Mulan sinks at box-office as heroine fails to charm patrons

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 March, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 March, 1999, 12:00am

So, Mulan has lost her fight on home ground. After a long, tough battle with the country's cultural commissars she failed to charm domestic audiences despite the red carpet welcome overseas.

A Shanghai cinema official said Mulan grossed about 8,000 yuan (about HK$7,447) on the first day of its release, compared with 80,000 yuan for the blockbuster Titanic .

The trend is mirrored elsewhere in the country.

In Hunan, supposedly the heroine's birthplace, it raked in 250,000 yuan in 22 days, against eight million yuan for Titanic .

Xinhua gave two reasons for the box office flop: Walt Disney's animated adaptation of the female paragon of filial piety and patriotism was too 'foreign-looking', and the release was ill-timed.

On the surface, the reasons seem valid, but there is more to it than meets the eye.

If anything, Mulan's failure at home reflects a deep-seated fear of foreign domination of the film industry and how jealously the cultural censors guard their right to interpret Chinese cultural and literary heritage.

The film tells the tale of a feisty and unconventional heroine during the Sui Dynasty 1,300 years ago, Hua Mulan, who disguises herself as a man to replace her sick and aged father in the imperial army to fight the invading hordes of Huns.

She survives the dangers of war and is finally honoured by the emperor as one of the bravest Chinese women.

Walt Disney has banked on the mainlanders' familiarity with the heroine to help turn it into a popular movie.

But significantly, Mulan was Disney's idea of an 'olive branch' to Beijing, after the latter took offence at its release of Kundun in 1997, a story about the life of exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

Earlier reports quoted Walt Disney's story supervisor, Christopher Sanders, saying additions were made to improve the film's appeal as a reflection of Chinese culture.

A cricket - a symbol of luck in the mainland - was introduced to accompany Mulan in her exploits.

Little wonder that Mulan is widely considered as the most China-friendly movie Hollywood has made in years, but Disney's hopes that it would repair ties with Beijing were not to be.

True, mainlanders young and old are all too familiar with Mulan's exploits, and think Disney's version has more in common with Xena: Warrior Princess - shown on Star World every Sunday - than their idea of the beloved ancient heroine.

That, however, is not the only reason for its box-office failure. Big cinemas were specifically instructed not to release Mulan during the Lunar New Year period - reserving busy slots for mainland fare as the country celebrated its 50th anniversary this year.

Indeed, Mulan's extraordinarily tough battle to survive the censors was but a sign that domestic cultural guardians were uneasy about foreign adaptations of mainland literary heritage, and the inroads of foreign films in the supposed vast market.

It would have been a slap in the face for the mainland movie industry if a foreign-made film about its favourite heroine had been a commercial blockbuster at home. This is simply a no-no.

On top of it, the vast success of Titanic , raking in US$4.3 million in revenue - equal to about half of all film tickets sold in Beijing during the first half of last year - shook the confidence of the loss-making domestic movie industry further.

Its popularity followed earlier successes of the mainland releases of animated features such as The Lion King and Toy Story , further heightening fears of foreign cultural domination of the mainland movie industry.