The original Mulan is a film that many people, myself included, love despite its many flaws. Released in 1998, it is not a top-tier Disney project; the songs are, with one notable exception (you know the one), just okay. The animation is clearly inspired by the minimalism and lines of Chinese art, but lacks the detail and depth of other Disney films. Even the funny dragon and the iconic scene of Mulan cutting her hair represent a fundamental misunderstanding and Disney-fication of Chinese culture. But so many of us still love Mulan because she was the first Disney heroine who was a warrior and seeing a Chinese Disney “princess” meant a lot, especially to Asian-Americans, even if her movie was flawed.
All of these flaws and the rich original material made Mulan better suited for a live-action remake than many other Disney classics. Mulan was a movie that could stand to be updated and “fixed.” In some ways, the new Mulan, released last weekend on Disney+ for those willing to pay for “premium access,” succeeds at updating the original, but in many other ways, it makes the same mistakes—and adds a few new ones.
First off, director Niki Caro has made a visually stunning film—the colors, the vistas, the costumes, and cinematography. This is by far the most visually gorgeous Disney live-action remake, with use of color that, while watching, often reminded me of the work of Chinese master filmmaker Zang Yimou. And the way that Caro has elevated this to a straight-up action film, with wirework directly out of Hong Kong and other Chinese cinema, is really wonderful. It works to elevate the story to something epic and befitting of Mulan’s legacy, both in the U.S. and in China.
But in other ways, the film stumbles. Mulan was clearly made in the hopes of selling it directly to China, one of the largest film markets in the world, which has a growing influence in Hollywood—sometimes in very negative ways. (For instance, the conservative viewpoints of China have been cited by many as the reason big films still lack LGBTQ representation, since that would get the film banned there.)
Disney worked with the Chinese government directly to film much of the movie there, including filming in Xinjiang, the province where the Chinese government is brutally abusing the human rights of the Uighur Muslim population. That’s earned it plenty of backlash, and not only has Disney chosen Chinese money over morality, but the resulting remake doesn’t even try very hard to … more accurately or even respectfully deal with Chinese culture.
It’s a waste in every way. Like the original, this film is one with a foot in both Chinese and American culture and doesn’t fully commit to either, much to its detriment.
The story of this Mulan is far closer to the 1998 animated version than I expected, given how Disney talked up that they were taking inspiration from the original legend of Hua Mulan. But it really does follow the exact beats and plot points of the original film, while adding a weird, mystical element wherein Mulan is a natural, almost magically gifted warrior because she has a surplus of “chi.” This is not accepted in women, and so Mulan is an outsider as a girl because she’s just too awesome. The same is true of Xianniang (whose name is derived from one version of the Mulan legend, but that’s her only connection). She’s a “witch” who has so much “chi” that she can fight, turn into birds, and other cool stuff.
This means we have a very cool-looking antagonist whose struggles in a patriarchal and sexist world mirror Mulan’s … but we also have a film full of gibberish that has very little to do with the actual culture it claims to be honoring and portraying. This Mulan, even more so than the original, falls into so many tired tropes about China and Chinese culture and it’s quite painfully clear that none of the four screenwriters were Chinese.
I think you can create a simple metric to find out if a story about Asians was actually written by Asians. Word search:
The more frequently these words show up, the lower the likelihood Asian writers were involved.
— Fonda Lee (@FondaJLee) September 7, 2020
The commitment of the writers and director to elevate Mulan in some ways has removed much of the joy and fun of the original. Mulan herself, played by Yifei Liu, is so tied down by the need to embody the oversimplified and clichéd ideal of being “loyal, brave, and true” that she barely has any character at all, which is a bummer, because the reason many people love Mulan in the west is her spirit.
So … what about her devotion to family, which is what sets her apart in the East? The movie attempts to honor that, but turns that cultural devotion into something she essentially discovers or invents in the movie, which is … a choice. As a result, the movie falls flat on giving anyone what they really want from the character.
And still, there’s so much I like about Mulan. I love the cast, especially Donnie Yen and Tsi Ma, and there’s many things I dislike that I can easily dismiss as “this is just a fairy tale for kids, it can be silly,” but so much of that just feels unnecessary and lazy, given how hard Caro and Disney worked in other ways to make this version of Mulan true to her real roots. Why not try a bit harder to be loyal and true to the source material and culture? Why not hire actual Asian people to write your Asian epic?
There’s a moment early in the film where Mulan comments about seeing two hares running in a field and how you couldn’t tell the male from the female. That’s a direct reference to the original Ballad of Hua Mulan, and it’s a lovely touch (as is the cameo at the end of the film by original Mulan voice actress Ming-Na Wen), but just nods and moments aren’t quite enough when you’re dealing with a movie and story that is so important in so many different ways.
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