Why a More Legend-Accurate Mulan Is a Huge Win
Over the weekend, the teaser trailer for the Disney’s upcoming live-action Mulan movie was released. I thought the trailer looked amazing, and since it had long since been announced that there would be no songs in this adaptation, that change wasn’t a shock to me, but it seems like a lot of people are disappointed that this version will not have the iconic music, Mushu, or Li Shang.
However, with the exception of Shang, I think the choice to make a more authentic version of “The Ballad of Mulan” is a good thing.
While my first introduction to Mulan was through the animated movie, as I studied folklore and mythology, I discovered that the story was based on the legendary Chinese warrior Hua Mulan. The poem/ballad that is most known for her story goes as follows: Like in the Disney movie, there is a threat of invasion from Rouran invaders. The Rouran were believed to be of Mongolian descent and were nomadic people who most certainly didn’t have the yellow eyes or grey skin that Disney’s animated version gave them for racialized reasons. Mulan’s father is old, and her brother is only a child, so she decides to take his place in the army, with the support of her parents, unlike the animated Disney version. Also, in the ballad, Mulan had already learned martial arts, sword fighting, and archery by the time she enlisted in the army. So, she didn’t need a training montage.
Mulan fought in the army for twelve years, all while keeping up the ruse that she was a man. In the end, she turned down an official post and went home to be reunited with her family. At its core, Mulan—the poem, in all its translations and reworkings over the centuries—is about filial piety. In broad terms, filial piety is about loving, taking care of, and protecting one’s family, and it’s at the core of a lot of Chinese and other East Asian cultures.
Among many of its Westernized differences, one of the big changes from the source material to the Disney version is that Mulan’s journey becomes about individual self-discovery. Mulan doesn’t just join the army for the sake of family and country, but because she wants to look in the mirror and see someone worthwhile. Now, mind you, that is not a bad thing, nor a knock against the Disney version. However, just like with Aladdin, Pocahontas, and other stories by Disney that feature POC leads, most of them don’t have POC writing or directing these movies. I mean, the animated version even changed her family name (author edit: awesome people reminded me that Fa is the Cantonese pronunciation of Hua and I apologize for not double-checking that and it was a great ‘stay in your lane’ reminder. <3)
With the animated Mulan, there were a lot of things that they wanted to do with the character to make sure she wasn’t like those other girls™. Tony Bancroft, the director of the animated movie, wanted to make Mulan a “different” kind of Disney heroine because of his own two daughters—someone who didn’t need any man. Also, Mark Henn, the supervising animator, deliberately designed the character to be less feminine than other Disney princesses.
That’s astounding to me because, if you look at the story itself, Mulan doesn’t have a love interest and isn’t in the story to get a man, so why this even needed to be part of the thought process of adapting the story is … questionable. All this to say that, as much as I love (and I love) the Disney version, it made choices that were meant to make it appealing to a wide audience, and that meant Westernizing it in ways. Now, those changes are also why we have bisexual icon Li Shang, and his removal from this movie, considering that aspect of his character, is deeply disappointing, and the only reason I can think of for making the change is because of the bi undertones to his character.
Still, this remake has the potential to add back a lot that was taken out. In the trailer, there are scenes where it seems like you can see Mulan practicing near her home, and we see her archery skills, as well. Making Mulan more of a badass is a win, to me. The songs are wonderful, but we still have them in the original, and honestly, after “A Girl Worth Fighting For,” the music stops anyway.
My gripe is that, just like with Aladdin, there are no Chinese or East Asian writers attached to the script, and a white woman is directing this movie. That, to me, just seems like a mistake, and in a post-Crazy Rich Asians world, let’s get representation behind the camera, as well.
Plus, despite the nostalgia I have for this movie and what it means to me, when I look on my timeline, I see a lot of Asian friends of mine really excited about this movie, and I think that’s super important. This isn’t The Little Mermaid, guys. This is getting to see a big budget Chinese History/legend led by Chinese actors. That’s huge and important. Jet Li is playing the Emperor, guys!
Now, of course there is also a lot of great criticism about the film from Asian Americans and Asian people online and I think that as a non-Asian person I have my thoughts and options, but I also think we should listen to what’s being said in those communities. This thread in particular I found really interesting by Joshua Luna was interesting
While a strong AsAm presence in the original 1998 animation is what made Mulan so special, AsAms are noticeably absent from the creative team for the 2020 live-action adaptation. A thread on why Fa Mulan is a girl worth fighting for:
(Please don’t repost my art. RTs appreciated) pic.twitter.com/omEk6p0ZJE
— Joshua Luna (@Joshua_Luna) September 4, 2018
Personally, I’m excited about Mulan, songs or no songs, but we will see what happens when the movie comes out.
For those interested in reading “The Ballad of Mulan,” there’s Mulan: Five Versions of a Classic Chinese Legend, With Related Texts, and coming out this September is Sherry Thomas’ The Magnolia Sword: A Ballad of Mulan, which is a novelization of the story. Thomas is a Chinese-American author and she slays.
(Plus, Jimmy Wong from The Command Zone is going to be in it, so never let anyone tell you that playing too much Magic stops you from living your dreams.)
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