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Disney Faces Backlash Over Live-Action Remake Of 'Mulan'

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Disney released its live-action remake of the movie "Mulan" in theaters in China three days ago. And it was a slow start. The film is about a young woman who disguises herself as a man and takes her father's place in the army to defend Imperial China from invaders.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MULAN")

TZI MA: (As Hua Zhou) Your job is to bring honor to the family. Do you think you can do that?

PFEIFFER: It was meant to be a hit in one of the world's biggest movie markets. Instead, it's been embroiled in controversy. NPR's John Ruwitch explains.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: "Mulan" drew an estimated $23.2 million during opening weekend in China. That's a soft start in a target market of over a billion people but just the latest headache the movie's given Disney. There was controversy last year when lead actress Liu Yifei supported Hong Kong police in their crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations. And this month, keen-eyed critics noticed that part of the movie was filmed in the Chinese region of Xinjiang. Disney thanked Xinjiang authorities in the credits. The Chinese government is accused of persecuting Muslims in Xinjiang in the name of fighting terrorism. Calls for a boycott of "Mulan" have grown. Disney is keeping its head down.

CHRIS FENTON: The calculus is that this is just going to blow over.

RUWITCH: Chris Fenton is a movie executive and author of a book about the dilemmas American movie studios and other businesses face in China. He says he can understand why Disney might have filmed in Xinjiang. In 2005, he wanted to shoot the "World's Strongest Man" competition in Beijing for ESPN. The Chinese government suggested they consider the inland city of Chengdu instead. It wasn't really a choice.

FENTON: If we don't do that, well, then I don't know if you'll get access. If we do do that, oh, we'll give you a thousand policemen. We'll give you free rooms at the nicest hotel. Like, that's sort of how it works.

RUWITCH: And with China poised to surpass the U.S. in box office revenue, it's an impossible market to ignore. For Disney, it goes beyond box office. The company owns a big chunk of a multi-billion-dollar Disneyland Resort in Shanghai, and its partner is the city government. Asked about the controversies, Disney referred NPR to comments by CFO Christine McCarthy last week. She said some scenery from "Mulan" was shot in China. She said acknowledging governments that let you film on location is a widely followed practice. Aynne Kokas of the University of Virginia says in China, Disney basically acts like a Chinese company, and its response to the "Mulan" controversies has been in character.

AYNNE KOKAS: I think it's going to help them in terms of their ability to remain in the mainland market - the fact that they've held this line so firmly. And I don't see it hurting them in the U.S. market to be perfectly honest.

RUWITCH: Stanley Rosen is a professor at the University of Southern California.

STANLEY ROSEN: For Hollywood, the distinction is a very fine one. You have to, in some way, sell out in order to cash in.

RUWITCH: Tolerance for selling out maybe waning, though. American views on China have dimmed, and there is now bipartisan support in Washington for getting tough against Beijing. Chinese influence over Hollywood is in the crosshairs. In Shanghai, at least one moviegoer said he wouldn't pay a cent to see "Mulan" on moral grounds, even though he's a Disney fan. He acknowledges, though, that he's in the minority when it comes to views in China on Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

MICHAEL: I'm quite on an isolated island (laughter) when I talk to my colleagues. Most of them doesn't know the situation.

RUWITCH: The man, named Michael, asked NPR not to use his full name because Hong Kong and Xinjiang are politically sensitive subjects in China. "Mulan" may flop in China anyway. The cartoon version did. The live-action film gets a rating of 4.9 out of 10 on the Chinese social networking site Douban. The consensus seems to be that foreigners have failed once again to tell this Chinese story right.

John Ruwitch, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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