After days of controversy, Walt Disney Co’s Mulan received mixed reception at its Friday debut in China, a crucial market for the US$200mil live-action remake based on a Chinese folk song.
Stinging local reviews criticising the way the movie presents Chinese culture - particularly the makeup of female characters that some found too comical or scary - have discouraged some movie goers from heading to the cinemas. The film’s trailer was enough to put off Rachel Li, a 31-year-old entrepreneur running a short-video advertising startup in Shanghai.
"I go to watch new movies at least once a week,” said Li. "But I don’t have any plans to watch Mulan after I watched the trailer. The makeup of the actors is so scary.”
Disney’s drawing power is being put to the test in the world’s second-largest film market at a time when the entertainment giant is counting on the success of Mulan to help revive revenue growth hit by the coronavirus pandemic. Chinese ticketing platforms are predicting disappointing sales for the movie, which was originally scheduled to release almost six months ago.
As of Friday afternoon,Mulan grossed about 83 million yuan (US$12.1mil), and total collections may reach about 311 million yuan, ticketing platform and data aggregator Maoyan Entertainment estimates. That compares with the predicted Chinese ticket sales of 462 million yuan for Tenet, the Warner Bros. blockbuster released last week. Chinese-language historical war drama The Eight Hundred, which opened three weeks ago, has taken in 2.6 billion yuan so far of the predicted 3 billion yuan, Maoyan said.
Coronavirus-linked curbs on theater capacity and piracy are likely to dent the numbers as well. On Douban, China’s largest movie rating website, 70% of the 40,000 users who watched the film in cinemas or by obtaining pirated copies, gave negative reviews, compared with 13% of positive ratings.
Days after Disney debuted the film in the US last week on its recently launched Disney+ streaming service, criticism erupted across social media over the use of China’s Xinjiang region to film some scenes. As many as 1 million ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang have been detained in camps that China calls "voluntary education centers, ” prompting criticism that Disney should not have filmed there or thanked local officials in the credits.
Disney Chief Financial Officer Christine McCarthy acknowledged that the decision to shoot some scenes in the controversial region has "generated a lot of issues for us.” Representatives for Disney didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on box office collections or the controversies. Meanwhile, China defended Disney’s move to thank Xinjiang officials, saying it’s "normal.”
A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers, including Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley, wrote a letter to Disney Chief Executive Officer Bob Chapek, asking him to explain the company’s contacts with Xinjiang authorities and calling the apparent cooperation "profoundly disturbing.”
While the uproar over the Xinjiang issue has been louder overseas, the focus in mainland China was more on the authenticity in portrayals of their culture.
"The iconic-to-all-Chinese Mulan story has been told many times in the country already,” said Chris Fenton, a trustee of the U.S.-Asia Institute. "For Hollywood to tell the Mulan story successfully for a Chinese consumer is close to impossible, especially when a non-Chinese director and writers were used.”
Hit or not, Disney still may be able to count on one demographic slice in China, just as it does elsewhere: parents.
"I’ve seen many negative reviews of the movie but will still go, ” said Xiaojing Wu, a 40-year-old mom who said she plans to take her 10-year-old daughter to see Mulan in Shanghai. "I think it will be fun to watch it and discuss with my kid about the theme, and it’s okay if she feels the makeup or costumes are funny or ugly. It will be an interesting topic for us.” – Bloomberg
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