A live-action remake has the opportunity to be groundbreaking in and of itself. It could update the original by removing harmful stereotypes, introduce a cast of unknowns and elevate them to stardom, or provide a fresh take from the villain’s perspective. Unfortunately, Disney missed that mark with the much anticipated “Mulan” (2020), not only because it oversimplifies representation and dampens the message of women’s empowerment at the core of the original animation, but also because of controversies regarding the intentionality (or lack thereof) in the film’s production.
When trailers for the live-action film came out last year, fans immediately noticed the absence of the characters Shang and Mushu, and the songs we all loved to sing along to. Many felt that these omissions would make the movie less appealing and more narrow in scope. But a hot general, and an AAVE (African American Vernacular English) speaking dragon sidekick, are not what made Mulan the film that so many ‘90s Asian Americans fell in love with. At its heart, the story is a feminist one: Mulan is just an ordinary woman who takes the risk of pretending to be a man in ancient China. Although Disney took its own risks with “Mulan” (2020), the character herself did not. In fact, the live-action removed tension from the plot by giving their Mulan qi, i.e. special abilities. Aided with powers, Mulan is actually less remarkable, because in the animation, despite the insurmountable odds against her, she fearlessly took on a role that was never meant for her. Because she can use her qi to get out of tight situations, there is much less tension in the movie.
Considering that Disney aimed to make a more serious and dramatic “Mulan,” the flat result is the opposite of what is intended. One of the debates that the first trailer generated was: Who is the target audience for “Mulan” — is it the audience in China or Asian Americans? All the clues pointed to a movie intended for mainland viewers: a cast of Chinese actors in lead roles, scenes invoking wuxia (a genre that features martial arts heroes), and landscapes that depict both northern and southern China. The tone is dramatically different from the animation, which in 1998 succeeded internationally, but was a particular joy for Asian Americans to watch.
“Mulan” (1998) was a misfit who did not fit gender expectations. Her desire to find her place in the world, whether it’s as small as her courtyard or as big as the Chinese frontier, is universal. The way Mulan doesn’t belong, yet triumphs without sacrificing her true self resonated with the Asian diasporic kids of the ‘90s. It was so satisfying to see an Asian girl join the ranks of Disney princesses, not by being the meekest or most graceful one (refusing to play into Orientalist tropes), but as the only warrior of them all.
The changes made to attract the Chinese market failed to accurately capture Chinese culture, probably because production lacked the due diligence of hiring Chinese writers or any Asian creatives at all. Legitimate criticism has been made about the lack of representation behind the camera. But the truth is that even if it had been authentic and been written and directed by Chinese filmmakers, the story still has to be compelling. Having #OwnVoices writers is the bare minimum that Disney failed to meet.
Disney’s choices become not only problematic but unacceptable when it comes to the movie’s relationship to the Chinese Communist Party. While no Chinese filmmakers were involved in the production, the credits thank “the publicity department of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomy Region Committee.” The Chinese government is currently persecuting Uyghurs, a Muslim ethnic minority, in concentration camps in Xinjiang. These decisions only add fuel to the #BoycottMulan campaign, which originated when actor Liu Yifei, who portrays Mulan, voiced her support of Hong Kong police in the midst of pro-democracy protests in 2019. While Mulan the story is implicitly nationalist, “Mulan” (2020) is explicitly pro-regime. These facts are hard to reconcile with a story whose protagonist goes against the grain, not for approval but to save her father and family.
The shortcomings in “Mulan” (2020) are all the more disappointing because it is a story that is ripe for adaptation and ever meaningful. As one Chinese TikTokker summarized, “she is us.” Mulan could be any woman in the world, and in a feminist fashion, she shows that there is no role that belongs solely to men. Women are capable of protecting their family, too. While here are no strict guidelines on what makes a story truly Chinese, there were many ways that Disney could have created a worthwhile Mulan, a defiant and striving heroine whom we could all get behind.
In the weeks after its long-awaited release, #Mulan discourse unfolded across social media. To so many of us, “Mulan” is not just a movie. It is a part of our childhood and she is one of the first Asian protagonists we saw in movie theaters, years before diversity became a trend. There is a special ownership we feel toward this story and an expectation to have it done right. By releasing the first trailer during the Women’s World Cup Final, Disney showed that it intended “Mulan” to be a women’s empowerment film. Yet the film shows no understanding of women’s empowerment beyond a Western view of feminism, in which an individual female superhero rises above and is accepted by patriarchy.
The real reason Mulan subverts patriarchy is not because she is a “the best fighter” in the army, as her fellow soldiers describe her in the live-action film. It is because she fulfilled a role other than being a wife or being a single woman in ancient China. More than the catchy song, the animation demonstrated the gravity of the matchmaking scene: Mulan’s failure to be a good match is the source of her family’s disappointment and shame, the end of the road for Mulan the eligible bride, and the motivation for her rebirth as a soldier. She was balancing the risk of pretending to be a man with that of failing to become a proper woman.
The live-action fails to convey this central tension, the male/female binary of societal norms that all people are subject to. Even when she took on the male disguise, Mulan risked failing as a man (cue “I’ll Make a Man Out of You”) and having her gender revealed, going to great lengths to hide it. That motivation to prove that she could make the cut is the reason she excelled as a soldier, not because she has the force … I mean, qi. Although in the remake, the characters do mention “matching” several times, there’s no further contextualization of the value of domesticity or the pressure to gain male approval — both things she, as a woman in China, is required to master. In fact, matchmaking and these topics are treated as jokes, pointing to a lack of research from the Western production leaders and crew.
The film ends up being a surface-level example of Asian representation and girl power, rather than a significant retelling in its own right. No matter who “Mulan” (2020) is intended for, it ultimately did not do justice to the story of the woman warrior, the one who bent gender roles and managed to come home as herself. So should you shell out $29.99 to watch “Mulan” on Disney+? My lucky cricket tells me that they will probably be releasing this one for free by the end of the year.
Photo credit: Film Frame © 2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc.