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‘Mulan’ Is Now Streaming On Disney Plus, But Calls To Boycott Have Returned

The movie can't escape the controversy that haunts its lead actor, Liu Yifei.

It’s either a moment that you’ve been waiting for or a moment you’ve been dreading (unless it’s a moment you’re uninvested in, which probably isn’t the case if you’re reading this right now): the live-action remake of “Mulan” is officially streaming on Disney Plus.

Since the remake was announced back in 2016, anticipation has been high. The internet rarely yields any semblance of consensus, but “Mulan” seemed to draw a particularly hard line in the sand between those who were eager for the film’s release, and those who were outright frustrated by whatever it was promising.

Sure, someone had decided to breathe new life into a beloved Disney tale of a Chinese woman who disguises herself as a male soldier to save her ailing father. But there were still some bones to be picked. First, there was the music: in the 2020 version, there would be none. Obviously there would still be a soundtrack, but the movie wouldn’t be a musical. Nobody would sing “Reflection”—or anything else, for that matter—because the famous songs would be sublimated by some show-stopping wuxia action scenes.

Next, there was the thing about Mushu. The talking dragon who was voiced by Eddie Murphy in the animated version had also been sidelined, just as General Li Shang had been sidelined. Some lamented that “Mulan” just isn’t “Mulan” without Mushu, but eager audiences noted the decision might be an attempt to show fidelity not to the Disney franchise but to the original source material: “The Ballad of Mulan,” a sixth-century Chinese poem.

And Mulan would be played by Liu Yifei, which also split the vote. It seemed like a triumph that an actual Chinese actress would get the chance to play Mulan, since we’re in an era when someone like Scarlett Johansson is often genuinely considered for such roles, but the problem was Yifei’s critical record: she’d once been named one of China’s worst actresses. (To mention nothing of her support for Hong Kong police in the midst of their brutality against protestors.)

Calls for boycott have returned — for a second time

And now that the film is actually here, now that you can pay $8.99 for a Disney Plus subscription and an additional $34.99 to see the movie (you need Premier Access to do so), the calls to boycott the Disney live-action remake have been inevitably reignited: Yifei’s comments from last year have once again caught up to her.

Here’s the thing. The movie “Mulan” tells the story of this fearless young woman who fights not only for her country but for her family, and it has been read as a metaphor for protest and the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. When the prominent 23-year-old activist Agnes Chow was arrested last summer under a controversial, newly-implemented national security law, she was quickly dubbed “the real Mulan.”

And so the idea of Yifei—who made clear her support for Hong Kong police in a time when civil rights defenders were issuing warnings against them for use of excessive force (batons, indoor tear gas, close-range pepper balls and rubber bullets) against protesters—playing the heroine rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. And it still does.

Hence the reemergence of the #boycottmulan hashtag on Twitter, as well as the sharing of a new one: #milkteaalliance. This hashtag has been deployed by protesters online to express support for democratic reform. Pro-China sources have fiercely defended Yifei. But among detractors of the current administration and law enforcement, not so much.

So again the vote is split. One Twitter user decided to take it upon themselves to put together a thread of Asian writers who reviewed the film—regardless of whether or not they liked it. It’s one thing for a film to tell a distinctly Asian fairytale. It’s a whole other to actually allow people of Asian descent the space to respond to that story in writing, and to let them bring the nuance of their lived experience to the table.

It’s unfortunate that the film can’t be seen in movie theatres. A film with a $200-million budget is destined to be a dazzling, larger-than-life spectacle, and critics have already began lamenting that the experience has been shrunk to our television screens. (The film was meant to be released in March, but when the pandemic closed up all the movie theatres, it was delayed.)

And though the experience of watching the film is certainly going to be different than what was planned, the arrangement hasn’t totally discoloured excitement over its release. The #Mulan hashtag is still filled with dispatches from enamoured viewers sharing quotes and still images from the film. (Tip: If you “like” a tweet with the hashtag, a little “Mulan” animation appears.) Many are saying it’s Disney’s best live-action film yet. Several prominent Asian celebrities have posted about their enthusiasm.

If you want to make up your own mind about it, “Mulan” is there for you to watch now. If you want, you could always wait until December, at which point the film will be available to Disney Plus subscribers without the surcharge. Whatever you choose, and however you end up feeling about the movie when you finally watch it, it’s sure to be the live-action event of the year.

RIP Alex Trebek

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