Disney tailored ‘Mulan’ for China. It still ‘never had a chance’ at the mainland box office

September 20, 2020, 10:51 AM UTC

Disney’s long-awaited and controversial live-action film Mulan hit theaters in Hong Kong on Thursday after a disappointing debut in mainland China on Sept. 11.

The film generated $23.2 million in its opening weekend at the mainland China box office, sinking below analysts’ estimates that it would rake in $30 million to $40 million. Early indications suggest the movie’s reception in Hong Kong will be underwhelming too.

The film’s mainland China debut was considered a failure not just because it missed analysts’ expectations, but also because Disney had poured five years and $200 million into the film, in part, to ensure it appealed to a Chinese audience. Disney cast actors popular in China, hired Chinese consultants, shared the script with Chinese authorities, and cut scenes that Chinese test audiences didn’t like.

“In many ways, the movie is a love letter to China,” Mulan director Niki Caro told state-run Chinese news agency Xinhua before the film’s release.

That love seems unrequited.

Movie theaters in many parts of the world, including the U.S., are shuttered because of the coronavirus pandemic. But theaters are open in mainland China and Hong Kong. Mulan “needed that China market to succeed,” said Stanley Rosen, a professor of Chinese politics, society, and cinema at the University of Southern California. Disney didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Despite the money and time Disney dedicated to courting Chinese filmgoers, Mulan faced significant obstacles before it debuted in theaters.

“There were so many criticisms of the film before it came out, it didn’t really have a chance [in China],” Rosen said.

Piracy and bad reviews

Rampant illegal downloading meant that many viewers in China had watched Mulan days before it came out in Chinese cinemas on Sept. 11. Within hours of the film becoming available on Disney’s streaming platform Disney+ on Sept. 4, it appeared on illegal streaming sites worldwide. (Disney+ is available to subscribers in more than two dozen countries in Europe, Asia, and North America. It’s not available in mainland China, but users with a virtual private network can bypass regional restrictions.)

On one popular site for pirated content, Mulan was downloaded in China more than 250,000 times in three days, the South China Morning Post reported.

Bad reviews started appearing on platforms like Douban, a Chinese social networking site, and Maoyan, China’s largest online movie ticketing site, from users who had watched pirated versions, creating “negative buzz” around Mulan days before it hit Chinese theaters, Rosen said. “Piracy led to those bad reviews, which kind of turned people off from booking a ticket.”

Director Niki Caro and actress Liu Yifei attend a “Mulan” promotional event in London on March 13. Early bad reviews hampered the film’s box office success in China.
Dave J Hogan—Getty Images

Online reviewers criticized Mulan‘s lack of character development; the actors’ performances; various plot holes; the historical inaccuracy of the makeup and costumes; and confusing, seemingly slapdash references to Chinese culture.

One Douban reviewer laid out a ten-point critique of the movie that included a complaint about one scene in which Mulan’s father sharpens a knife with a piece of jade with ‘filial piety’ engraved on it. “[The jade] is related to military merit,” the reviewer wrote. “Why the hell is it engraved with ‘filial piety’?”

Another Douban reviewer called the film a “car accident” full of famous Chinese actors and “all the features of China that Americans could come up with…it’s full of Western images of China, especially ancient China.”

And that was one week before the movie officially premiered in China.

Piracy has long been an issue in China—Disney’s 1998 animated version of Mulan also suffered in the China box office in part because of mass piracy before its official release.

In recent years—under pressure from the U.S. to crack down on intellectual property theft, and alongside the growth of domestic entertainment companies—China’s government has tightened its piracy regulations. The share of people in China listening to illegally-downloaded music, for instance, dropped from 99% in 2011 to 4% in 2018.

Last year, Chinese authorities arrested 251 people and closed down 361 websites and 57 apps with connections to pirated movie production.

Mulan‘s initial straight-to-streaming release on Disney+ made it especially vulnerable to piracy. There was no need for illicit filming in a dark theater; it was already available online, making it easier to illegally copy and distribute.

Mulan‘s problems go beyond piracy.

“Aside from the piracy issue…people were concerned that you had a Western director and four screenwriters who were also Western, so it looked like just another example of Hollywoodization of a Chinese story,” Rosen said. Because of the proliferation of bad reviews online, “People were primed to be suspicious.”

Mulan has been adapted 17 times for film and television over the years; 15 of those adaptations were made in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. The remaining two, this year’s live-action film and Disney’s 1998 animated version, were American.

Concerns about how faithfully Disney’s latest Mulan hewed to Chinese history and culture started last summer, when Disney released the trailer for the movie. One complaint pointed out that Mulan’s house is a style of architecture that did not emerge in China until several hundred years after Mulan was supposed to have lived and is associated with southern China; the Mulan folk story is set in northern China. The scenes are beautiful, one Douban reviewer wrote, “but it will make any Chinese person who has studied geography go crazy.”

Turning tide against Hollywood

As China’s $9.2 billion box office is poised to surpass the U.S. as the largest cinema market in the world, Hollywood movies’ share of it has declined as Chinese films’ share has grown. The quality, quantity, and budgets of domestic films are improving, and local films accounted for 64% of China’s total box office in 2019, compared to 62% in 2018 and 54% in 2017.

Some Hollywood staples are still hugely popular in China. Last year, Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame earned over $629 million there, making it China’s fourth-highest grossing film of all time.

But joint productions between U.S. and Chinese movie makers like The Great Wall and Hollywood movies with Chinese cultural themes like Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell have flopped at the mainland box office. Their failures underscore the difficulty of making a movie with Chinese themes that appeals to U.S. and Chinese audiences and succeeds critically and commercially in both markets.

Director Zhang Yimou, actress Jing Tian, and actor Matt Damon at the Los Angeles premiere of ‘The Great Wall’ in 2017. In Hollywood, the film has come to exemplify the challenges of American and Chinese studios jointly producing a film that succeeds in both markets.
Frazer Harrison—Getty Images

Crazy Rich Asians, a movie about a Chinese American woman who travels to Singapore to meet her Chinese Singaporean boyfriend’s wealthy family, was a hit across the globe, but flopped in China, where reviewers said it negatively stereotyped Chinese culture and was too American.

The Farewell, a film about a Chinese-American woman who travels from the U.S. to China to visit her dying grandmother, has a higher Douban score than Mulan and Crazy Rich Asians, but it still bombed when it premiered in China last year. Positive reviews praised the film’s authentic depiction of a Chinese family in China; negative reviews said the director was showing China through an American lens, and the depiction was unflattering.

Mulan, more so than the other two films, was crafted with the explicit goal of appealing to Chinese audiences—but if its online ratings and early box office figures are anything to go by, it failed to do so.

“Politics aside, the new live-action [Mulan] film is a half-baked story that caters neither to the West nor to the East,” said Ying Zhu, an expert on China-Hollywood relations who’s a cinema studies professor at the City University of New York and a faculty member at the Film Academy of the Hong Kong Baptist University.

“It’s the inbetweenness that ruins an otherwise fascinating tale. Hollywood should leave Mulan alone,” Zhu said.

The film’s “inbetweenness” is exemplified in the contrasting responses to the question of whether Mulan can be considered a ‘feminist’ hero. Some Western and Chinese viewers praised the film’s feminist messaging and its strong female protagonist, while others disliked the characterization for the same reason. One viewer told the New York Times that the film’s director had “stubbornly twisted [Mulan] into this role as an extreme feminist and hero.”

Mulan sparked controversy outside of mainland China, too, long before it was released, when actress Liu Yifei, who plays Mulan, expressed support for the Hong Kong police in August 2019 at the height of the protests in Hong Kong. Calls to boycott the movie over Liu’s remarks resurfaced when Mulan was released on Disney+ earlier this month, and protests supporting the boycott cropped up in Hong Kong, South Korea, and Thailand.

After Mulan appeared on Disney+, another controversy emerged. The credits revealed that parts of the movie had been filmed in Xinjiang, a far-western region of China where China’s government has been accused of human rights abuses towards Xinjiang’s Uighur Muslim minority.

Those criticisms, though, were largely unrelated to the movie’s poor box office performance in mainland China, where the government censors the Internet and the news is dominated by state-run media.

“The fact that it hasn’t been successful in China has nothing to do with the [Hong Kong] boycott movement or the attitude towards Xinjiang in the United States…it has to do with the quality of the film,” Rosen said.