The war of art

When Walt Disney Studios released a teaser last year for a live-action adaptation of Mulan, the film gained widespread attention for casting mostly Asian-descended personalities, with Chinese star Liu Yifei playing the titular character. A little over a month later, calls to boycott the film flooded social media after Liu expressed support for police brutality in Hong Kong (HK), where demonstrations were being staged against an extradition bill that enabled deportation and trialing of pro-democracy activists to mainland China.

As the film’s promotions ran their due course, HK protests marched into their seventh month in the background, half a world away from Hollywood. Just last September 4, Mulan premiered on Disney Plus to much global interest. HK’s streets are much quieter now—mobilizations largely arrested by the COVID-19 pandemic, enabling stronger police forces to patrol the streets, and the National Security Law passed by Beijing—but their apparent silence cannot be mistaken for surrender.

The anti-extradition movement remains in struggle for their sovereignty, and eerily similar, protests—and arrests—erupted in the Philippines the last few months amid a myriad of issues, most notably the Anti-Terrorism Law, press freedom, and LGBTQ+ rights.

Police brutality was also contentious in the United States, sparking mass demonstrations of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Several prominent figures such as National Basketball Association athletes voiced explicit support for BLM; football players in the English Premier League have also continued to take a knee against racism.

But perhaps one would argue that these celebrities’ politics can be separated from their works, with the ever-prominent discourse between “art for art’s sake” and “art for society’s sake” largely in dispute.

Although most film and television productions do not come across as expressing political overtones, art and politics are realms not easily separated—requiring deeper scrutiny beyond the superficial, seemingly harmless “entertainment only” dimension.

In the 1920s, Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin promulgated directives specifically to harness film as a tool for education and propaganda. The Chinese Communist Party followed suit in the 1960s; film became the primary media form to depict ideas of prosperous futures and stimulate more favorable responses from the masses. Propaganda productions—such as China Box Office top-earners Wolf Warrior 2 and The Wandering Earth, released in 2017 and 2019, respectively—remain strongholds in contemporary Chinese cinema, endorsed by rigid censorship regulations and larger budgets to rival foreign blockbusters.

It is along a similar vein that the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board’s (MTRCB) request to regulate content on streaming platforms elicited uproar in the Philippines over possible censorship piloted by political agenda.

Art carries a molding power, regardless of whether creators intentionally wield it, to propagate ideologies and shape worldviews. If art were not so powerful, if media productions were not so powerful, would there really be concerted efforts to monitor and regulate content shown?

One of Netflix’s more recent Chinese drama acquisitions is a notable example, bearing undercurrents of Chinese nationalism in its lighthearted tale. In several Go Go Squid! episodes, protagonist gamer Han Shangyan declared various iterations of, “I came to win [cybersecurity competitions] for China…We will show the world that China is the best.” When the drama flashed an “incorrect” map of China that excluded Taiwan and Hainan, apprehension arose from locals and the Ministry of National Resources (MNR). Lead actors Li Xian and Yang Zi had to issue public statements reasserting China’s territorial claims—manifestations of China’s intensive efforts to ingrain patriotic values in its citizenry.

For many, being cognizant of these nuances may appear to unnecessarily complicate the matter, supposedly detracting from the enjoyment of a fictional work. But art cannot be detached from its context of socio-political realities, and the consumption of media demands critical awareness beyond mere appreciation.

If audience clamor could propel the MNR to sanction a production company over a romantic comedy series, then it clearly matters that people choose not to patronize Mulan and instead stand with HK. Such actions of solidarity assert perspectives to figures in power—imposing accountability not just on governments, but also on big corporations like Disney.

With their expectedly large budget, Disney could have opted to swap actresses; it is not as though Liu is the only Asian star available. The move would not have been without precedent either: South Korea’s media productions have many a time reshot parts of their shows and dropped, or actively avoided casting, actors wrapped in allegations such as sexual harassment, drunk driving, and bullying. Disney, however, instead of shouldering responsibility, provided a grounds for furthering exploitation. The company worked with a public security bureau and propaganda departments from Xinjiang—the region marred by the detention and abuse of Uighur Muslims in “reeducation” camps as what China labels a “sinicization” agenda to counter terrorism. Indeed, beyond the final packaged product, these surrounding complexities cannot be disregarded.

Disavowing support may admittedly unravel the foundation that has been laid in increasing Asian representation, but perhaps a better question to ask is whether Liu is apt to be the so-called “hero” for Asians on and offscreen. Had Liu retracted her statement or expressed in favor of HK, there is little doubt that she would have been singed by strong ire from Chinese citizens and authorities. But to represent only in the interest of a single nation is to fail to embody the diversity of Asian lived experiences. Far greater it would be to have Asian icons who champion freedom rather than side with oppression.

Artists and art itself possess an influential capacity to change perspectives and impact social realities. Art thrives because of our human experience; to segregate the two would be an injustice both to our humanity and to the humanities.

By Erinne Ong

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