SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – The remake of “Mulan” hit all deals to be a hit in the key Chinese market. Disney cast beloved actor Liu Yifei for the role of Mulan and removed a shoulder of the popular dragon in the animated original to suit Chinese tastes.
However, the film garnered decidedly mixed reviews after its delayed coronavirus release in China last week, with thousands of users viewing it online.
The film was rated 4.9 out of 10 from over 165,000 people on Douban, a leading website for movie, book and music rankings. The negative comments and jokes about the film outweighed the positive reactions on social media.
“The poor artistry, the misunderstanding of Chinese culture led to the failure of the film in China,” writes the state newspaper Global Times tweeted.
Chinese critics, both at home and abroad, said they were disappointed by the film’s inaccurate and stereotypical portraits of Chinese history and the main character, imbued with nationalist tropes.
Others weren’t that bothered.
“It’s okay for different writers to come up with different stories,” said Zhang Qin, a military veteran, after seeing the film in Beijing last week. “They can play with their imagination and that’s a good thing.”
Computer engineer Zhang Fan also had positive things to say about the film. “What has touched me is humanity,” he said.
The remake of the popular 1998 Disney animation is based on the ancient story of Hua Mulan, a young woman who takes over from her father in the army by dressing up as a man.
The original short story, “The Ballad of Mulan”, has undergone multiple interpretations. Themes such as filial piety and loyalty to central government have remained fundamental principles, which some find outdated and problematic.
“It’s a very sensitive subject in modern China because many people find (filial piety) very binding, including myself,” said Xiran Jay Zhao, the Chinese Canadian author of an upcoming book on the only empress in China. “It’s like a moral obstacle to people.”
He also thinks that Disney has missed the opportunity to reshape history along feminist lines.
“Even after reaching this position as a great warrior, she had to go home and then dedicate herself to her family and then find a husband,” Zhao said. “Of all the things in the original ballad, is that the one you choose to keep?”
Critics have also pointed out inaccurate details such as the use of a southern style house when Mulan is likely from the north. Some have called the makeup and costumes are ugly and inauthentic.
Jeannette Ng, a UK-based Chinese fantasy writer, said the film perpetuates a narrative of the Han-majority Chinese people who assimilate and exclude minorities including ethnic Mongols, Tibetans and Uyghurs.
“Mainland Chinese people are not mainland Chinese spectators 20 years ago,” he said of the tepid response. “The culture has changed.”
His comments mirror the latest in a series of controversies that have affected the film outside of mainland China.
The film’s closing credits thank the propaganda departments and a public security office in Xinjiang, where part of the film was shot.
China has come under widespread criticism for detaining Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities in Xinjiang as part of a campaign to extinguish the sometimes violent struggle against Chinese rule.
Previously, a boycott movement was triggered after Liu, the actor who plays Mulan, publicly supported the Hong Kong police while fighting pro-democracy protesters last year.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian defended Liu last week, calling her a “modern day Mulan”.
Disney did not respond to a request for comment.