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.
Filming took place in 2018, the same year China’s “strike hard” campaign in Xinjiang ramped up with the construction of the camps. According to researcher Adrian Zenz, Turpan was the first documented case of “re-education” or political indoctrination used against Uighurs to “eradicate the soil for the breeding and spread of religious extremism”.
Activists calling for a boycott of the film are now highlighting its links to Xinjiang, while other researchers noted that the public security bureau in Turpan oversees at least 14 internment camps in the area.
Human rights advocates have called on Disney to be transparent about its dealings with authorities in Xinjiang. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, Disney shared its script with Chinese authorities and consulted with local advisers in order to guarantee a release in China.
“Disney should disclose the details about the human rights due diligence it had conducted — if there was any — before making the decision to film in Xinjiang, what agreements it had made with Xinjiang authorities in order to do the filming, and what assistances it received from authorities,” said Human Rights Watch China researcher Yaqiu Wang.
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”.