The political turmoil that has engulfed Hong Kong over the past year has extended to an unlikely battleground: Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan. Last August, an online protest emerged against the film after its star, Liu Yifei, expressed support for the Hong Kong police on social media. Her comments and the ensuing backlash have forced Disney, which hopes to appeal to both the mainland Chinese box office and American audiences, into a precarious balancing act.
As that standoff lingers, the film has also been plagued by other issues both inside and out of Disney’s control. Coronavirus has had devastating impacts across China and resulted in the closure of many movie theaters; a release date for the film has not yet been set there. And fans of the original 1998 film have expressed dismay over the removal of the character Captain Li Shang. Producer Jason Reed said that the character was removed “because particularly in the time of the #MeToo movement, having a commanding officer that is also the sexual love interest was very uncomfortable and we didn’t think it was appropriate.”
Here’s what to know about the developing controversies.
The battle for Hong Kong began last March
Pro-democracy protests have roiled Hong Kong following Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s introduction of a bill last March that would allow for criminal extraditions to mainland China. Lam is backed by the mainland government, and pro-democracy advocates fear the bill would allow Beijing to punish dissidents more easily and forcefully.
In August, demonstrators occupied Hong Kong’s airport and clashes erupted with police. Protesters faced batons, pepper spray, tear gas and rubber bullets from the police. Several prominent organizations, including the United Nations human rights office and Amnesty International, have condemned the Hong Kong police’s use of force during the protests. The police were also accused of allowing an armed mob to attack protestors in July, resulting in dozens of injuries.
Mulan star Liu Yifei said she supports the Hong Kong police
In August, Liu reshared a post from the state-backed newspaper People’s Daily that read: “I support the Hong Kong police. You can all attack me now.” Those words were said by Fu Guohao, a reporter for another state-run Chinese newspaper, while he was being tied up and attacked by protestors at the Hong Kong airport. The words have become a rallying cry for the Chinese government and its supporters, who seek to portray the protestors as violent radicals.
Liu, in her own post, added in Chinese, “I also support the Hong Kong police,” and included heart and strong-arm emojis. Liu has 65 million followers on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform. Within days, the original post received over 2 million likes and an outpouring of support, and Liu’s post was liked 81,000 times.
Liu Yifei, also known as Crystal Liu, was cast as Mulan in 2017 after Disney saw nearly 1,000 candidates for the role, according to the Hollywood Reporter. Her casting was celebrated by an online community angry over a recent wave of whitewashed roles. Liu has been one of China’s most bankable stars over the last decade, appearing in fantasy and action films while also supporting a musical career.
Liu, who was born in China and spent part of her childhood living in New York, has spent much of her career in China. But she has also crossed over into English-speaking roles in 2008’s The Forbidden Kingdom, opposite Jackie Chan, and 2014’s Outcast, with Nicolas Cage.
Fans called for a boycott of the Disney live-action remake
Although her sentiment received an outpouring of support, Liu also quickly faced backlash from many across the world who support the protests, with the hashtag #BoycottMulan emerging on Twitter. “She could be a powerful voice for justice but instead, she supports this brutality,” one Tweet said of Liu.
The protests have ensnarled the rollout of Mulan, a live-action remake of the beloved 1998 animated film that follows a Chinese girl as she impersonates a man in her quest to become a warrior and defend her homeland. The remake, slated for release in 2020, is highly anticipated: Its starry cast includes Donnie Yen, Jet Li and Rosalind Chao, and its director is Niki Caro (Whale Rider), who helmed filming in her home country of New Zealand. The film also arrives amidst an outcry for increased Asian representation in Hollywood, on the heels of films like Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell.
The incident fits into a larger story about dissent and support among Chinese entertainers
While she’s being criticized widely on Twitter, Liu’s support of Chinese authorities is the norm for Chinese entertainers. Others have found that protesting the government carries huge career implications: the Cantopop singer Denise Ho, a vocal supporter of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, has been blacklisted from the mainland Chinese market. The singer Anthony Wong also said he lost more than half of his annual income that came from China after voicing support for the Umbrella Movement in 2014. “I think they are trying to ban us because they’re afraid of different views,” Wong told the New York Times that year.
And the career of Fan Bingbing, a Chinese icon, unraveled after she raised the ire of the Chinese government, albeit for a different reason, tax evasion. She was held under a type of house arrest for months by tax authorities.
Most Chinese entertainers have either voiced support for the government or refused to comment either way on the protests. Lay Zhang Yixing, a Chinese musician who is a member of the K-pop grop Exo, posted the same message as Liu. Jackie Chan, when asked about the protests, said “I don’t know anything about it.”
Since the boycott emerged, Chinese-backed news outlets have seized on Liu as a symbol for the country and its government. The hashtag #supportmulan has begun circulating on Twitter, with Variety finding that many of those messages came from nationalist bots. In August, Twitter said it had shut down more than 200,000 “spammy” accounts from China that were “deliberately and specifically attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong, including undermining the legitimacy and political positions of the protest movement on the ground.”
In a late February interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Yifei alluded to her comments about the Hong Kong protests but declined to offer any further specifics. “I think it’s obviously a very complicated situation and I’m not an expert… I just really hope this gets resolved soon,” she said.
A representative for Disney and a publicist for Liu did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Correction, Aug. 16
The original version of this story misspelled the genre of music sung by Denise Ho. It is Cantopop, not Catopop.