When writer Jeannette Ng watched Disney’s “Mulan” reboot, she thought, “Some of this is almost certainly filmed in Xinjiang.”
Ng, a celebrated science fiction writer who is originally from Hong Kong but now lives in England, was watching the film to review it for Foreign Policy magazine. Some of the scenes — the deserts and forts — looked a lot like Xinjiang, she said, a place she had visited when she was 17 on a Silk Road tour that made a big impression on her. It felt like it was worth checking the credits, where she saw acknowledgments that caused Ng — and many others — to renew calls for a boycott of the movie.
“Mulan,” which was released Friday on the streaming platform Disney Plus, is a live-action adaptation of Disney’s 1998 animated film of the same name. It tells the epic story of Hua Mulan, a young woman who takes her ill father’s place in the imperial army by disguising herself as a boy.
Last year, Liu Yifei, the star of this recent “Mulan” incarnation, expressed support for China-backed Hong Kong police in brutal crackdowns of pro-democracy protesters. Ng and many others who backed the pro-democracy movement called for a boycott.
“I also support Hong Kong police. You can beat me up now,” Liu wrote in Mandarin on Weibo, a social media platform subject to Chinese censorship. Some have speculated that she did not have a choice, as a Chinese actress whose entire family lives in mainland China, but to support Beijing in its crackdown in Hong Kong.
But as Ng recently watched “Mulan,” she found it problematic for another reason. Her hunch was correct: Certain scenes had been shot in Xinjiang, the region in China that human rights advocates and the U.S. government say houses “reeducation” camps where approximately 1 million of the country’s Muslims, most of whom are part of the Uighur minority group, are detained. Human rights activists also say Chinese authorities are forcing Uighurs to undergo abortions and sterilization in a campaign of ethnic cleansing and horrific violence.
“It’s standard practice to thank wherever you’re filming, so I thought they’d mention it in the credits. So I looked and found it. I posted a screenshot on Twitter and here we are,” Ng told The Lily.
Her tweet was one of the early ones that noted the credits — in which Disney thanked the Turpan Municipal Bureau of Public Security. The bureau was sanctioned by the U.S. Commerce Department last year for its involvement in running the camps where Uighurs are detained. Disney also thanked propaganda departments in Xinjiang that have denied the detentions.
Shawn Zhang, a Chinese-born University of British Columbia law student who has been using satellite imagery to trace suspected Xinjiang detention sites, noted on Twitter that the “Mulan” crew could have driven by as many as seven detention centers en route to set from the airport during filming. (The movie was an international production — many scenes were also shot in New Zealand.)
Beijing critics, pro-Hong Kong democracy advocates and Black Lives Matter supporters have called for a boycott of the film for what they say is complicity with the brutality of Hong Kong police against demonstrators, in addition to backlash because of where the movie was filmed. But the decision to see or support “Mulan” can be difficult for Asians who were welcoming the opportunity to watch an Asian heroine headline a Hollywood blockbuster.
“We are finally having all these conversations about representation and how we want to see ourselves in our media, and I really don’t want that conversation to be dominated by a rejection of a terrible film,” Ng said, noting that politics aside, she “intensely disliked” the movie.
“The point of the boycott is to raise awareness of the issue. Hurting Disney in the wallet raises awareness and will hopefully prevent them being as complicit in this sort of thing in the future,” Ng said.
It’s crucially important, she said, to draw attention to what’s happening to the Uighurs and other Muslims living in Xinjiang.
“The bottom line for me is that I care about the genocide and I want other people to care. I want them to be talking about it. Genocides are no fun to talk about, especially when people think of it as happening very far away and disconnected from their lives. Showing them how they’re connected to it through this movie makes it real to them. The boycott is about that,” Ng said.
Japanese American software developer Natalie Gilbert worries that the boycott could lead to less Asian representation in Hollywood, because studios make casting and greenlighting decisions based on box-office success, most notably on opening weekends.
Boycotting “Mulan,” she tweeted, “is only going to prevent asian representation in the future due to low viewership that will be perceived as lack of interest.”
She has not yet seen the movie, which she had been looking forward to viewing.
“I plan on doing more research before I fully decide if I am watching it or not,” Gilbert told The Lily. “I do believe that the lead actress’ stance on Hong Kong police is wrong. My take is that even though she has a controversial opinion, more people are being punished than just her by boycotting the film. It is my understanding that the issues in Hong Kong are similar to the police brutality issue we face in America, of which I am very passionate about.”
Japanese American actress Suzy Nakamura said she feels torn about the film.
“I haven’t seen the movie. I want to weigh all the factors, but right now I have a bigger problem with the genocide than an actor’s politics,” Nakamura said. “I wish there was a way for the movie to succeed in a way that sheds light on what’s happening in Xinjiang.”
For some parents, debating whether their children should watch “Mulan” was a weighty decision, especially in the context of a rise in anti-Asian racism due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Northern California-based art director Susana Sanchez-Young has mixed-race children. She is Guatemalan and Nicaraguan and her husband is of Japanese and Chinese descent.
“He weighed all the controversies and decided to buy the movie for the culture and to show our biracial daughter a heroine who looked like her,” she said, noting that they did not know of the credits thanking the authorities in Xinjiang.
“He loves his culture,” Sanchez-Young added, and while her husband said the movie “wasn’t the best,” it was “entertaining and we are excited that we can see more Asian faces on screen.”