Film Review: MULAN (2020 film) - Victim of Cancel Culture & US-CHINA Cold War 影評 《花木蘭》

Updated: Oct 7

#FilmReview #SupportMULAN #花木蘭 #影評 #2020

FILE PHOTO: #SupportMULAN (2020) ©Walt Disney Pictures; composite/ Ryota Nakanishi

Right or left wing crusaders of ''Political Correctness'' can authorise themselves to freely violate other people's human rights without any ethical considerations and due responsibility? No, it's completely another aspect of issue that it has nothing to do with specific ideologies themselves. It's all about behaviours of individuals. Thus criticising historical mishandling of characters and story setting is appropriate yet demonising MULAN for ''political correctness'' is inappropriate at all.


#BoycottMulan is politically disgusting and filled with nihilistic emptiness of today's digitalised, astroturfed social atmosphere. Furthermore it is commercially unfair for Disney (they made the animated version in 1998 and made various changes for marketing considerations, such as the addition of witch Xianniang and the removal of considered LGBTQ icon Li Shang and Mulan's sidekick Mushu etc.) and Chinese American casts who starred in the most expensive film made by a female director in history which astronomically cost about 200 million USD budget.


I personally enjoyed the film during the harshest boycott campaign against this film, and I objectively think it is dialectical synthesis of Chinese martial arts film legacies from King Hu's Come Drink with Me (starring Cheng Pei-pei; 1966) to Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (co-written by one of my mentors Kuo Jung Tsai; 2002). It's cutting edged technical achievement is undoubted, and there is no one can compete with this at present in terms of film technology.


Unlike ''jidaigeki'' the Japanese costume play samurai genre, Chinese martial arts film genre is highly cross-cultural, cross-regional film genre thus Disney could seek overseas talented English-spoken-Chinese filmmakers and actors around the world for this co-production film project. However someone would oppose this claim by referring to Akira Kurosawa or US-Japan co-production projects in the past like The Last Samurai (2003) and Shōgun (1980 TV miniseries) specifically as similar phenomena of the Hollywood ''multiculturalist'' approach to the oriental world. The major difference is not pseudo-diversification among their crew (basically all of them are white), and local cultural depiction is always alienated. In fact, all of them are full of stereotyped tropes projected on the locals by outside westerners. However one thing is quite different practically that it's harder to find notable Japanese American stars or talented diaspora Japanese filmmakers and actors outside of Japan. In other words, it's the critical difference with Chinese filmmakers and actors.


On the contrary, Chinese people have the vast global network of talented diaspora Chinese filmmakers and stars outside of China. That successfully makes their specific film genre a cross-regional genre which can be made with promised high quality and secured box office hit. One of producers of this film Jason T. Reed said in October of 2018:


The traditional Disney audience and the diaspora Asian audience viewed the movie in one way, and the traditional Chinese in China audience viewed a slightly different way. So we really dug in to try and make sure that we were addressing both of those audiences in a thoughtful way.  And I think that we—I hope, knock on wood—I think we found a way to tie the way they look at the movie together.” (1)


During preproduction, Jason T. Reed mentioned their marketing strategy of this film that filmmakers must meet political and cultural standards of Disney, American, and local Chinese markets multiculturally as a Hollywood blockbuster. This ironically means that it's more acceptable for culturally neutralised audiences of the third country markets outside of the ongoing US-China disputes if we abstractly consider this issue without counting devastating economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in it.


Meanwhile, like any other Hollywood films, it promotes democrat progressive liberal ideology ''social justice warrior'' on racial diversity, feminism, LGBTQ etc. and capitalist individualism ''bringing honour to your house''(the protagonist Mulan's major motive and goal). Obviously, it has nothing to do with traditional CCP ideology. It's purely a US propaganda entertainment disguised in Chinese martial arts genre film with Chinese American actors and white crew.


Among all films released for 2020, this film is a paragon of Hollywood's questionable ''multiculturalism'' and the most important topic to discuss from the point of view of ''commercial co-production film projects.''


Unfortunately, Disney's well-made Chinese martial arts flick, Mulan (Dir. Niki Caro; 2020) got ''canceled'' by both China and Hong Kong audience due to its failure to meet ''political correctness'' in geopolitics.


Disney and Niki Caro offended Chinese audience of both warring political camps. For the central government, patriots or ''pro-establishment'' camp, leading actress Liu Yifei's voiced support on Hong Kong police via Weibo was the origin of antagonism from anti-China forces in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand and other overseas Chinese communities against Mulan (Dir. Niki Caro; 2020), thus it also triggered temporary and mechanical support from the central government, patriots or ''pro-establishment'' camp until it caused another political dispute between US and China on their highly controversial location shooting in Xinjiang, and suspected governmental interventions from China on this project. CNN reported it on August 16, 2019:


"I support the Hong Kong police. You can all attack me now. What a shame for Hong Kong," she posted on Weibo, a Twitter-like Chinese social media platform.

Immediately, people began posting #BoycottMulan on Twitter -- which is banned in China. Hours later, the hashtag was trending in Hong Kong and the United States with 37,700 tweets posted at time of writing. Twitter users accused the actress of supporting police brutality, and called out the fact that she's an American citizen. (2)


Indeed, Liu Yifei is brave enough to stand with Hong Kong police under the most devastating ''cancel culture'' and ''social justice mobs'' online which created by Silicon Valley US tech giants and their allied global marketing advertising networks, which Disney and entire Hollywood business highly depend on. Therefore Liu Yifei's political expression as part of the global ruling establishment is suicidal for celebrities themselves. It proved that she is more heroic than the purely fictional character Mulan she played.


FILE PHOTO: Screening of MULAN (2020) in Hong Kong on September 29, 2020. ©Ryota Nakanishi

Besides this, the Xinjiang allegation is purely a political fabrication fuelled by anti-China policy of US in the era of its declining empire. It was presented and claimed without any evidence to back the theory of concentration camps and forced labor of the Uyghurs. This Disney project hasn't been benefited from it since Chief Financial Officer Christine McCarthy claimed at a Bank of America conference on September 10, 2020:


"Mulan was primarily shot in, almost the entirety, in New Zealand. And in an effort to accurately depict some of the unique landscape and geography of the country of China for this historically period piece drama, we filmed scenery in 20 different locations in China," McCarthy told analysts at the conference, which was held virtually.


McCarthy said it was "common knowledge" that filming in China requires the permission of government publicity departments, and noted that it is standard practice to "acknowledge in the film's credits, the national and local governments that allowed you to film there."


"So in our credits, that was recognized, both China as well as locations in New Zealand. And I would just leave it at that," she said. "But that's generated a lot of issues for us." (3)


The last question is why ''patriotic'' local Chinese audience also refused this film? Lack of character development, CF or video game-like bland storytelling, reflection of Chinese stereotypes instead of local Chinese culture (e.g. grotesque make-up), distortion of ''chi'' qi as JEDI FORCE of STAR WARS, Liu Yifei's negative view on domestic Chinese audience and identity politics (the superpower of Mulan is limited due to her dishonesty to being female, then after she strips away her disguise as a man, she gets full power to defeat antagonists Rouran warriors) etc.. As the result, huge number of bad reviews flooded online -Maoyan and Douban -in mainland China due to pirated copies of this film, which are illegally circulated after Disney released it via VOD streaming service Disney+ before the Mainland China theatrical release on September 11, 2020.


Mulan already has more than 50,000 reviews on the site, but the rating is a paltry 4.8 out of 10. Nearly 90 per cent of users who submitted reviews gave it three stars or less out of five. Reviewers blasted the movie for having flat characters and a bland story with details that don’t make sense. Many people also appeared unsatisfied with how the film handles certain Chinese cultural elements.(4)


Consequently, this film lost political support from patriotic mainlanders and opportunistic ''pro-establishment'' camp of Hong Kong before the theatrical release. The ultimate major blow to this film's box office failure is censorship of mainland China due to the Xinjiang controversy instigated by US. Therefore Chinese media simply avoid covering the film itself at the critical time of the mainland release. Multiple political factors ruined this remarkable cross-cultural Chinese martial arts film project. Variety reported it on September 11, 2020:


That total would be a significant disappointment for Disney and the filmmakers, who had once aspired to “Mulan” becoming the highest grossing film ever directed by a woman, and for the film to do well in China. Casting included American-Chinese performer Liu Yifei (aka Crystal Liu) in the title role, and Donnie Yen, Gong Li and Jet Li in prominent roles.


But the coronavirus and spiralling political problems meant multiple delays to the scheduled release, giving time for the film to become frozen into the Cold War that’s icing up U.S.-China relations.

Considered as an import, rather than a co-production, “Mulan” received its official release date only 11 days ago, giving it little chance to build a strong marketing campaign. It also put the theatrical outing in competition with pirated copies, that appear to have been ripped from Disney Plus streams in other countries.


In recent days, both Disney and the film have been lambasted in the West for shooting partially in the controversial Xinjiang region, where China is accused of large-scale human rights abuses. U.S. Senator Josh Hawley escalated the matter further with a letter in which he accuses Disney of ignoring U.S. government and NGO warnings about Xinjiang and “collaborating with the Chinese officials directly responsible for the atrocities.”


Chinese authorities have long denied the Western narrative about Xinjiang and this week ordered state media to sidestep the controversy by not reporting on the film. (5)


I think depiction of Rouran warriors is more problematic than stereotypes of Chinese culture in this western film. Rouran warriors are equivalents of ''islamic terrorists'' in the eyes of US filmmakers and executives behind this production. It is similar to WW1 German solders equalised with ''nazis'' in Wonder Woman (2017 film).


NARRATIVE STRUCTURE


Well made drama films can meet standards of both the Three Act Structure and the Hero's Journey simultaneously. And the majority of filmmakers consciously use the Three Act Structure for practice while critics may use the Hero's Journey as an ''analytical'' tool for narrative structures of films. Thus we just need to stick to the western aesthetic legacy of story telling which deeply rooted in Aristotle's Poetics.


ACT1


Exposition:

In ancient imperial China, Hua Mulan -the eldest daughter of Hua Zhou- who has mysterious power qi is forced to meet the Matchmaker (played by the first modern Chinese martial arts film's leading actress Cheng Pei-pei) to test her fitness to be a future wife in the feudalistic communal village. Ends up in failure, and her father Hua Zhou (a famed war veteran; played by Tzi Ma) is disappointed.


Inciting Incident:

The antagonist Böri Khan (played by Jason Scott Lee) leads Rouran warriors to invade the empire with assistance of a shapeshifter, witch Xianniang (played by the legendary ''ageless'' actress Gong Li). Xianniang manages to trigger a conscription decree from The Emperor of China (played by Jet Li).


End of ACT1:

Imperial soldiers arrive at Mulan's communal village to recruit men. Hua Zhou has no son thus he is forced to pledge his royalty to the empire by joining the army without consideration of his illness and immobility. Then, Mulan decides fleeing from the house with her father's arms and a horse to join the army as her father has no chance for survival. For this, she has to disguise as a man during the imperial military service.


ACT2


Complication:

Mulan arrives at the training camp to join Commander Tung (her father Hua Zhou's old comrade played by Donnie Yen)'s battalion without disclosing her sexual identity. Later Böri Khan's barbarian army advances and forces Commander Tung to suspend military training. Then, Commander Tung orders his imperial battalion to fight back Khan's tribal army. The battle starts. Mulan chases some Khan's troops on the battle ground.


Midpoint:

After being ambushed by Xianniang who shows her sympathy to Mulan as a member of similarly alienated minority for ''possessing supernatural power'' and instigates Mulan to join Khan's military campaign, Mulan decides removing male disguise in order to fight until the end with full power.


End of ACT2:

The Rourans are overwhelming Commander Tung's battalion with a gigantic trebuchet attacks. Many fellow soldiers are injured or killed. Mulan misleads The Rourans to fire on the snow mountains to trigger avalanche against themselves with using abandoned helmets and her archery skill. Then, Mulan rides back to save her comrades but she is no longer able to disguise as a male. Therefore, Commander Tung expels Mulan for her deception. On the way home, Xianniang appears again to inform her that the attack on the outpost is just diversion. Their true target is The Emperor for Khan's father's revenge, and the major attack on the imperial palace is impending doom. Mulan returns to Commander Tung's battalion to warn them the impeding attack. Commander Tung accepts her warning and allows her to lead the battalion to the imperial palace to save The Emperor.


ACT3


Final Confrontation:

Xianniang infiltrates the palace and disarms emperor's army by persuading The Emperor to fight face to face with Khan. Imperial guards are trapped and killed just after that. The Rourans preprar to burn The Emperor alive.


Solution:

Mulan's unit distracts The Rourans while Mulan going to save The Emperor. Then Khan snipes Mulan with an arrow however disenchanted Xianniang blocks it by her sacrifice. Khan successfully disarms Mulan, and her father's sword destroyed yet she finally kills Khan in a fight. The Emperor is freed and offers her to be his general but Mulan refuses it and returns home.


End of ACT3:

The Emperor's emissaries - including Commander Tung - arrive at her village to present a new sword to her after her reunification with her family. People don't know if Mulan finally accepts their request to officially join the imperial army as female or not.


COMMENT


For technical aspect, it needs viewing this film several times. However even only one screening at cinema is adequate to point out that the most important thing is the dominant drone shooting which gave this film a new visual experiences, outlooks and more freedom of camera movements and framing than in the 2000s and 2010s. Mulan is a ''drone action movie'' while Hong Kong action films still almost belong to the the stylistic phase of Infernal Affairs (2002).


Of course this film is not flawless. For instance, in the opening sequence, cutting Mulan's CG village landscape shot into the live action shot of the village is too abrupt. A switch between CGI and live action shots are also too obvious. It includes a battle sequence in which layered background fight between Commander Tung's battalion v The Rourans is CGI typical in 1917 (2019), and the foreground is a live action shot of Mulan fighting.


Among all technical issues, the most critical problem is mentioned by The Global Times. That's historical inaccuracies. On September 11, 2020, The Global Times reported:


Shi Wenxue, a film critic,  told the Global Times on Friday that the poor box office performance of Mulan in the Chinese mainland is not surprising because it failed to tell a Chinese story in an accurate and attractive manner.


The movie is just a mixture of oriental elements and symbols in the eyes of Westerners. "For instance, in the film, Mulan from the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534) lived in the earth building - a type of construction using raw earth invented during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). The general in the movie played Taichi - which was created in the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368)," Shi said. ......(6)


It is persuasive however issues of historical inaccuracies are not even totally eliminated from domestic Chinese martial arts films. For example, King Hu improperly used Tōshūsai Sharaku (active: 1794–1795)'s Ōtani Oniji III in the Role of the Servant Edobei, nishiki-e colour print, 1794 for introduction of the pirates leader Boduojin in The Valiant Ones (1975). Indeed, historical inaccuracies fatally damaged Mulan's reputation.


Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian on Friday slammed the ill-intentioned moves of anti-China forces, saying that crediting regional government organs in Xinjiang that helped produce the film is nothing more than common practice.


Zhao also gave a "thumbs up" when asked about Chinese actress Liu Yifei's support for the Hong Kong police, praising her as the modern-day Mulan. (7)


Fortunately, there are also positive responses from the central government on this highly controversial film like quoted above. At least the central government approved Mulan thus the block of Mulan-related news in mainland Chinese media was just meant to contain the US politicisation of Xinjiang dispute from further spreading.


Unlike ''celebrities'' of Hollywood or any other US allied countries, the young star Liu Yifei spoke out politically that risked her career globally including her future career in Hollywood. Thus it can't be seen as career opportunism in which ''celebrities'' only concern their own career boost by publicly supporting elites who run their domestic film-TV industries without any in-depth or even shallow knowledge about their standpoints on related social issues. Matthew Kadish, one of respected columnists for RT recently wrote about the common industrial phenomenon:


Publicly supporting the ‘right’ candidate will get you invited to the cocktail parties and fundraising events, where you can hob-nob with the heads of studios, members of a studio’s board of directors and the financiers who fund Hollywood’s movies, in order to shore up those relationships that will guarantee you that next $20 million paycheck in a starring movie role. After all, Hollywood is an industry built on relationships, and if you can meet and befriend the people who run the town, your career is guaranteed to be safe for decades to come.......


Barring that, you need to be at the end of your career before you start speaking your mind on politics. James Woods, one of the most high-profile conservative celebrity voices on Twitter, waited until he was retired from acting to start speaking out politically. The same goes for actor Jon Voight, who is at the tail end of his career. Clint Eastwood can also be counted among this group; he didn’t really publicly express his political beliefs until he moved his career to work behind the camera as a film director.


READ MORE:

The Rock may back Biden, but most celebrity endorsements are career opportunism… which is why they NEVER come out for Republicans


This is exactly the same for Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, mainland China and any other countries' film-TV industries. And even this totalitarian tendency of the industry is not limited in just film and arts.


In general, the most of 'influential'' ''celebrities'' speak out the truth at their near end of ''long successful career'' or after retirement without any serious risks of losing everything. However really brave and responsible people of today will consciously speak out the truth politically no matter how devastating it is for their career. This is the true and real attitude of revolutionaries not filthy prostitutes for elites of the ruling class.


Though the movie may perform poorly in the Chinese mainland, the projected 291 million yuan box office is still much better than other overseas markets, experts said. As the pandemic continues to rip across the world, China has been the only major economy which has rapidly and efficiently recovered. (8)


Yes, the least promised box office result of 291 million yuan (42.851496 million U.S. dollars; 1.2398801 billion Taiwan dollars) is still astonishing and far better than films of Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan and even many other mainland Chinese films.


We must dialectically learn their pros and cons. Meanwhile we should stay away from devastating ''social justice crusade'' for ''political correctness'' on this Disney film. Unlike Chinese state media's one-sided claims, this film's marketing is actually tragic due to Hollywood Disney's own obsolete ''multiculturalist'' and ''progressive woke '' attempt to ''Hollywood-ize'' westernise oriental culture and ideologies without historical accuracy; mainland China's rampant pirate copy culture and their growing nationalist exclusivism against cultural imperialism by non-Chinese entities; Hong Kong's anti-China opposition, blackshirt mobs and their overseas sympathisers etc.. In the era of identity politics, colour politics(e.g. red, blue, green, yellow), social divisions, sectarianism(e.g. stalinists v trotskyists), woke cancel culture, social justice mobs, crusade for political correctness like #BoycootMulan, we more need concrete analysis of concrete objects in motion. All of them above mentioned often makes us totally blind to realisation of the need of concrete analysis of real social situations and class conditions.


''Social crusade for political correctness'' is total elimination of independent thought and in-depth analysis on concrete objects. Moreover it is completely out of the grand social context of reality always.


In general, this film is still the most advanced phase of Chinese martial arts film genre no matter how many political and historical inaccuracies we found.



NOTES


  1. Collider.com, ‘Mulan’: The Biggest Changes from the Animated Version in Disney’s Live-Action Remake, February 27, 2020.

  2. CNN, Hong Kong protesters call for 'Mulan' boycott after star went public in support of police, August 16, 2019.

  3. Michelle Toh, CNN Business, Backlash over filming 'Mulan' in Xinjiang 'generated a lot of issues,' admits Disney, September 10, 2020.

  4. Xinmei Shen, SCMP.com, Disney’s Mulan hit with bad reviews in China as pirated copies circulate online ahead of theatrical release, September 8, 2020.

  5. Patric Frater, VARIETY, Disney’s ‘Mulan’ Makes Soft Start at China Box Office, September 11, 2020.

  6. Song Lin and Xie Wenting, Global Times, Poor artistic level, misunderstanding of Chinese culture lead to Mulan failure in China, September 11, 2020.

  7. Ibid.

  8. Matthew Kadish, RT, The Rock may back Biden, but most celebrity endorsements are career opportunism… which is why they NEVER come out for Republicans, October 4, 2020.

  9. Song Lin and Xie Wenting, Global Times, Poor artistic level, misunderstanding of Chinese culture lead to Mulan failure in China, September 11, 2020.


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