Geopolitics and Storytelling: how going global is a challenge for Hollywood

With its new live-action film of Mulan, Disney had hoped to conquer the two biggest movie markets in the world – China and the USA. However, promotion and popularity of the film has been mired by controversy. Grayling’s team in New York examines the situation.

From Hong Kong to Xinjiang…

Cinematic issues aside (which are not insignificant but less relevant for this post), Mulan is controversial in China and the United States because of two seemingly far-away geopolitical points of contention – Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

During the heat of the Hong Kong pro-democracy protest in August 2019, Mulan’s lead actress re-shared a post from People’s Daily on Weibo (China’s largest microblogging website), showing her support for the Hong Kong police. The post garnered support in China but caused instant controversy in Hong Kong and the United States, where #BoycottMulan started trending on Twitter as a result. As the story grew, Chinese state media got involved, with the Global Times publishing an article defending the actress and launching a counter #SupportMulan Twitter campaign.

If one controversy wasn’t enough, it was recently revealed that the movie was partially filmed in the Xinjiang region of China – home to the Chinese government’s controversial ‘re-education camps’ for minority ethnic groups. End credits of the film thanked several local political entities, including a public security bureau that is on the U.S. Commerce Department’s sanctions list for participating in the detention of people from ethnic minority groups. American Republican and Democrat politicians have since blasted Disney for ‘placing profits above principles’ and questioned the firm on how its studio co-operated with local governments. In an attempt to downplay the issue, the Chinese government allegedly instituted a media blackout on coverage of the film leading up to its premiere in China.

With these two public relations controversies, alongside a tepid box office performance, Disney has struggled with strategic business communications.

A statement from the company attempted to distance the studio from Xinjiang in particular, saying,

“Mulan was primarily shot in New Zealand…. and in an effort to accurately depict some of the unique landscape and geography of China… we filmed scenery in 20 different locations in China…. It is common to acknowledge in a film’s credits the national and local governments that allowed you to film there.”

Despite this statement, however, for the past 10 years, Western media has regularly reported on the treatment of ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang, making it highly unlikely that Disney could have been unaware of the potential for controversy caused by filming in the region. If it was simply the need to feature Chinese frontier landscapes within a loose historical tale, surely other Chinese regions could have been viable options?

A possible explanation could be that the selection of Xinjiang as a location for the film was the result of input from the Chinese government. The Wall Street Journal reported that Disney shared the movie script with the Chinese authorities while consulting with local advisers. Disney also seems to have taken guidance from China’s state film board to not focus on a particular Chinese dynasty in the 2020 live action Mulan – a change from its 1998 animation of the same story. In an attempt to access the lucrative Chinese film market, Disney may have taken a calculated risk in incorporating Xinjiang; however, with Sino-U.S. relations deteriorating rapidly since filming started in 2018, this decision has come back to bite Disney in a big way.

With a 4.9/10 rating in China and muted opening, Mulan is failing to become the blockbuster film that Disney envisioned would sweep the world’s two largest movie markets. It turns out that, “Loyalty, bravery and staying true to oneself” (engravings on Mulan’s sword) is tricky business in the ongoing power struggle between China and the United States.