Chinese audiences didn’t fall in love with Disney’s live-action “Mulan,” but a Chinese firm is betting that its own retelling of the famous ballad may storm the box office in its stead with depictions of traditional values that better appeal to mainland viewers.
Gold Valley Film is set to release its feature animation “Kung Fu Mulan” over the National Day holiday from Oct. 3, where it will compete with fellow animation “Jiang Ziya: Legend of Deification,” patriotic “My People, My Homeland” and the volleyball drama “Leap.”
“When Disney’s animated ‘Mulan’ came out in 1998 and global audiences thought it was a great story, Chinese people were really happily surprised. But many of us also felt that the character you see in that story is more of an American girl than a Chinese girl,” explained Karen Luo, executive producer and head of international operations at Gold Valley. “We wanted to make a story that was more suitable to Chinese aesthetic tastes and forms of expression. Although our budget is nowhere near the ballpark of Disney’s new ‘Mulan,’ we have great confidence.”
Indeed, there’s no budgetary comparison. Disney’s “Mulan” is the most expensive film ever directed by a woman at a cost of some $200 million. Meanwhile, Gold Valley made “Kung Fu Mulan” for just $15 million — budgetary restrictions that are sometimes apparent in the film’s crude video game-esque aesthetic. Yet 180,000 people have clicked that they “want to watch” it on the Maoyan ticketing app, a key metric used by cinemas and distributors to gauge audience interest. Disney’s “Mulan” came in only slightly ahead, with 216,000 clicks. Typically, a tally above 100,000 marks that a film has commercial legs.
But whether or not the film becomes a hit, the creators’ views on the project illuminate the style of patriotism being encouraged in Chinese storytelling and on full display in this year’s biggest films. It also highlights why many young, proudly nationalistic Chinese viewers felt that Disney’s new “Mulan” didn’t quite hit home.
Gold Valley’s retelling skips Mulan’s origin story and fast forwards to her life as a soldier. There’s no explicit “qi” here — the Star Wars-like force that gives her uncanny fighting powers in Disney’s version — but this Mulan is also especially gifted in martial arts, and thus tasked with particularly difficult missions no one else can accomplish, like an assassination. She faces a dilemma, however, when her romantic feelings for an opponent get in the way of her duty to her country.
It might surprise foreigners to hear that Luo’s team sought to highlight Mulan’s individuality above all, going against the stereotype that China only values the collective. “In many versions, Mulan’s slogan is ‘I will bring honor to my family,’ but we wanted to explore what she herself wants beyond that sense of responsibility,” Luo said. “Young people here today really value individuality, so we emphasized that.”
Speaking to Variety before the Disney live-action film’s global debut, Gold Valley COO Allen Tsang elaborated on this point, saying that it’s outdated to think young Chinese would be attracted to old-school rhetoric about “duty” and “honor.”
“Americans feel that we want to see the most traditional version of ‘Mulan,’ but when you look at [recent blockbuster animations] ’Nezha’ or ‘Monkey King: Hero is Back,’ it’s clear that what we want is to update old stories and connect them more to what’s contemporary and the modern lives of young people.”
Tsang points out that in “Nezha,” last summer’s breakout animated hit that earned $720 million to become China’s second highest-grossing film of all time, the main character is a traditional personage from Chinese folklore, but his slogan is the very modern pronouncement: “I choose my own life; it isn’t up to fate.”
Gold Valley’s “Mulan” also seeks to highlight the heroine’s feeling of “jiaguo qinghuai,” or patriotic “pride in one’s homeland” — a key catchphrase of the National Day holiday and the new breed of nationalistic blockbusters emerging in China.
“It’s not so different from what drives American superheroes who fight space invaders or supernatural beings, but really just want to protect their home and country,” says Tsang, explaining the concept. “Jiaguo qinghuai,” however, is a bit more nuanced, as it stems from the Confucian idea that there are parallel relationships between a person and their family and a family and the state, encouraging a sort of voluntary, patriotic self-sacrifice. Unsurprisingly, the term has appeared in several government reports on the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
And so Gold Valley’s Mulan differs from her Hollywood counterpart because she expresses her individuality by choosing to put her country first, Luo said. “For Americans, what you want to do is just a question of your own desires. But in China, it’s not the case — what you want to do is tied up into your responsibilities to others and your pride in your homeland.”
Upping the ante on animation education
Established in 2013, Gold Valley made its first feature film in 2014. It now has a team of 220 or so employees in Guangzhou and, since 2017, nearly 20 in Los Angeles, working primarily on early stage project development, sales and international distribution. Around 70% of its business is with China, and 30% with overseas partners.
Unusually for China, where animation talent remains young and under-trained, the firm has produced all but its first feature film in-house. Its most successful venture was the 2018 film “Cinderella and the Secret Prince,” which sold to 80 countries and hit cinemas in a portion of them, grossing $11.9 million worldwide.
While other Chinese entertainment firms resorted to layoffs, Gold Valley has been hiring through the pandemic. The ambition is to churn out four films annually over the next three years. At the moment, it typically makes two. Currently, another smaller scale project is finishing production in October, while a third is set to begin soon and finish in June.
“Kung Fu Mulan” is the company’s sixth feature. Its script passed Chinese censorship approval in 2015 and it’s been in production since that time. Gold Valley didn’t intend for its version to go nearly head-to-head with Disney’s film, but when the pandemic pushed back both release dates, it became the reality.
Tsang spoke to the challenges of creating an animation company in China with the capacity to churn out such projects.
“Animation education in China is not particularly well-rounded or developed,” he said. To create their own pipeline of fresh talent, Gold Valley brings in teams of animation students from the nearby Guangzhou University of Technology and, strangely, the South China Agricultural University to work as interns who are then hired upon graduation — which presumably also helps keep production costs down.
“We found lots of teachers in Los Angeles to teach us over Skype. For this, we’re quite grateful to Hollywood artists, many of whom came from Disney or Dreamworks,” explained Tsang.
To get their introverted animators to break out of their shell, the company even hired acting teachers and required employees to act out their own sequences daily to improve their artistry. “In China, there’s no acting component to an animation education — kids only face the computer. This can make things very hard,” said Tsang.
The Oct. 3 debut of the company’s most ambitious project yet will be a test of whether it’s all paid off — and whether Gold Valley has managed to capture and deploy a bit of that Disney magic for themselves.