Who knew the Walt Disney Company would be pulled into the protests in Hong Kong? The controversy involves a member of the Disney Princesses franchise, or at least an actress set to play a live-action version of Disney’s beloved character Mulan. Chinese-American actress Liu Yifei is in hot water over a show of support for the Hong Kong police.
Since March, millions have taken to the streets in Hong Kong in pro-democracy demonstrations. Sunday it was reported that 1.7 million marched in heavy rain as the threats from China’s military continue. What began as protests against legislation which would have allowed suspected criminals to be extradited to territories, like Taiwan, Macau and mainland China, where it doesn’t have formal extradition deals has morphed into marches for freedom. Reporting on the protests have included shows of force by Hong Kong police, some calling it excessive force, against protesters.
Last week the protesters shut down Hong Kong’s airport for two days. Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam has suspended the bill that led to the original protest.
Liu Yifei posted comments on the Chinese micro-blogging site Weibo that set off supporters of the protesters.
Yifei, who is Chinese-American, wrote: “”I support Hong Kong’s police, you can beat me up now.” She continued, “What a shame for Hong Kong” and “#Ialsosupporthongkongpolice#.”
Cue the social media outrage machine. The hashtag #BoycottMulan appeared and was trending on Twitter over the course of last weekend. Some critics encouraged Mulan fans to not watch the live-action version, with Yifei in the role of Mulan, when it is released March 27, 2020. In July, before her post drew ire, the trailer for the new Mulan movie received a jaw-dropping number of views in the first 24 hours – over 175 million – with 52 million coming from China. Mulan’s trailer launch is the number seventh most successful.
One Twitter user wrote: “@Disney why does your company support a Chinese actress who openly supports a suppressive regime?” Another said: “#BoycottMulan because while these people in HK are fighting for their rights while being brutalized by their own police, Liu Yifei is sitting her happy ass down in the US enjoying the rights those people don’t have while supporting the police brutality from afar.”
“I was happy when @DisneyStudios announced that they are making a new Mulan movie,” tweeted another user. “She was my childhood hero. It is disappointed to see the actress who plays her does not empathise with the protesters in HK. They are fighting for their homeland like Mulan. #BoycottMulan”
We’re looking at big Disney princess money here. Liu Yifei is heralded as China’s first Disney princess. The new movie has a potential of grossing $1 billion in 2020.
Mulan is the live-action remake of the 1998 animated story about a young woman who risks everything out of love for her family and her country to become one of the greatest warriors China has ever known.
The original animated version, which made $304M globally, had a small 1999 China release, well after the domestic debut, and faced criticism at the time. However, reaction to the trailer for the current film has been largely positive. Star Liu Yifei has been warmly received on local social media as “China’s first Disney princess,” according to reports.
What’s the level of concern from Disney? At this point, it looks like the company figures by the time the movie is released in 2020 the controversy won’t play a role in corporate profits. Disney is just going to wait it out. The release date in China hasn’t been announced. China’s Propaganda Department usually notifies the company a month in advance of the release date.
Mulan has not been dated yet in China or Hong Kong. A title such as Mulan, with a release in Q1 would be submitted to the government’s China’s Propaganda Department in late January, which assesses all releases including imported pictures and homegrown product. Typically, mainland China lets a Hollywood studio know about a month prior what a pic’s release date will be.
“With the boycott originating through Hong Kong, people in China will deliberately go see the movie to protest the boycott. All of this could actually benefit the film,” says Stanley Rosen, University of Southern California Professor of Political Science, who has an expertise in Asian affairs.
International film insiders are hopeful that while the current political situation in Hong Kong is extremely delicate, it could subside well before Mulan‘s release.
Yifei’s acting and modeling career was launched in the PRC. It’s likely that if she had publicly supported the Hong Kong protesters, larger complications would arise for Mulan and Disney’s business in the PRC. Last week, for example, international star Jackie Chan threw his weight behind the state’s POV against the Hong Kong protests.
Said Chan in an interview with CCTV, which prompted outcry from pro-Hong Kong supporters, “What’s happening in Hong Kong recently has made a lot of people heartbroken and worried. When I saw CCTV had posted on Weibo the hashtag ‘Five-starred red flag has 1.4 billion flag guards, I re-posted it immediately. I wanted to express as a Hongkonger and Chinese person, the most basic principles of patriotism. Safety, stability and peace are like air. Only when you lose them will you realize how precious they are.”
Disney is concerned about the fall-out in Taiwan and Hong Kong, particularly on Hong Kong Disneyland. Attendance numbers are down and the location is not far from the Hong Kong airport, the scene of protests. The fan base of Mulan sees the story of Mulan as a fight against oppression. It looks to them that Liu is taking the wrong side by not supporting the protesters. Once the protests end I imagine the health of Disney’s bottom line will be restored. A Disney princess is a force to be reckoned with, you know. Mulan’s fans won’t want to miss her latest movie.