The remake of “Mulan” struck all the right chords to be a hit in the key Chinese market. Disney cast beloved actor Liu Yifei as Mulan and removed a dragon sidekick popular in the animated original to cater to Chinese tastes.
Still, the movie drew decidedly mixed reviews after its coronavirus-delayed release in China last week, with thousands panning it online.
“Mulan” has earned an estimated 198 million yuan (R475000000) since its opening last week, and was the second most-watched movie in China as of Thursday, according to ticketing platform Maoyan. It scored a higher 7.5 out of 10 on Maoyan, but also with mixed reviews.
“Poor artistic level, misunderstanding of Chinese culture lead to the film’s failure in China,” the state-run Global Times newspaper wrote.
Chinese critics, both at home and abroad, said they were disappointed with the film’s inaccurate and stereotypical portrayals of Chinese history and the main character, infused with nationalist tropes.
Others were not as bothered.
“It’s fine that different screenwriters make up different stories,” Zhang Qin, a military veteran, said after watching the film in Beijing last week. “They can play with imagination and it’s a good thing.”
IT engineer Zhang Fan also had positive things to say about the film. “What touched me is the humanity,” he said.
The remake of Disney’s popular 1998 animation is based on the ancient tale of Hua Mulan, a young woman who takes her father’s place in the army by dressing as a man.
The animated version was a global hit but earned just $30 million in China, where viewers found the movie too Americanized, according to reports at the time.
The original tale, “The Ballad of Mulan,” has gone through multiple renditions. Themes such as filial piety and being loyal to the central government have remained as core tenets, which some find outdated and problematic.
“It’s a very touchy subject in modern China because a lot of people find (filial piety) very constraining, including me,” said Xiran Jay Zhao, the Chinese Canadian author of an upcoming book about the only female emperor in China. “It’s like a moral shackle for people.”
Critics also pointed out inaccurate details such as the use of a southern-style house when Mulan is likely from the north and a depiction of “qi” as a magic power that only boys can wield — in Chinese philosophy, it is a force not limited by gender.
Zhao said the film comes off more like European fantasy than a Chinese story and noted that the film’s crew was mostly white, including the director, four screenwriters and costume designer.
“They didn’t really get any Chinese people on the writing staff, and it really showed,” she said.
Jeannette Ng, a Chinese fantasy writer based in the United Kingdom, said the film perpetuates a narrative of China’s majority Han people that assimilates and excludes minorities including ethnic Mongolians, Tibetans and Uighurs.
“The mainland Chinese people aren’t the mainland Chinese viewers from 20 years ago,” she said of the lukewarm response. “The culture has moved on.”
Her comments mirror the latest in a series of controversies that have hit the film outside mainland China.
The movie’s final credits thank propaganda departments and a public security bureau in Xinjiang, where part of it was filmed.
China has come under widespread criticism for detaining Uighurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities in Xinjiang as part of a campaign to snuff out sometimes-violent struggle against Chinese rule.
Earlier, a boycott movement was sparked after Liu, the actor who portrays Mulan, publicly supported Hong Kong police as they battled pro-democracy protesters last year.
Hong Kong resident Sarah Chan said she does not plan to see the film, which opened in her city on Thursday.
“The main actress … supports Hong Kong police, so I don’t want to watch it,” Chan said. “Furthermore, I think they changed the historical background of the story. It’s not the same story anymore.”
Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian defended Liu last week, calling her a “Mulan of the modern times.”
Disney did not reply to a request for comment.