China is Not Excited for Disney’s Mulan
We’re only five days away from the September 11th release date of Disney’s Mulan in Mainland China, and Chinese social media is blowing up… but not in a good way.
Chinese social media app (and Twitter equivalent) Weibo has been burning with rage over the makeup, costumes, and other cultural aspects of the film with what they’ve decided is cultural appropriation gone horribly wrong.
Despite Fashionista and In Style gushing over the period-accurate costumes and makeup, Chinese netizens have labeled the attempt at historical accuracy a white-washed Asian dream of Chinese and Japanese histories and myths all rolled into one ugly package.
Photos of court scenes have been shared across Weibo, with users commenting on the way the scene was shot.
Netizens point out that the way the actors are standing and addressing each other in the court isn’t historically or culturally accurate at all. In fact, the way they’re acting is as though they’re in a European castle, not the Emperors palace in ancient China.
People point out that this movie, directed by a white New Zealander, is more reminiscent of medieval Europe than Ancient China, albeit with “Halloween makeup” thrown in.
Some of the weight of the blame is falling on makeup designer Denise Kum who told Fashionista:
“I used primary colours that are very symbolic in Chinese colours, but at the same time they’re very seminal in old-school Disney” in reference to her using the colours of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.”
Fashionista asked Mulan costume designer Bina Daigeler whether while in China on a research trip, she asked local advisors for advice on her costume decisions; and she admitted that she didn’t.
Instead, she relied on her intuition while shopping for costume pieces in Shanghai.
She would go to the parts of the city she felt drawn to, and bought whatever seemed right to her. She even noted that her Chinese assistant protested the parts of the city she was visiting, but her intuition won out in the end.
According to netizens, the film result is a patchwork of costuming and makeup choices that seem equally drawn from history, legend, and madness.
Rather than accurately portraying the lives and times of the Northern Wei era of ancient China, the film appears like a white person’s assumtion of what China probably looked like at some random point in history. To those who commented online, the film looked nothing like their understanding of China.
Makeup choices were made based on stories told to children, and costumes were chosen based on aesthetic over authenticity.
After the backlash caused by the original 1998 animated version of Disney’s Mulan, it’s surprising that Disney didn’t do more to ensure that this movie would be received better by the Chinese audience.
It’s especially surprising because Disney has made no secret of their reliance on the Chinese box-office to ensure this movie is a financial success.
The relative size of the Chinese box-office could even be the reason this movie was made at all.
Ordinarily, I would never make a fuss about a film being historically accurate. Under normal circumstances, I’m just in it for a fun time.
But this is the Ballad of Mulan we’re talking about. People living in Mainland China take stories such as this one extremely seriously, and its portrayal matters to some people on a deeply personal level.
It really makes you wonder, why didn’t Disney hire a Chinese director to helm the film?
They could have hired a Chinese director and teamed that person up with a Chinese historical advisory committee to make sure the film is well received when it arrives in China.
If they had hired a Chinese advisory board, they might have discovered that this movie could have lined up perfectly with the changing priorities of today’s China.
They could have taken advantage of the fact that Chinese legends (specifically translated into English) have become an integral part of the school curriculum all across the country starting with the new semester this month.
As a teacher in Mainland China, one of the responsibilities of my employer is making sure my educational content lines up with what’s being taught by local Chinese teachers.
This year, the focus from the top is ensuring classrooms accurately tell Chinese legends in English.
A part of me thinks that Disney actually knew ahead of time that this governmental push was coming, and ensured the film would come out during the year that this priority would come into effect.
The other part of me suspects that Disney had no idea of the shift in the country’s focus and just hoped to take advantage of the enormous box-office in China.
Regardless of what Disney knew or didn’t know, the consensus online is that Disney’s Mulan is far too inaccurate to be considered a Chinese legend retold in English. Instead, it’s being relegated to the Western fairytale genre.
Had this film been made right, Chinese schools would have gone to see the film on field trips. The government itself may have even officially endorsed the film, which would have massively boosted the box-office take.
Instead, what we have is a lot of disappointed Chinese people, a lot of inspired white people…
… and a lot of money left on the table.