Disney’s ‘Mulan’ Disappoints at China Box Office

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.

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…

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