Pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand have urged moviegoers to boycott Disney's live-action remake of "Mulan" — one of the biggest releases since film production was shut down by the coronavirus pandemic.
Controversy around the movie, set in China, erupted after the lead actress, Liu Yifei, shared a post supporting Hong Kong police on the Chinese social media site Weibo, last August.
"I also support Hong Kong police. You can beat me up now," the China-born American actress wrote in Mandarin. "What a shame for Hong Kong," she added in English.
Liu was apparently decrying the brutality of protesters after a widely televised incident went viral, of a mainland Chinese journalist being assaulted at a Hong Kong airport. But her comments prompted an angry backlash from pro-democracy activists, who have repeatedly accused police in the region of using excessive force.
Her "Mulan" co-star Donnie Yen, was also criticized by activists after posting a comment on Facebook celebrating the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong's return to China from British colonial rule in July.
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The comments caused a stir on social media, spawning the #BoycottMulan hashtag, which regained prominence over the weekend on the film's release. This, in turn, became part of the wider #MilkTeaAlliance hashtag on Friday, which has united some pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand. It is named after the popular sweet drink common in those countries.
Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong, on Friday, supported calls to boycott the movie, which will debut in Chinese cinemas later this month. In the United States, it will skip theaters going straight to the Disney+ streaming service due to the pandemic.
"Because Disney kowtows to Beijing, and because Liu Yifei openly and proudly endorses police brutality in Hong Kong, I urge everyone who believes in human rights to #BoycottMulan," he wrote on Twitter.
He added that Hollywood was "betraying" the values it "purports to champion."
Disney, Liu and Yen have been approached by NBC News for comment.
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Anti-government protests have roiled Hong Kong since last year and intensified in June after China unveiled a sweeping national security law for the city, limiting protests and dramatically reducing the territory's autonomy, according to pro-democracy activists.
The law has been widely condemned in the West and prompted President Donald Trump to impose economic sanctions on Hong Kong and Chinese officials found guilty of human rights abuses, in an increasingly strained relationship between the two countries.
In nearby Thailand, where youth-led protests against the government have seen unprecedented calls for reforms of the monarchy and many demonstrators have adopted a three-finger salute — mimicking a gesture from the "Hunger Games" movie — there have also been calls to boycott "Mulan."
Urging people to shun the film that rolled out in Thai cinemas Friday, netizen Ben Muangwong, 28, told NBC News: "Joining the boycott is not only about showing our solidarity with Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters, but also about showing that supporting police brutality is not acceptable anywhere."
Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, 23, said: "Hollywood can't separate from politics, what they are doing people around the world are watching."
Citing issues around human rights in Hong Kong, environmental concerns and China's economic assertiveness, the Bangkok-based student activist, told NBC News: "The threat of China is real, it affects people in many ways."
Based on a Chinese legend, "Mulan" tells the story of a fierce heroine who disguises as a man to join the army in a bid to protect her sick father and bring honor to her family. Disney released an animated version of the film in 1998.
"The Asian market for Disney is undeniable," said Dr. Wing-Fai Leung, a specialist in Chinese film and media industries at King's College London, adding that the calls for a boycott showed "how a Hollywood conglomerate can be caught up in a political dispute."
However, in mainland China the "Mulan" topic garnered more than 410 million hits on the social media platform Weibo, with many saying they were keen to watch the movie.
"There is no doubt that I will watch Mulan several times and it's not only for the heroine Mulan, but more for supporting Hong Kong police," user @NaWoJiuJiaoXiaJiaoHaoLe wrote on Weibo Friday.
However, some critiqued the costumes and depiction of Chinese culture, while others lamented that a Hollywood studio was making a film about a Chinese legend and chided the national film industry for missing an opportunity.
"I think I will refuse to watch Mulan. From the directors to the actors, who is a Chinese national?" a user named DaXia Security wrote on Weibo. Adding, "All the Chinese people should be patriotic and conscientious and try our best to help our country boycott the U.S."