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Regarding the Mulan Boycott

Today’s the day when the live-action remake of Mulan finally hits Disney+, following a long pandemic-induced delay. Trouble is, it’s only available to those who are willing and able to pay a $30 upcharge in addition to the Disney+ membership.

I’ve already gone on record about this a few brief times in other blog entries, and I’ll come back to it later on. Right now, suffice to say that no way in hell was I ever going to pay thirty goddamn dollars just to rent a movie.

Little did I know that a lot of people are apparently boycotting the movie as well, and for a totally different reason.

Back in March of 2019, the chief executive of Hong Kong introduced a bill that would allow extradition to mainland China on a case-by-case basis. This legislation immediately set off alarm bells, for fear that it would help the oppressive Chinese government in finding and arresting political dissidents. Long story short, this prospective bill (which was withdrawn in October 2019, by the way) snowballed into a landslide win for the pro-democracy camp in the 2019 Hong Kong election, a series of Chinese emergency laws regarding social gatherings, and a whole ‘nother China/Hong Kong immigration issue brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. All of this was fueled by a solid year and a half of protests, riots, general strikes, and demonstrations that are still making worldwide headlines to this day.

Of course, China — being China — has responded to all of this by doing their absolute best to clamp down on any resistance. The police response from China has been overwhelming, and their legislative efforts at cracking down on the protests has been outright Draconian.

Which brings us to August of 2019, when Liu Yifei — who plays the title character in Mulan (2020) — shared a post from the Chinese state-backed People’s Daily that read: “I support the Hong Kong police. You can all attack me now.” Liu herself added “I also support the Hong Kong police.”

First of all, I want to stress that I know absolutely nothing about Liu Yifei as an artist or as a person. I don’t know her movies, I don’t know her politics, I don’t know her from Eve. And I honestly don’t care what she thinks or believes, that’s her business.

That said, it bears mentioning that while Liu is an American citizen, she was born in China and she’s been bouncing back and forth between the two nations ever since she started modeling and acting at age eight. While I certainly don’t know (nor can I prove) that Liu made this statement under any kind of duress, we do know that the Chinese government holds considerable power over her life. It’s entirely possible that if this young actress — set to gain international prominence through a tentpole Disney movie — ever made a public statement against the Chinese government, she might not ever be able to work or even set foot in China again. To say nothing of the potential ramifications against her family and loved ones.

And then, of course, there’s how Liu’s statements on the matter could affect her career. Specifically with regards to Mulan (2020).

It’s no secret that Hollywood has been actively courting China for years. The two have become so thoroughly entwined in so many ways for such a long time, it’s hard to know where to begin. Going one direction, Chinese companies like Huayi Brothers (Hardcore Henry, The Free State of Jones, Warcraft, etc.), Starlight Culture Entertainment (Midway, Marshall, etc.), and Tencent (anything STX Films has put out), have been backing prominent Hollywood movies for years, hiding in plain sight.

Going the other direction, I could point to films like Arrival or The Martian, both movies in which China plays a vital part in saving the day. And I’m sure we all remember Doctor Strange, the movie that white-washed a character traditionally from Tibet — a nation with a long, hostile relationship against China.

Now, to be entirely fair, this ongoing trend has resulted in a positive impact with regards to the visibility of Asian people and culture in mainstream American media. Crazy Rich Asians is an especially prominent and well-received case in point, though The Farewell is a fine example as well. But on the other hand, same-sex equity is still a hot-button issue in China, which is likely a huge reason why LGBTQ representation doesn’t really exist in big-budget cinema. To say nothing of the female-led Ghostbusters (2016) getting completely shut out of Chinese theaters.

If it was really about making a positive social impact, these inconsistencies wouldn’t make any sense. If it was all about appealing to China, it would all make a lot more sense.

To be clear, the Ghostbusters (2016) slight probably had more to do with China’s wildly inconsistent rules with regards to ghosts, terror, or anything supernatural. How inconsistent are these rules? The aforementioned Starlight Culture Entertainment — a Chinese company — helped produce freaking Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, a movie that never even saw a Chinese release!

But wait — you might be thinking, if you’ve been paying attention — haven’t the multiplexes been deluged with scary ghost stories lately? Isn’t there supposed to be a whole superfranchise built on The Conjuring? Yeah. And how many of those had a budget anywhere near $100 million? The whole reason why those movies have been so successful is because they didn’t take much to make and they don’t need any Chinese box office returns to bring a profit.

Even crazier, China is famously stringent on movies involving time travel. The Chinese government takes history very seriously, and they don’t want a portrayal of anything that makes light of history or implies that it can be altered. Bill and Ted Face the Music was made on a reported budget of $25 million and has no release date set for China. No way that’s a coincidence.

Mulan (2020), on the other hand, was made on a reported budget of $200 million. Based on other recent films with comparable budgets (Justice League, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Dark Phoenix, etc.), that means this one has to make at least a billion dollars worldwide or it’s going to be seen as an extremely costly flop.

(And of course we have to think about the optics — how the hell would it look if such an overt cinematic love letter to China couldn’t even screen in China?!)

Disney absolutely needs that populous and lucrative Chinese box office if it has any hope at making this movie profitable. That would be true even if American multiplexes were running at their usual capacity, which brings us back to the current state of American cinema.

Last weekend, The New Mutants opened to a domestic weekend gross of $7 million. In the Before Times, that would’ve made it the most embarrassing and short-lived franchise starter since Jem and the Holograms. Right now, that’s enough to make it the highest-grossing movie in multiplexes. To say that’s pathetic would be an understatement.

What’s worse, unemployment in America is now over ten percent, and every new month brings the looming threat of more people getting kicked out of their homes because they can’t afford to pay rent. Because they’re not working. Due to the pandemic.

We’re on the brink of an economic crisis, the arts are getting hit everywhere, and we have no way of knowing which local businesses will be left standing when we finally have a reliable vaccine. But Disney needs to make their billion dollars, so here’s your $30 upcharge.

Yes, I realize that if you’re seeing it with a family of five people who’d otherwise go to the multiplex (if each of them buy concessions, more like two or three), the math checks out. However, that doesn’t make it any less of a slap in the face for those stuck in lockdown alone, or for those who are already paying for broadband internet and Disney+ with their hard-earned savings at a time of imminent economic collapse. Also, while multiplex tickets and concessions may be absurdly overpriced, at least you know that the money went toward keeping a business open and local employees paid. I don’t know who’s employed at your local multiplex, but they sure as hell won’t see a dime of that $30.

Yes, Disney did eventually back down and agree to release the film without a premium upcharge in December, though you’ll still need a Disney+ account to see it. And yes, I can appreciate that Disney didn’t try to pull a Tenet, implicitly encouraging everyone to go see a movie while a raging pandemic has made that unavoidably hazardous. But then I remember that Disney has tried moving Heaven and Earth to keep its theme parks open and active (albeit with modified protocols) throughout the pandemic-ridden summer!

Why? Because Disney only gets 17 percent of its total revenue from its movies. The various hotels, theme parks, and cruise lines generate double that — a full third of the company’s revenue! But I digress.

The point is, the makers of Mulan (2020) are in a difficult place right now. They can’t do the right thing and condemn China for their multiple human rights transgressions without fear of pissing off the censors, cutting off their movie from Chinese audiences, and dooming it to failure. To be clear, I don’t blame the cast or crew for this — Liu Yifei and pretty much all of her costars are Chinese, and none of them can risk speaking out against the government without severe repercussions. I don’t agree with that, but I can respect it.

Disney, however, gets no sympathy. The company had 40 percent of the market share before the pandemic hit. Last year, they released Avengers: Endgame, The Lion King (2019), Frozen II, Captain Marvel, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Toy Story 4, and Aladdin (2019) — that’s seven of 2019’s ten highest grossing films. And even now, during the pandemic, they’re sitting on a massively successful streaming service fueled by a boatload of material that they just acquired from buying freaking 20th Century Fox!

Don’t come crying to me about how the company’s in danger. Don’t tell me they can’t afford to take a hit, even one as big as this. You know damn well that between home media releases, merchandising, and any number of cross-media promos, Mulan (2020) will make back its money eventually.

I don’t care if they charge insane amounts of money to make up for the domestic box office grosses they feel they should’ve gotten. I don’t even care if they catch a massive backlash for supporting (or refusing to denounce) the terrible news out of China. Disney brought that on themselves. All of Hollywood did.

Anyone who’s been paying attention could see that mid-budget films are becoming increasingly rare. Everything is either a microbudget picture or a huge tentpole blockbuster, and the blockbusters are getting to be so huge that they’re guaranteed failures unless they break the billion-dollar mark. Trouble is, the studios can’t keep gambling their futures on billion-dollar successes when the American public doesn’t have infinite cash to spend and success in China depends on censorship in deference to barbaric government practices.

This model is not sustainable. It sank 20th Century Fox (see: Dark Phoenix, the ballooning development costs for the Avatar sequels, etc.), and nobody should know that better than Disney. If Disney falls into the same trap, they’ve got no one to blame but themselves.

In closing, I’d like to remind you all of a little film called The Interview, back in 2014. You may remember this as the movie that pissed off North Korea to such an extent that its wide release was eventually cancelled (though it did eventually surface by way of home video, digital downloads, a limited release, etc.). At the time, the film’s cancellation caused a massive outcry, and everyone was worried what Hollywood might look like if we allow some despotic foreign government censor our material.

Looks to me like Hollywood didn’t learn its lesson.

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