This is clear from the first moment the villainous Böri Khan and the Rouran people appear in what the movie calls the “Northwest Desert of the Silk Road,” with their scimitars and face-obscuring headscarves. For those who haven’t looked at a map of China recently, that desert is in the heart of Xinjiang, where the Chinese government has set up camps estimated to hold more than 1 million people, primarily Uighur Muslims, against their will. In the end credits, Disney thanks the Xinjiang government’s publicity department.
China has long sought to bolster its worldwide cultural influence by partnering with Hollywood studios, offering longer distribution windows, more generous profit-sharing and access to preferred film distributors to co-produced movies. The coronavirus pandemic has shifted the balance of power in this relationship, offering China even more financial leverage over America’s entertainment industry. In 2019, the Chinese movie market was the second-largest in the world. With many theaters still shuttered or at drastically reduced capacity in the United States, the Chinese box office is poised to take the top spot in 2020. (Meanwhile, as Disney’s park in Florida cut its hours, and its California park remains closed, the Shanghai Disney resort has rebounded: It is open again at 50 percent of its capacity.) “Mulan” exemplifies this shift: Over Labor Day weekend, when the movie debuted in the U.S., the Chinese box office returns of more than $64 million were nearly three times those in the United States. And while Americans could watch “Mulan” only via Disney’s streaming service, the movie secured a theatrical release in China for Sept. 11.
The economic stakes for Hollywood studios are clear — given the continued uncertainty in the United States, access to the Chinese market is an existential issue. Until now, the signs of Beijing’s influence mostly have been subtle, if controversial: “Top Gun: Maverick” excised a prominent display of the Taiwan flag on Maverick’s iconic bomber jacket; “Abominable” showed a map reflecting China’s South China Sea maritime claim, one disputed by both its neighbors and the U.S. government.
Not so with “Mulan,” which directly evokes Zhang Yimou’s 2002 historical fantasy, “Hero,” in its themes, style and overt nationalism. “Mulan” echoes Zhang’s sumptuous visual style, replete with aerial shots of Chinese soldiers awash in primary colors. In “Hero,” characters sacrificed themselves for the spirit of “tianxia,” referring to the heavenly mandate of Chinese leadership, just as in “Mulan,” members of the imperial guard leave their secured fortress to charge the Rouran, innumerable soldiers perishing on the battlefield. The movies even share a star in Jet Li, who played the rebel turned imperial loyalist in “Hero” and portrays the yellow emperor in “Mulan.”
But where “Hero” — made by Chinese studios, hailed in the mainland and breaking box office records — was heavily criticized for its authoritarian messaging when it played abroad, “Mulan” inverts this dynamic. It’s the product of an American studio, which finds itself in the unprecedented position of selling Han Chinese nationalism to China. It’s not altogether unsurprising, then, that when lead actress Liu Yifei spoke out in support of the police suppressing protesters in Hong Kong, Disney stayed quiet — or that, when #BoycottMulan became the film’s leading hashtag in the United States on the day of its release, Disney said nothing.
“Mulan” will fit right in with contemporary Chinese blockbusters, in which a dominant trend has been to depict Han Chinese civilization as the picture of good governance, ever at risk from foreign invaders. In Wu Jing’s “Wolf Warrior 2,” which broke box office records in 2017, retired Chinese soldiers protect a Chinese-run factory in Africa from terrorists. In Zhang’s 2016 fantasy epic, “The Great Wall,” Chinese leaders (and Matt Damon) defend a border fort from literal monsters. Such films impart a sense of timelessness to Han Chinese leadership. It’s particularly perverse to conscript the legend of Mulan to advance this political narrative: In the story’s original text, the Khan is China’s leader, not its enemy.
When officials such as Attorney General William P. Barr and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) recently criticized Hollywood for altering content to comply with Chinese censors, they glossed over an essential irony: The U.S. failure to contain the pandemic has deepened American studios’ dependence on the Chinese market, increasing their incentives to make entertainment that aligns with Chinese political perspectives. The release of “Mulan” is just one sign of how the Trump administration’s lack of a functional public health response has helped make Beijing’s soft-power dreams come true.
This story has been updated.