In 1998, Disney’s attempts to launch its animated take on the fable of Hua Mulan in China hit a snag that delayed its release by nearly a year. Now, on the precipice of releasing its live-action remake aimed even further at capitalising on the Chinese market, Disney finds itself in another problematic situation: the global spread of the coronavirus.
A new profile piece about Niki Caro’s live-action take on Mulan in the Hollywood Reporter goes into a few of the concerns beginning to emerge over the fact that the movie’s global March 27 release date may not actually end up being quite so global, especially in the Chinese market Disney is coveting. Since the spread of the novel coronavirus—which causes a pneumonia-like illness officially designated COVID-19—beginning late last year, the Chinese government’s ongoing crackdowns to quarantine the disease within its borders have included major restrictions on the country’s box office industry.
Since late January, every movie theatre in China—over 70,000 in total—has been shut down in an attempt to discourage people from leaving their homes, leading to the cancellation of several Western releases in the last month, including Disney-adjacent titles like Fox Searchlight’s Jojo Rabbit. As the situation around COVID-19 develops, not just in China but in outbreaks across the world, there’s uncertainty over whether or not Mulan’s Chinese debut will have to be scrapped. Not releasing day-and-date in China could deliver a huge blow to Disney’s hopes for the film, itself a radical re-invention of the animated movie that has been tweaked to try and cater the Chinese audience—retaining more elements from the classic Chinese epic ballad, and removing elements from the animated version, such as its original songs and characters like Mushu the dragon.
The current situation has shades of the controversy surrounding the original Mulan’s release. As THR notes, after facing lingering backlash within the country for Disney’s release of Martin Scorsese’s Kundun—the 1997 biopic about the Dalai Lama and the Chinese occupation of Tibet—the Chinese government stalled the debut of Mulan for nearly a year after its Western debut. Releasing in early 1999 after families had returned to work following the New Year holidays (and pirated copies were easily accessible), Mulan was an unmitigated box office bomb. Now, hopes that this latest version could turn the tables are looking increasingly unlikely.
It means that Mulan’s performance in the U.S. is now more important than ever for the House of Mouse. The film has already had to deal with concerns from fans that the live-action remake removes too much from the animated original, as well as controversies around its star, Liu Yifei, who sparked backlash last summer when she posted messages of support for the Hong Kong police on Weibo at the height of protests in the country about Chinese rule of the island, leading to calls for international boycotts of the film. “I think it’s obviously a very complicated situation and I’m not an expert,” was all Liu would tell THR about the backlash to her comments. “I just really hope this gets resolved soon, I think it’s just a very sensitive situation.”
We won’t have much longer to see just how Mulan does in the West, where its March 26 rollout is still well on track. Whether or not it makes it to China any time soon however, remains to be seen.