end of criticism from viewers in both places and has had a disappointing performance thus far, especially in China.

Pro-democracy groups in Hong Kong pushed the hashtag #BoycottMulan ahead of the American release. They wanted to draw attention to the fact that the star of “Mulan” – Liu Yifei – supported the Hong Kong police in a social media post amid accusations of the force’s violent crackdown on pro-democracy protests.

Disney has also come under fire for filming scenes in Xinjiang, where the record of human rights abuses against the Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities who live in the region are well documented. Ignoring what the US government has described as the unlawful incarceration of over one million Muslims in order to “accurately depict” the story of Mulan is not only ethically wrong, but it is completely historically inaccurate.

Projecting the current borders of the People’s Republic of China back to the fourth century is a historical anachronism that reinforces the current authoritarian state’s claims to the western region known as Xinjiang. In the movie, when the Chinese emperor calls for his troops to “defend the Silk Road” from the Rouran invaders, he is laying claims to territories that were far beyond China’s territorial control until the 18th century. The literal translation of Xinjiang is “the new territories” because the region was only brought under Beijing’s control by the Manchu Qing Dynasty and was not made a province until 1884.

In doing so, Disney reinforces the party line that Xinjiang and other parts of western China that now are considered to be cities that make up the historic Silk Road were—and always have been—a part of China. The region is central to Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative and claiming that it has always been a part of China is central to the maintenance of the state’s legitimacy in the region.

Since the #BoycottMulan hashtag and backlash over filming in Xinjiang began appearing in western news outlets, Chinese censors have blocked any content about “Mulan” from Chinese media sites. But China is also Disney’s second-largest market after the United States.

This tension between accommodation and profit is at the heart of what got Disney into this debacle in the first place. Just before Mulan’s American release, director Judd Apatow (who was not involved in the film) called out Hollywood for their complicity: “Maybe Disney and Apple should SPEAK UP & try to help a million people who were abducted and put in CONCENTRATION CAMPS.” For a while it seemed that Disney had found a cash cow in China, but the pressures to conform to the state narratives might prove too much for Disney – and other Hollywood studios – to balance in the future.

The story of Hua Mulan is derived from a ballad originally set somewhere in the fourth to sixth century, but the oldest known written transcriptions of the ballad date from the 11th century. Stories as old and as enduring as this one are often altered to suit the political and social context of their particular adaptation. Yet, there are certain egregious errors in this most recent adaptation that only serve to advance China’s political agenda.

For instance, in the original ballad, “Mulan” is loyal to her Khan, not a Chinese emperor (played here by Jet Li of “Hero” fame). This indicates that Mulan was likely a member of the Touba clan – a group of nomads from who ruled part of north China from 386 until 534 as the Northern Wei Dynasty – rather than a Han Chinese.

The Han are the largest ethnographic group in China, accounting for close to 92% of the population. But in a country with close to 1.4 billion people, that means almost 129 million people are not Han Chinese. In this way, the appropriation of non-Han pasts essentially serves the same purpose as “whitewashing” in American history.

By erasing Mulan’s ethnic identity, Disney has expunged the historical contributions that the people (who are now classified as ethnic minorities by the current party-state) made to China over time. By presenting Mulan as patriotic Han Chinese serving a Chinese Emperor who fights off faceless invaders dressed in black from the outside – the Rouran – Disney is helping to rewrite Chinese history in line with Chinese state-driven narratives.

The Rouran were a real tribal confederacy of proto-Mongols from the area that now make up the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia and Mongolia, and they did go to war regularly with the people that Mulan was said to be defending in the original ballad – the Northern Wei Dynasty. But the presentation of Mulan as Han defending her nation from an invading horde of faceless nomads only serves to both reinforce Hollywood tropes about “the other” and play into toxic rhetoric in China that peoples living on the peripheries of the Chinese state are barbarians who need to be civilized and Sinicized.

These are tensions that are felt in the daily lives of ethnic minorities who find themselves living within the borders of the People’s Republic of China – from Tibetans to Mongolians to the Uyghurs – who face pressure to give up their indigenous languages and cultures in the name of so-called progress.

Director Niki Caro said she wanted to create a strong female lead in her version of “Mulan.” But the story is narrated by Mulan’s father, played by ubiquitous Chinese American actor Tzi Ma, giving it a sort of “girl-dad” vibe. By removing Mulan’s agency in the telling of her own story, Caro gives us a character stuck in the patriarchal system she is born into rather than the empowered character Caro imagines Mulan to be. Relying on outdated orientalist tropes about Asian loyalty to the family, Caro again reinforces rather breaks down deeply engrained gendered stereotypes about the role of women and the family in East Asia.

Perhaps one of the biggest missteps was a departure from the well-received cartoon version of the movie. Viewers in both China and the United States noted the absence of Mulan’s dragon companion, Mushu, and the comic relief he provided in the 1998 cartoon version. Without Mushu, the movie relies on lame jokes made by Mulan’s male soldier companions about outdated gender roles in marriage to try to bring levity to an international audience. They were cringe-worthy and fell completely flat.

Historical inaccuracies are forgivable, unless you are making claims to authenticity. In this regard, “Mulan” fizzles so badly that both American and Chinese viewers can see right through Disney’s efforts to position the film as either authentic or empowering.

As Sean Bailey, president of Walt Disney Studios Motion Picture Production, said at a Disney expo event last year, according to state-run news agency Xinhua, “We spent a lot of time in the beginning with scholars, experts and people from the region. And we spent a great deal of time in China.” Bailey added that the studio “not only has a Chinese cast but also brought in a Chinese producer to make the movie with them.”

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    Back in March, the movie was applauded by some for its all-Asian cast. But a closer look at the credits reveals the deep structural racial inequalities in Hollywood: the director, costume designer, screen writers, composer, cinematographer, editor and casting director are all White.

    Final verdict: Disney’s latest live-action movie is broke, not woke.