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Woke Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics

Disney's latest remake is a thinly veiled and poorly executed attempt to flatter the Chinese Communist Party.

The truth about Hollywood is, mediocrity is getting worse and worse, and the only attempt to fix it that liberals can think up is a desperate embrace of the silliest aspects of the woke ideology which is still fostering riots, murder, and chaos in liberal metropolises. This week, Disney’s Mulan, a live-action version of the 1990s animated version of the medieval Chinese ballad was released and is now streaming on Disney+.

Disney is busy supervising the trashing of American cinema, reducing the movies to barely more than another episode of a TV show you might or might not like, but it’s here in reruns so you might want to watch it after all… But there is a larger context to consider. 

Publishing a movie flattering China in the year the Communist Party allowed the worldwide spread of the coronavirus is embarrassing; but doing so in the year China destroyed Hong Kong’s freedom in defiance of its own treaty obligations and was revealed to be conducting a racist genocide against Uighurs is worse. What’s more, filming was conducted in Xinjiang, where that genocide is being carried out, and thanks are offered to eight different government organizations—many of them complicit in the ongoing atrocities—in the credits of Mulan. And the movie’s leading lady, Liu Yifei, is a fan of the police that beat the people of Hong Kong into submission.

Of course, we are used to seeing woke capital flatter China—the NBA humiliated itself that way recently and indeed ran a training academy in Urumqi, the capital of the Uighur region of Xinjiang. We’ve seen other corporations tied to China, from Apple on down, humiliate themselves publicly while never forgetting to spit on regular conservative Americans.

We are also used to the growing influence of Chinese censors on American movies over the last decade, given the vast size of the Chinese movie market and the total censorship the Communist Party practices. This has proved as sure a way of keeping American pop culture out of China as the Great Firewall and as sure as the Communists’ bullying industrial practices have been in keeping American industry out.

But now we have the first Hollywood movie that’s openly triumphalist about China. The story of a barbarian invasion of China put down by a brave young woman is very badly done even though the cast is entirely Chinese, but that’s because neither the traditional Chinese story nor the plot of the movie were of much interest to Disney.

Instead, the concern is to flatter the Chinese Communist Party—and with the very ideas which the same liberals and their woke minions hate in America and would burn cities over. Can you even imagine a movie made today where American pioneers defend themselves against Indian savages? The cries of racism would break the internet and the pieties of anti-America liberalism would be proclaimed with riots.

But it’s ok if the Chinese Empire is killing nomadic indigenous tribes defending their territories? Or can you imagine a remake of the 1960 “Alamo” John Wayne directed and starred in?

To Hollywood, imperialism is good if you’re flattering the Chinese Communist Party, but you can’t take America’s side. Democracy bad—tyranny good. That’s the recipe for woke capitalist entertainment and the capitalism part is a success: there’s little complaint about Mulan in America, and it will soon hit theaters in China. The woke part is preaching individualism and feminism, affirming your identity, and pursuing fantasies which Hollywood will happily sell you.

The Chinese characteristics of this kind of woke capitalism are, however, reduced to shallow references to the importance of family, something frowned on in American stories produced by Hollywood. This is about what you’d expect from liberals who think Asian fusion food makes them multicultural.

It is the overall production that matters, because it makes a show of the submission of American entertainment to Chinese demands. This makes America look not only weak, but obsessed with money, at the same time making China look like it can impose its will on America, a PR victory for the CCP.

Accordingly, Mulan is decorated with impressive Chinese cultural symbols: three wonderful actors, Donnie Yen (you may have seen him play Bruce Lee’s teacher in the Ip Man series, or in Star Wars: Rogue One), Gong Li, and Jet Li, the most famous martial artist since Jackie Chan. Their parts, however, are small, badly written, and worse directed, if possible. I’ve never seen them give worse performances.

For all this wasted money and all the intrigue of Chinese money and Hollywood greed, Mulan is above all a wasted opportunity. America is unprepared, but must face a generational conflict with China. It’s reasonable to expect there will be no war, since the weaponry involved is as horrible as that of the Cold War, if not more so. But keeping peace also requires that we learn about the regime we are facing.

The story of the brave warrior girl Mulan is a very good opportunity to learn about Chinese people, but Disney is simply unwilling. The American scholar George Dunn, who also teaches in China, explained wonderfully, in his essay on the animated version of Mulan, how disrespectful of Chinese tradition the Disney animation Mulan was. Well, the live action movie is, if possible, even worse and even shallower.

This unfortunately also signals that the woke mind is closed—unable to be curious, to study intelligently, to learn about and from other peoples and their traditions. This is perhaps related to the liberal and woke hatred of America’s own past and traditions. But it makes for mediocre storytelling and worse politics. We need another storytelling industry just to begin to take seriously that China is a world unto itself, not simply a fantasy our elites sell to us.

Titus Techera is the executive director of the American Cinema Foundation and a contributor to National Review, The FederalistLaw & Libertyand Modern Age.