WASHINGTON - "Mulan" has been one of Jewher Ilham's favorite movies since she was a little girl. She says she remembers sitting with her dad and watching Disney's 1998 animated version of the tale of a Chinese woman who disguises herself as a man and wins acclaim as a warrior.
"I was so excited about the live-action remake, until one of my favorite actresses, Liu Yifei, publicly supported the Hong Kong police against pro-democracy protesters," she said. Liu, the leading actress and a naturalized U.S. citizen, posted a pro-police comment on Chinese social media platform Weibo in 2019 that was welcomed by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
It's not only Liu's remarks that disappointed Jewher. The live-action "Mulan" filmed some of its scenes in Xinjiang, and Disney thanked eight local government bodies in its credits, including the Turpan Municipal Bureau of Public Security, which was sanctioned by the U.S. Commerce Department for administrating the internment camps in Xinjiang.
"Because I have relatives and friends in the concentration camps. They might be in a camp near where the movie was shot," she said.
Jewher's father, Ilham Tohti, is a Uighur economist and former university lecturer who in 2014 was sentenced to life in prison in China on separatism-related charges. Officials accused him of using his lectures to incite violence and overthrown the Chinese Communist Party leadership.
Washington-based lawyer Rayhan Asat is advocating for the release of her brother Ekpar Asat, a Uighur entrepreneur who disappeared upon returning to China from a U.S. State Department program.
Rayhan said Disney's actions amount to indirect funding of the Communist Party institutions that imprison Uighurs and has violated corporate social responsibility standards.
To her, the rollout of "Mulan" marks the latest example of Hollywood's hypocrisy and willingness to sacrifice values to do business in China.
"Disney is publicly endorsing the Xinjiang government in thanking them in credits. Disney wants to profit by a movie that empowers woman, but it's praising governments who are committing crimes against woman, against humanity. It's so hypocritical," she told VOA.
"In my eyes, the Uighur women who are voicing out for their parents, brothers, sisters, and loved ones, they are the real Mulan," she added.
"Mulan" has become a political flashpoint since it was released on Disney+ in the U.S. on September 4. #BoycottMulan is trending on Twitter. Senator Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, last week published a letter addressed to Disney CEO Bob Chapek, accusing the company of "whitewashing" the "ongoing Uighur genocide." Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, also requested the company explain why it chose to film part of the movie in Xinjiang.
Disney's CFO Christine McCarthy last Thursday acknowledged that the film's ties to China had created "a lot of issues" for the company, yet Disney declined to comment further on the current controversy.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian on Friday said it's "very normal for the film to thank the convenience provided by the government of Xinjiang." He also praised lead actress Liu Yifei, calling her the real "daughter of the Chinese nation." China has maintained that the camps in Xinjiang at the center of the controversy are training facilities aimed at combating terrorism in the region.
Officials and civic groups have growing concerns about the influence China has had over Hollywood in recent years.
A new report by Pen America accused Hollywood of censoring films to avoid losing access to China's lucrative box office market. It said key players in Hollywood are increasingly making decisions about their films "based on an effort to avoid antagonizing Chinese officials who control whether their films gain access to the booming Chinese market."
It said that in some instances, filmmakers or directors have directly invited Chinese government censors onto their film sets to advise them on "how to avoid tripping the censors' wires."
Beijing has the world's second-largest box market behind the U.S. According to the Hollywood Reporter, American films earned $2.6 billion in China last year.
Despite the political backlash, "Mulan" premiered as the top movie in China last week, where theaters are open. Preliminary estimates show "Mulan" grossed $23.2 million, which some considered a disappointment.
The film received lukewarm reviews online, scoring only 4.9 out of 10 on the country's movie rating site Douban. Users criticized the film's handling of feminism and its portrayal of Chinese culture.
In other markets, Disney canceled plans to release "Mulan" in theaters because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The company hasn't revealed how many people have purchased the movie since it became available September 4 in the U.S.