Imagined as a Blockbuster in China, ‘Mulan’ Fizzles

Disney had been pinning its hopes on its $200 million live-action remake of “Mulan” as a way to finally deliver a blockbuster that resonated culturally with moviegoers in China, the world’s No. 2 film market.

But when it arrived, Chinese moviegoers had a litany of complaints.

The filmmakers were trying too hard to pander to China, but did not try hard enough to get their historical facts right. They made Mulan too westernized yet still succumbed to Orientalist stereotypes. They cast popular Chinese actors yet gave them lines in English that felt awkward in a Chinese setting.

“The movie is a waste of Mulan’s innocent name; it really is heartbreaking,” Qiu Tian, 30, a psychology teacher at a Beijing university who recently saw the movie, said in an interview. “The director completely misunderstood Mulan and stubbornly twisted her character into this role as an extreme feminist and hero.”

It showed in ticket sales, bringing in a tepid $23 million in its opening weekend. That was enough to lead the country’s box office — it was the only major release — but was far from the home run that company executives had sought.

Other recent movies have fared far better. The Christopher Nolan thriller “Tenet” collected $29.6 million in its opening weekend earlier this month, according to Maoyan, which tracks ticket sales in China. And a Chinese war epic, “The Eight Hundred,” that brought in $75.7 million in its opening weekend has so far grossed $391 million since its Aug. 21 release.

The mixed reception for “Mulan” in China underscores the enduring challenge that Hollywood faces in trying to make films about Chinese stories that have both broad appeal and the ability to captivate moviegoers in China, its most important overseas market. Hitting that sweet spot has become even more difficult in recent years, as Chinese moviegoers show an increasing appetite for more overtly patriotic fare like “Wolf Warrior 2” (2017) and “The Wandering Earth” (2019), two of the top three highest-grossing films in China.

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Credit…Jasin Boland/Disney, via Associated Press

Most cinemas in China are operating at only 50 percent capacity to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, but “Mulan” faced several additional obstacles. Piracy and the recent resumption of the school year did not help ticket sales, Chinese industry analysts said. Officials also ordered media outlets to limit coverage of the movie when word began to spread that some scenes had been shot in Xinjiang, the far western Chinese region where Muslim minorities live under severe repression. That news, which set off a global backlash, dimmed the spotlight on the film in a moment when it most needed to generate buzz.

But the weekend’s takings in China could carry a particular sting for Disney, considering how far it went to try to make the film a hit with Chinese audiences.

The studio hired a team of consultants and historians. The filmmakers cut a kiss between Mulan and her love interest after a Chinese test audience objected to the scene. They also shot scenery in 20 locations across China.

“If ‘Mulan’ doesn’t work in China, we have a problem,” Alan F. Horn, co-chairman of Walt Disney Studios, told The Hollywood Reporter last year.

But in trying to make a culturally authentic film for China, Disney may have been setting itself up for criticism. Unlike the DreamWorks Animation series “Kung Fu Panda,” an original story about the adventures of a spunky panda named Po that has been a runaway success in China, Mulan is a well-known figure to many Chinese. Moviegoers would have learned in school about the legendary heroine who secretly volunteered to take her ailing father’s place in the army.

Even as the original 1,500-year-old poem, the “Ballad of Mulan,” has been reinterpreted over the centuries, Mulan has remained a central figure in the Chinese cultural imagination, as a feminist hero to China’s early nationalists, as the human embodiment of filial piety, and, in more recent times, as loyalty to the state.

Lu Hang, a Chinese film critic and producer, said the familiarity with the character was partly why Disney’s live-action “Mulan” had not struck as much of a chord with Chinese audiences, even though the company’s other movies — in particular its Marvel superhero spectacles — have historically performed well in the country.

“As soon as you make a movie that has a hint of catering to the Chinese market, that’s when you see some problems start to emerge,” Mr. Lu said. “The film portrays an imaginary version of China, and many Chinese audiences cannot accept this.”

As of Monday, “Mulan” had 4.9 out of 10 stars on Douban, a popular Chinese review website.

Chinese moviegoers took issue with what they criticized as many historical and anachronistic inconsistencies. Many grumbled that the “real” Mulan, who in the original poem hailed from China’s northern steppe, would never have lived in a tulou, the round, earthen buildings that are the traditional homes for the ethnic Hakka people in the far south.

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Credit...Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

Viewers found particularly bizarre the film’s depiction of “qi” as some special magic power typically found in boys. In traditional Chinese philosophy, “qi” is the vital life force that makes up all things in the universe. Others found the movie lacking in comic relief, some even saying they missed Mushu, the wisecracking dragon in Disney’s 1998 animated version of the story.

The Global Times, a popular tabloid controlled by the ruling Chinese Communist Party, attributed the film’s lackluster reception to what it called the movie’s “self-righteous depiction.”

“The movie is just a mixture of Oriental elements and symbols in the eyes of Westerners,” the newspaper said.

“There were a lot of perspectives in the film that were quite different than if it had been made from a normal Chinese perspective,” Silvia Zhang, 35, an actuary in Beijing, said in a telephone interview after attending a screening of the film. She cited the film’s inclusion of the tulou buildings and the Song dynasty-style architecture of the imperial palace. According to the original poem, Mulan was supposed to have lived more than four centuries earlier, during the Northern Wei dynasty.

“It reminded me of an A.B.C.,” Ms. Zhang said, using a common term for American citizens of Chinese descent. “Or a Chinese person who has spent a lot of time overseas.”

Outside China, historians and commentators have criticized the film as pandering to the ruling Communist Party’s policies promoting nationalism and ethnic Han Chinese chauvinism.

In the movie, Mulan is portrayed as a Han heroine who battles the invading Rouran, darker-skinned villains who dress in black — a problematic stereotype — in an effort to save the emperor, played by Jet Li. But historians have pointed out that Mulan was most likely Xianbei, people from the steppes of northern China, rather than ethnically Han, and that she would have been ruled by a Khan, not an emperor.

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Credit...Rebecca Cabage/Invision, via Associated Press

“The way the villains are discussed, the placeless-ness of the west of China, the sumptuousness and the perfection of the imperial city — there’s this rewriting in order to fit a very specific imperial narrative,” Aynne Kokas, the author of “Hollywood Made in China,” said in a telephone interview. “Hollywood has a very illustrious history of making faceless, Turkic villains itself, so it’s almost the perfect collaboration.”

Still, even with the criticism, “Mulan” has found some admirers in China who said they welcomed different interpretations of the age-old tale.

Zhao Wen, 26, a film blogger, said that she loved its strong feminist scenes and “magnificent” scenery. It was unfair for viewers to hold the film to the standards of a Chinese historical documentary, she said.

“Many people think the movie presents a stereotypical version of our culture,” Ms. Zhao said in an interview at a cinema in Beijing. “But they forget that it’s just meant to be a princess movie with a little comedy and magic.”

Keith Bradsher contributed reporting. Claire Fu contributed research.