Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan, already the target of a boycott, has come under fire for filming in Xinjiang, the site of alleged widespread human rights abuses against Uighurs and other Muslim minorities.
The film, directed by Niki Caro, is an adaptation of Disney’s 1998 animation about Hua Mulan, a young woman who disguises herself as a man to fight in the imperial army in her father’s stead.
The remake attracted criticism when the actor Liu Yifei, who plays Mulan, said she supported Hong Kong police in their often violent crackdowns on pro-democracy protesters.
After the film’s release last Friday, observers noted another controversial element: in the final credits Disney offers “special thanks” to eight government entities in Xinjiang, including the public security bureau in Turpan, a city in eastern Xinjiang where several re-education camps have been documented.
The film also expresses thanks to the “publicity department of CPC Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomy Region Committee”, the Chinese Communist party’s propaganda department in Xinjiang. Disney has been approached for comment.
China has faced international scrutiny over its treatment of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, where it is estimated at least 1 million residents have been detained in extrajudicial internment camps. Uighur women have reported forced sterilisations and birth control as part of a government campaign to suppress birthrates, in what experts have described as “demographic genocide”.
According to media reports before its release, Mulan was shot in about 20 locations in China, including the Mingsha Shan desert, part of which is in Xinjiang, and the Tuyuk Valley, an oasis village east of Turpan.
Activists calling for a boycott of the film are now highlighting its links to Xinjiang, while researchers noted that the public security bureau in Turpan oversees at least 14 internment camps in the area.
It just keeps getting worse! Now, when you watch #Mulan, not only are you turning a blind eye to police brutality and racial injustice (due to what the lead actors stand for), you're also potentially complicit in the mass incarceration of Muslim Uyghurs. #BoycottMulan https://t.co/dAMgZ6PWTD— Joshua Wong 黃之鋒 😷 (@joshuawongcf) September 7, 2020
Mulan thanks Turpan Bureau of Public Security because it was filmed in Turpan in 2018, the peak of re-education campaign. How many thousands of Uyghur were put into camps by Turpan Bureau of Public Security when filming Mulan there? https://t.co/yX0xssPnKW— Shawn Zhang (@shawnwzhang) September 7, 2020
In 2017, on an apparent location scouting mission, Caro posted a photo of rolling desert dunes and tagged the image “Asia/Urumqi”, referring to the capital of Xinjiang. One comment beneath Caro’s post said: Shame on you, #BoycottMulan and speak out against the #Uyghur #genocide!”
The film follows Mulan as she joins the imperial army to defend a region referred to as “Northwest China” from Rouran invaders – nomads that came from what is now Mongolia. The film’s release also comes at a time with residents in Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region of China, are protesting the mandatory introduction of Mandarin language instruction and the gradual erasure of their language and culture.
“It all feeds in the current national myth of China with inalienable borders. It isn’t just that this film was partly made in Xinjiang, a place where genocide is currently happening,” said Jeannette Ng, a British-Hong Kong fantasy writer. “It’s that this film frames those people who are currently having their culture being destroyed as the bad guys whilst lionising Han dominance and Chinese nationalism.”
Parts of the story are set along the Silk Road. The region of Xinjiang was once an important part of the route. The film’s production designer, Grant Major, told Architectural Digest that he and the production team spent “months in and around the north-west province of Xinjiang to do legwork research before the cameras rolled”.
Grant said the team consulted Chinese academics so that “we could extrapolate what we found and just use our creativity to make it feel right”.