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Wednesday, November 29, 2023

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SDSU School of Theatre, Television, and Film assistant professor Brian Hu SDSU School of Theatre, Television, and Film assistant professor Brian Hu

Disney’s “Mulan” Explained by SDSU Professor Brian Hu

SDSU film professor Brian Hu analyzes the film’s relationship to the Chinese market and its shift to Disney+.
By SDSU News Team

Disney’s “Mulan,” a live-action adaptation of the 1998 animated film, was widely expected to be one of the biggest films of 2020. But the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and controversies surrounding the film have led to mixed reviews and earnings. Disney premiered the film on Sept. 4 on its streaming service, Disney+, for a $30 premium fee in countries where the service is available.

The SDSU News Team spoke with San Diego State University School of Theatre, Television, and Film assistant professor Brian Hu to discuss the film’s relationship to China and the future of the film industry.

“Mulan” has been marred by controversy leading up to its release, specifically in China. What is the film’s relationship to the Chinese market and how do you believe this film will impact Disney’s presence in China, a critical market?

Hollywood has long tried to enter the Chinese market, for instance through official co-productions or by making films that might curry favor with the agencies responsible for approving imports. On paper, this latest version of “Mulan” seems to check a lot of the boxes: a classic Chinese story, a well-known star in the leading role, magnificent use of Chinese locations and landscapes. What collapses those plans is Disney’s insistence of keeping it a Hollywood film that plays to North American audiences, namely by filming it in English and keeping Chinese talent out of the main creative roles (director, screenwriter, cinematographer). This insistence on the film’s American-ness continues to give Hollywood a bad name in China, where domestic filmmaking is relatively healthy and self-sustainable. For instance, while Americans think this is the first cinematic retelling of this story since the 1998 animated feature, China churns out Mulan-themed films regularly. They simply don’t need this Disney version.

This is Disney’s first live-action film to feature an all-Asian and American Asian cast. Can you speak to the use of Asian American actors in the film? 

If Disney insists on filming “Mulan” in English with a non-Chinese crew, they’re forced to find actors who can credibly perform in American English. That opens the door for Asian American performers, including veterans like Rosalind Chao, Tzi Ma, Jason Scott Lee, Ron Yuan, and others. If there’s any silver lining to Disney’s unwillingness to make a Chinese film, it’s that Asian American actors, who continue to be sidelined in Hollywood, have the opportunity to play major characters and collect a Hollywood paycheck. The film’s incorporation of Asian American images and voices makes this “Mulan” an accidental Asian American film. This is no excuse for Hollywood not actually making films about Asian Americans.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Disney announced it would be releasing the film on Disney+. Do you believe this disruptive form of distribution will become a part of the industry’s future? 

This is the billion-dollar question. All indications point to the Disney+ release as a financially astute decision, especially compared to the fate of “Tenet,” which was released in theaters. It’s too early to say if this spells the end of the theatrical market as we know it, but it does suggest that premium video-on-demand (PVOD) will enter the calculus of any major film moving forward. We do need a larger sample size though. “Mulan” is unique in that it is a family film at a time when parents are craving family entertainment at home. It also rides the excitement over Disney+ built upon “Hamilton” and “Black is King.” There’s also very little competition right now: ”Tenet” and “Mulan” are the only major Hollywood releases right now in a year where there have been so few major releases. When there is more competition, a Disney+ PVOD release might not be as successful.

China is poised to overtake the United States and Canada as the world’s No. 1 box office market. How does this impact the film industry?

Honestly, you’d think it’d have a larger impact. For all the griping by American nativist critics that Hollywood is catering to China, Hollywood still imagines itself as an American cultural export. The Oscars are still a celebration of American cinema, with only few exceptions. Hollywood still only hires Americans in executive roles. Studios’ China offices are still satellite offices, not the new centers of decision making. And Hollywood still makes films like “Mulan,” which are deeply compromised attempts at Chinese filmmaking. Regardless of whether you see this as a good or bad thing, it shows how globalization isn’t the fast-moving, all-devouring force it’s sometimes made out to be. Deep-seated ways of doing business, and of cultural and racial pride, persist.

In your opinion, what changes to the film industry will come about as a result of the pandemic? 

I think the desire for communal experiences and first-run films will simply take new shapes. The exhibition sector had been experimenting with new incentives for years: luxury seats, budget pricing, “unlimited” film packages, food and alcohol sales. When we return back to “normal,” theaters will need to make a case for themselves, the same way they have  been doing since the rise of TV, DVD, and streaming. Can theaters exploit audiences’ desire for normalcy and public events to revitalize its industry? If theaters fail after 2020, it’s not just the pandemic, but a failure by the theatrical sector to reinvent itself.