Disney magic fails `Mulan' in China

Cultures: The Americanized version of the famous folk tale is all too American for Chinese movie audiences.

May 03, 1999|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- At first glance, it seemed like a terrific formula: a Chinese folk tale filled with adventure, Disney's masterful animation and tens of millions of Chinese children raised on Western movies.

But instead of cashing in at the box office, Walt Disney's "Mulan" has bombed in her ancestral homeland.

"Mulan," which has grossed about $300 million worldwide, is the legendary story of a brave young Chinese woman who joins the army during the Sui Dynasty (589-618 A.D.) in place of her sick, elderly father.

But when Disney's version closed last month in Mulan's home province of Hunan, it had made barely $30,000 -- about half the take of the Hollywood comedy "Rush Hour," featuring Hong Kong action star Jackie Chan. The movie opened in Beijing in April, but at a recent 7 p.m. show at the capital's Dahua Theater, all but about 30 of the more than 400 seats sat empty.

How is it that a national heroine who helped defeat foreign invaders has had such a hard time winning over her own countrymen? The answer lies in a mix of culture clash, modern technology and old-fashioned protectionism.

Trying to shelter its domestic film industry from foreign competition, the Chinese government first released the animated adventure in late February, just after children had returned to school following Chinese New Year, the biggest holiday of the year. Because of China's lax enforcement of intellectual property rights, many kids had already seen the film on pirated video compact discs anyway.

But the most intriguing reason for the movie's poor reception is that some people here just don't think Disney's Mulan is very Chinese.

Filmgoers occasionally refer to the cinematic heroine as "Yang Mulan," or "Foreign Mulan" in Chinese -- while complaining that she looks either Korean or Western. Others say her character does not exhibit the same depth of filial piety as her literary predecessor.

"She's too individualistic," says a 45-year-old theater ticket-taker who gives only her surname of Liu. "Americans don't know enough about Chinese culture."

Hollywood movies are enormously popular among young Chinese. When trying to find common ground for conversation, Chinese and foreigners often resort to the language of film.

China, however, allows only about 10 foreign movies in each year, so most viewers here rely on pirated video versions that have been copied or shot in theaters outside the country with hand-held video cameras.

The results are often hilarious: Audience members cough audibly or stand up and block the screen. One pirated version of "Mulan" has its own built-in laugh-track of giggling children in what appears to be an American theater.

For film companies, though, the rampant piracy is maddening.

One day recently, Jack Valenti, chairman of the Motion Picture Association, stood along one of Beijing's busiest boulevards and haggled with vendors over pirated copies of the Adam Sandler hit "The Waterboy" and the "Jurassic Park" sequel "The Lost World."

"This makes me want to throw up," said Valenti, who was in town to lobby Chinese leaders for more market access and picked up the video compact discs for about $2.40 each to show his colleagues back home.

Despite their fondness for Hollywood films, many Chinese are wary of and a bit nationalistic toward foreigners' attempts to portray or define their country. Beneath the increasingly sophisticated veneer of cell phones and office towers in cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, China remains a fairly traditional society.

And this is where Disney's "Mulan" may have run into trouble. Some Beijingers say they found her too self-aggrandizing -- a no-no under China's Confucian culture, which emphasizes values of modesty and community.

In the original tale, Mulan passes herself off as a man to join the army, protect her father from military service and bring honor to her family. In Disney's version, however, she is also trying to break the bonds of a patriarchal society in which she has no place. After she is unmasked, Mulan explains that she has come to fight not only for her family's glory, but for her own as well.

"Americans who have experienced the once-hot woman's liberation movement obviously have difficulties understanding Mulan's traditional behavior and why this story has spread so widely," a recent editorial in Shenzhen Panorama Weekly said.

Mulan isn't the only character in the film who doesn't espouse traditional Chinese values. Not surprisingly, some complain that Mushu, a jive-talking dragon whose voice is provided by Eddie Murphy in the film's English-language version, is just too American.

For instance, when Mushu accidentally smashes a sculpture that holds a much more powerful dragon who can help Mulan, he tries to cover it up. Hiding behind some bushes, Mushu dons the stone head of the dragon and pretends to be the great dragon himself.

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