Mulan: A film worth fighting for…?
Throughout my childhood, I was that Disney kid. In all honesty, I am that Disney adult, constantly poised and ready to burst into song at even the briefest mention of any Disney classic. Let me paint a picture for you: both my parents are approaching retirement, I am now a cool 22 years old, my sister is 24 and my brother is 18, and you best believe that the first thing we did when Hong Kong Disneyland reopened after COVID lockdown this past Christmas break was to treat ourselves to a two-day staycation (completely unashamedly, I might add) at the ‘Most Magical Place on Earth’.
Naturally, then, when I found out that the next live-action Disney remake was going to be Mulan, I was beyond excited. Mulan has always been one of my absolute favourites, the songs are all bangers and Mushu is my spirit animal. What's not to love? But in all seriousness, Mulan is one of the few Disney classics where the film is carried entirely by the titular heroine and the plot doesn’t revolve around her love interest. I mean, sure, Li Shang is adorable, but where it matters, the film is about Mulan and no one else. Don’t get me wrong, I still have plenty of time for my gals Ariel and Aurora, but in my mind Mulan stands apart from the ‘traditional’ Disney princesses. With this film, I figured Disney could go one of two ways, it was either going to be a shot-by-shot remake of the original, bangers and Mushu’s chaotic energy included, or they could take it in a slightly different direction, sticking to the basic storyline but maybe making it a little meatier for a grown-up audience.
When the trailer was first released, it was clear they’d gone for option two, and I was Here. For. It. First of all, the cast was going to be fully Chinese. It seems like a dumb thing to have to point out (like, no duh the cast should be Chinese), but as we know all too well, Hollywood has a colourful, or rather not so colourful, history when it comes to white-washing films. Jet Li, a.k.a. Chinese film royalty, was going to be in it; Mulan looked like a boss, and the visuals were epic. Suffice to say, myself, and every other Disney child-turned-adult, were hyped.
Things got a little dicey for the remake in the Summer of 2019 when the lead in the film, Liu Yifei, spoke out in support of the Chinese Government during the ongoing protests in Hong Kong. Immediately, this meant that HongKongers and their supporters began calling for the film to be boycotted. Now, Disney has had its fair share of bad press (most recently, Disney removed the racist film ‘Song of the South’ from Disney+, and agreed to change the theme of the ride ‘Splash Mountain’, which was based on the film, after a change.org petition), but until last summer it had managed to steer clear of full-blown international scandal. I was working in Hong Kong at the time, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that for a solid couple of weeks every other conversation I had was about Mulan. Of course, the personal politics of Liu Yifei had no bearing on the film itself, but regardless, for a lot of Hongkongers, the airy fairy world of Disney wasn’t so airy fairy anymore.
Next in the series of international scandals for Mulan, was that the film’s credits thank municipal authorities in Xinjiang province, where some of the filming took place. Crucially, this is the same region where detention camps of Uyghur Muslims have been well documented. To date, Disney has responded by saying that the thanks was “standard procedure”, despite calls from the Human Rights Foundation, politicians, and the public for Disney to condemn the province’s human rights violations. Disney’s disturbing failure to respond to criticism surrounding Mulan might partially explain why a film with a budget of $200 million ended up making less than half of that in box office earnings.
Another major bump in the road (more like a sink hole the size of the Grand Canyon) in Disney’s plans for the film was COVID-19. Disney had to push back the premiere date of the film indefinitely, finally deciding to release it on Disney+. Obviously, being the classic Disney fiend that I am, I already had a subscription and all was right in the world... until I found out that even people already subscribed to Disney+ had to pay an ADDITIONAL $19 to watch the film. Rip off much? I’m not going to lie, I did feel a little betrayed. When my sister and I finally decided to bite the bullet and sit down to watch the film for ourselves, we found an (il)legal streaming alternative. To anyone out there who wants to watch this film: maybe think twice before paying for it.
My thoughts on the film, in a nutshell, are that while visually it has all the makings of a great epic, it falls short in pretty much every other area. The scenes are stunted and the dialogue is superficial at best, resulting in a really shoddy attempt at character development. I know the film has also gotten a lot of flack for historical and geographical inaccuracy, but that was never going to be a make-or-break issue for me - I wasn’t expecting Mulan to double as a documentary, and as long as they didn’t have her jumping off Niagara Falls, I was cool with it.
So let’s talk about what I did like: The cinematography showcases the diversity of China’s vast landscape in a way not many blockbuster films do. The direction has its moments too, and Niki Caro does a stellar job of keeping the action sequences interesting and authentic. Action sequences in Chinese and Cantonese films have a very distinctive feel, you only need to watch a clip or two to understand what I mean. The effect is achieved mostly by using cables to simulate gravity defying stunts and Olympic gymnast levels of coordination - hence all the running up walls and crazy parkour.
Now let’s get down to business (sadly, not to defeat the Huns) and talk about what I didn't like. Brace yourselves. The remake relies too heavily on the viewer having seen the original film to make up for the total lack of charm in any of the characters and their dialogue. Mulan doesn’t really get any substantial screen time with the men that she is apparently willing to die for, and so the camaraderie and ‘brotherhood’ one might expect to see in a war film is nowhere to be found. I appreciate that they tried to make this film a little more contemporary by getting rid of the romantic subplot from the original film, but they didn’t develop the other relationships enough to justify it. This means that the watershed moments of the film are completely unconvincing.
What stands out about the original is that Mulan succeeds not because she is some kind of superwoman with butch arms, but because she outsmarts the men around her and thinks outside the box. Meanwhile, the remake’s misplaced feminist agenda seems determined to make Mulan ‘strong’ from the get go. The screenwriters strip our beloved heroine of any flaws, and bestow her with an innate warrior ability due to her powerful ‘qi’, a repurposed element of traditional Chinese philosophy which translates as ‘breath’ - think of Mulan crossed with a Jedi - she isn’t telekinetic but she is certainly portrayed as superhuman. The fact she has powerful ‘qi’ is repeated constantly, even though the film doesn’t explore it in any meaningful way. This does away with the friendly, approachable heroine we know and love and replaces her with one that is fully-formed from the moment she appears on screen, so much so that she might as well have gone straight to the enemy-slaying and skipped the crossdressing-bootcamp entirely.
Remaking Mulan was the perfect opportunity for Disney to put a strong leading lady on screen for a new generation of Disney fans, but frankly they fail miserably at creating a believable heroine and a compelling storyline. For now, you’re better off rewatching the animated version, which will inspire you to dream big and have fun while doing it. So, I guess I will end by saying: Better luck next time Disney! Hopefully you’ll finally get it right with The Little Mermaid.
Claudia was born and grew up Hong Kong before moving to this exotic wonderland we call the United Kingdom to study Classics, the world’s least #relevant degree. In her downtime, Claudia likes to tell people she’s watching documentaries about dead people, places and things, but what she’s really doing is making sure she’s kept up with the Kardashian’s.