Will Disney’s “Mulan” Balancing Act Pay Off?

Mulan Filial Piety Christina Aguilera

Since the first teaser trailer for the live action remake of Disney’s Mulan dropped in July of 2019, the movie has been both hotly anticipated and mired in controversies great and small.

Like many American productions set in another country, the film’s cultural authenticity has repeatedly been called into question, but it’s also been caught up in the rapid deterioration of US-China relations. It’s a tricky situation to be sure, and the stakes are extra high for Disney to win over the China market — it has billions of dollars in investments in the country across multiple platforms and mediums, and can’t afford to offend either its government or consumers.

Disney Plays it Safe

So far, Disney has done just about everything right in China, and it shows. The Shanghai Disney Resort is the most profitable Disneyland park anywhere in the world. Disney pulled in 614 million USD in the domestic Chinese box office for Avengers: Infinity War — the third most profitable movie ever released in China — and its wholesome brand has managed to escape damaging political entanglement. Not even the NBA can say the same, despite the enormous popularity of basketball in China, having suffered a massive hit last summer after Houston Rockets’ GM Daryl Morey tweeted in support of the Hong Kong protests.

On the topic of the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests, Disney very nearly joined the NBA in an impossible task of hedging when Mulan’s leading lady Liu Yifei publicly supported the Hong Kong police force last August, drawing cries for the company to reprimand her and issue their own statement on where it stood. For weeks, people waited to see how Disney would contort itself to make a statement that appeased its China consumers without getting accused of shilling for China in its own domestic market — the US.

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But the boot never dropped. It seems that Disney’s strategy was to remain silent on Liu’s overt support for what many international observers condemned as police brutality, and it worked. The news cycle continued churning, and other than a small but vocal pro-Hong Kong contingent that were (and still are) tweeting #BoycottMulan, many moved on and began looking forward to the latest blockbuster Disney production.

But this isn’t quite like any other Disney live action production. Fans of the 1998 animated feature were disappointed to find both Mulan’s love interest (and noted bisexual icon) Li Shang and wisecracking dragon sidekick Mushu missing from the new project. Unlike other Disney live action remakes such as The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, which stuck very close to the scripts of their 2D predecessors, the live action Mulan features a largely reworked story with a brand new cast of support characters. This means Disney has eschewed the “nostalgia dollars” it has been raking in (for that, look no further than the shot-for-shot reproduction of scenes from the original The Lion King), and is looking to cash in on something different: the Chinese dollar, er, yuan.

This, for one, explains the casting decisions. Headliners Liu Yifei, Gong Li, and Donnie Yen are some of the biggest stars in the Chinese mainland. This also explains the shift in themes from the original film, from the individualistic “be true to yourself” to the new film’s much more patriotic slogan, “loyal, brave, and true.”

As Mulan’s premiere date nears (it’s airing on Disney+ from September 4), more marketing material has been released to great fanfare. On August 14, a new music video from Christina Aguilera called “Loyal Brave True” went live, and its accompanying visuals tell the most revealing story of how Disney plans to make Mulan a hit.

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To some members of the Chinese diaspora like myself, when we first set eyes on the poster for “Loyal Brave True” — which features Christina Aguilera with an “Asian look” and cliche calligraphy — our first reaction was an eye roll and laughter.

The Diaspora’s Dissection

After the song’s release, I tweeted: “忠勇真 [zhong yong zhen] is such an awkward, unnatural translation [of “loyal brave true”] especially when you line up the characters this way as if they make a word together.” This wasn’t said in a mean spirit out of my lack of support for Liu Yifei’s politics, but rather it felt like someone had plugged “loyal brave true” into Google Translate rather than coming up with a translation that would seem coherent to consumers in China. Others soon chimed in.

Helen Hsu, a clinical psychologist based in the US, commented on the cheesy look, which some compared to “oriental” Hawaiian shirts and bad Chinese character tattoos. “Disney couldn’t hire a consultant to tell them this graphic is hella wrong?” she wrote. “‘The awkward, bad tattoo’ vibe strong here.”

Related:

“Mulan” Star Liu Yifei Just Can’t Make Everyone Happy

Writer Yilin Wang pointed out how unnatural it is to put three characters together this way when “chengyu” or four-character sets (such as well-known four-character phrase chidan zhongxin — 赤胆忠心 — which translates more naturally to “loyal brave true”) are much more commonly used to elegantly present themes, such as the virtues of the protagonist of a movie.

Given that zhong yong zhen (忠勇真) is not a real word in Chinese, it sounds more like an awkward name than a list of virtues. Wang tweeted, “The three character phrase sound like a parent who didn’t know how to name their kid.”

Diasporic users also took a jab at how Mulan’s sword seen in the trailer has this nonsense word engraved on it, and how much it reminded them of the way Chinese characters are frequently used decoratively by non-Chinese speakers without regard for their proper usage.

Meanwhile on Chinese Social Media…

While this was going on on Twitter, it seemed certain that on Weibo — the Chinese microblogging site that most closely resembles Twitter — the poster was getting ripped apart by Chinese internet users. However, large numbers of Weibo users were expressing their love for the new music video and poster. Netizens praised Christina Aguilera’s powerful vocals, and the positive depiction of traditional Chinese virtues.

Something noticeable, however, was the way Chinese Weibo users “fixed” the awkwardness of the phrase by adding a fourth character, “孝” (xiao, filial piety) to create a much more elegant four-character formation.

Filial piety, is of course, one of the core tenets of Confucianism and one that continues to have a significant influence on many Chinese people’s values today. The character may not be part of the song title, but it is prominently featured in the music video as the backdrop to dancing figures:

Mulan Filial Piety Christina AguileraMulan Filial Piety Christina Aguilera The Chinese character for “filial piety” as seen in Christina Aguilera’s “Loyal Brave True”

The majority of visible responses on Weibo are ecstatic to see Disney highlight traditional Chinese themes, but a few people were less than charmed.

One acid-tongued user gave their resounding disapproval of Disney’s “so-called ‘feminist film’” that promotes the misogynist, hierarchy-obsessed ideals of “filial piety,” writing that the “calcified old shit is fashionably gilded and fed back to you in the jade vessel of a foreign culture.”

Is Disney shamelessly peddling unprogressive themes wrapped up in a “girl power” story? Lecturer, researcher and podcaster Chenchen Zhang thinks so.

Indeed, despite the orientalist aesthetics of “bad tattoo” Chinese characters and awkward translations, Disney has in fact never veered off course from its seemingly main goal of appealing to the Chinese market.

Whether or not their translation of “loyal brave true” was a product of marketing genius or lazy writing, it manages to embody both Disney’s thematic pandering to Chinese culture and the company’s appealing “foreignness” as the quintessential American brand. The linguistic gaffes pointed out by people in the Chinese diaspora on Twitter may have been picked up by Weibo users in China in other circumstances, but seeing Disney go all in with paying homage to ancient virtues is too alluring — especially given that the 1998 animated Mulan flopped in China due to “inauthenticity” and being seen as overly Western.

As Chinese consumers eagerly anticipate Mulan’s release in cinemas across the country on September 11, Disney’s commitment to staying on the Chinese government’s good side may yet be richly rewarded with box office success. But as 2020 has been consistently unpredictable, we won’t know if Disney will pull this off until we see the numbers.

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