An upcoming film about a filial daughter who fights against the odds to make it in a man’s world is now fighting against the odds not to be the victim of a massive boycott, because the star had the temerity to express her point of view. An unpopular point of view, perhaps, at least in Hong Kong, where calls for a boycott of Mulan ring the loudest, and conversely, a view that immediately gained some two million “likes” on the Chinese mainland, where only half the story of the Hong Kong protests is being told.
The box office stakes are high on both sides of the Hong Kong-mainland divide, and Disney, which has big hopes for Mulan the Asia market, will have to artfully thread the narrow needle eye of public opinion as it prepares for the release of the live action film in March. Now that publicity for the film has been unwittingly hitched to partisan politics, it will take masterful balance to maintain support on both sides of the Shenzhen River that divides the former British colony from the Chinese mainland.
It started when Mulan star and lead actor, Liu Yifei, made a flippant pro-police comment on a social post last summer. The reaction on social networks was fast and unforgiving; the entire film, representing years of work and millions of dollars investment was suddenly stigmatized by a single remark and seriously put at risk of bombing out in Hong Kong, a geographically small but economically and culturally significant film market.
The controversy arose at a time when Hong Kong airport was besieged with angry protesters. A reporter named Fu Guohao, in Hong Kong at the behest of the state-run Global Times was forced to undergo a humiliating interrogation and taunting by anti-China protesters at the airport. Despite being ganged-up upon, and totally out-numbered by a youthful, quick-fisted mob who suspected him of affiliation with the Hong Kong police, the beleaguered mainlander cried out, “I support the Hong Kong police. You can beat me up now.”
The video, shared widely on television and the internet, showed Fu Guohao being showered with abuse. It looked to be a set-up, at least in the way he played to the camera, but he took some hard knocks and the video went viral.
The Chinese American star “Crystal” Liu Yifei added her voice to the kerfuffle, as millions of others did; by posting her reaction online. What’s more, she made her provocative comment in reaction to the provocative video on a People’s Daily linked site.
“I, too, support the Hong Kong police. You can all attack me now.”
And attack they did. Liu has been a photogenic lightning rod of anger for Hong Kong protesters ever since, racking up hateful posts on the internet for a hundred days running with no end in sight.
The soft and gentle-looking Liu Yifei, perhaps still feeling a bit in character as a woman warrior after playing Mulan, shared her indignation about the injustice of the August 18, 2019 mob action with the English words, “What a shame for Hong Kong!”
A perfectly reasonable thing to say, to the ear of a native speaker at least, but it was misconstrued by her detractors, perhaps willfully, as an admonishment.
“Shame on Hong Kong?” How dare she!
More angry comments followed and the “shame” meme was widely shared.
The much-awaited trailer for the lavish, live action epic came out December 5, a half year into the smoke and fire of protesters and police fighting in the streets. Tempers provoked by Liu Yifei’s comment are roiling anew, and the#BoycottMulan hashtag is again exploding with vitriol.
Twitter indignation mobs reactivated and aroused by the release of the trailer, which looks pretty good, have resumed their ragtag campaign to denigrate the actress, the movie and even the legendary Mulan. The publicity stills for Mulan have been repurposed by activist artists in ways that are at least as creative as they are mean-spirited.
Mulan is transformed to Hong Kong Murderer. Instead of seeing Mulan’s reflection in the gleaming sword, as in the publicity shots, one sees the ghostly face of Xi Jinping lurking in the background. Instead of being shown as a heroine and model for young women, warrior Mulan, as played by Liu Yifei, is made to look like a riot cop with bloodstained armor. In one version, she’s got the hammer and sickle etched on her forehead with the five stars of the Chinese flag as backdrop. And then there’s the slightly more pleasant guise, in which the benign cartoon Mulan is repurposed as a supporter of the Hong Kong protesters, holding a yellow umbrella instead of a sword.
Not an auspicious start for a long-anticipated blockbuster that is banking on market demand for China product with a strong female lead. If there’s an upside to the downside, Hong Kong denizens who deign to watch the film will probably be rooting for Mulan’s nemesis to triumph. China’s best-known actress, Gong Li, plays a key role in the film as a “bad” shapeshifting witch. To date, the iconic older star has been spared vitriolic commentary in keeping with her own prudent silence.
Surely Disney would have preferred business as usual. Tweets in support of the HK protests got the NBA in hot water, and now with an ironic twist, a tweet against the protests has got Disney in hot water—not with communist party-ruled China but capitalistic Hong Kong.
It is hard to view the clip of Fu Guohao’s staged humiliation without some sympathy as he’s tied up, smacked and humiliated by angry youth in a way that brings to mind the Red Guard excesses of the Cultural Revolution. Fortunately, Fu was not seriously hurt and went on to instant TV fame in the mainland where the media quickly picked up on the incident, unlike scenes of police abuse which never get an airing there.
But the footage was real enough, and just the one of many innately manipulative clips of mindless, graphic violence committed by both protesters and police.
Liu Yifei, took the bait, so to speak, she fell for the crying narrative arc of the clip in question. Which is not to say that what was shown in the video was not true, only to say in isolation it provides insufficient data to make a sweeping pronouncement about either protesters or police.
The protests in Hong Kong, already reckoned to be the most live-streamed political event in history, may be one for the record books for producing viral political tweets, memes and manipulative imagery. But Mulan won’t be coming to the rescue any time soon, not as long as she is regarded part of the problem.