Content warning: spoilers!

When the Mulan live-action first came onto my radar, I was excited. Mulan is a badass. She’s the first Disney character I connected with because her culture’s traditions were the closest Disney had come to show any form of representation of my culture.

So, to see a live-action of it at a time when I’m a young adult, having undergone and still experiencing a lot of the same patriarchal BS we see Mulan saddled with was more than welcome. 

For the unfamiliar, Mulan first released in 1998 as an animation and is based on the Ballad of Mulan that was first recited sometime in the 4th – 6th century. It follows the eponymous character as she struggles to fit into the patriarchal system that deems women unworthy of anything traditionally unladylike. The culture relegates them to the role of wife, bringing dishonor to their family should they deviate even the slightest.

Mulan, while struggling, remains devoted to her family. It is this same devotion that pushes her to take her ailing father’s place in the Imperial Army to fight the incoming Hun invasion. Disguised in male garb, Mulan trains with and fights alongside her fellow recruits until her identity is revealed. 

Banished, Mulan then learns vital information that she uses to ultimately save the Emperor’s life and stop the Hun invasion, securing her family’s honor as well as a place for herself in the Imperial Army. 

The live-action differed from the original in many ways. Unlike recent Disney remakes, Mulan forewent the line-by-line recreation and took on a more realist approach. In doing so, it stripped away its musical and certain elements like Mushu, the talking dragon, and the ghostly ancestors, resulting in a more somber, deliberate retelling. 

The biggest difference, however, lies with Mulan herself. 

In the animation, Mulan joins the army with zero skills. The remake, on the other hand, focuses on the concept of Qi (life force) and how Mulan is brimming with it, making her a fighter with immense skills from a young age. Qi, however, is only meant for warriors, which immediately excludes women. And so, Mulan is forced to hide hers as any woman who displays it is considered to be a witch.

There is good to be said for this year’s Mulan.

Directed by New Zealand film director and screenwriter, Niki Caro, the remake features an all-Asian cast and did away with a number of undercutting and problematic content such as Mulan choosing to reveal herself as opposed to being discovered as well as introducing a fellow soldier (an equal) as a romantic prospect rather than showing any inclinations towards her commanding officer as shown originally. 

Better yet, the movie didn’t even lean into any romance. So, while the romantic in me resents the fact that Mulan and love interest Chen Honghui’s relationship (and I use this term loosely) crescendoed with a Mr. Darcy-vibe hand touch, I’m glad that Caro decided against feeding audiences the ever-palatable true love’s kiss ending. 

Caro and team also attempted to stay true to Chinese culture, a concern that was heavily highlighted when the 1998 movie was released. It’s here, though, where things begin to break down.

I’m not going to attempt to highlight the many ways Mulan failed to accurately represent Chinese culture (though here’s a tweet thread if you’re keen on learning!) but I will say it would have helped if it weren’t directed, produced, and written by a white team. 

I can’t help but feel that the movie took on a very one-dimensional approach, tiresomely holding on to the message of family honor that created a number of awkward, flat scenes that did no justice to the cast’s acting abilities nor to the progression of the plot.

In doing so, Mulan’s attempt to toe the line between the concepts of family honor and girl power delivered a weak retelling that relied far too heavily on elaborate, albeit wonderfully choreographed, fight scenes.

We were given no deep insight into the motivations behind the Northern Army’s intense thirst for revenge. Sure, the leader, Bori Khan, was driven by the death of his father at the Emperor’s hands but it’s difficult to rile an entire army to fight a personal battle without a connecting belief. How were they motivated? 

Xian Lang, a dark-haired woman from Mulan, is in mid-combat.
[Image description: Xian Lang, a dark-haired woman from Mulan, is in mid-combat.] Via Disney
The introduction of Xian Lang added an interesting parallel as she, like Mulan, was deemed a witch because of her abundance of Qi. Unlike Mulan, she took the route of an anti-hero, aligning herself with Khan to enact vengeance on the Emperor and the people for their antiquated rules that led to her banishment. The film did little with her character, save use Lang as a foil to the protagonist, to show what Mulan might become, before unceremoniously killing Lang off in a weak, and unnecessary, act of redemption. 

All in all, there was little done to breathe fresh life into a quickly tiring plot as empty action after empty action was enacted to place Mulan in a position to save the Emperor, a scene that was laughably tainted with the Emperor’s earlier curtain martial arts.

What ultimately diminished the premise of Mulan was her refusal to join the Emperor’s army in favor of returning home to restore her family’s honor. And the scene that really drove this weakening plot home? Mulan apologizing to only her father for abandoning her “daughterly duties.” Personally, I wouldn’t apologize at all, but if I were to, I’d remember that I have a mother and sister that I abandoned and “humiliated” too. 

It’s difficult to determine where Mulan falls thematically. Is it meant to simply show that gender doesn’t matter? If so, why undercut the message by heavily highlighting the importance of women upholding the family honor by subscribing to and reinforcing gendered roles?

Or is it simply about being authentic? If so, Mulan’s actions and voice carried little weight to drive that message home. 

But here’s the bigger question – should you watch this movie? Usually, I would say go for it and shape your own opinions, but before you do, there are a few things you might want to know.

In 2019, Liu Yifei, the actress playing the titular character, came under fire for publicly admitting that the Hong Kong police has her full support during the government reforms protests when peaceful protestors were subjected to extreme measures including the use of tear gas and rubber bullets. 

This led to the hashtag #BoycottMulan to take off. The hashtag has also picked up post-screenings as viewers have noted that several scenes were shot in Xinjiang where more than 1M Uyghur Muslims and other minorities are being forced into re-education centers (read: concentration camps) and brainwashed to adopt Hans Chinese culture. Minorities not interned, meanwhile, are under 24/7 surveillance.

Disney is receiving wide criticism for working with the Chinese Parties responsible for these egregious violations but has yet to respond. I will say, quite ironic for them to shoot a film about accepting people for who they are in a place that’s taking every inhumane step to do the opposite.

Mulan stands for loyalty, bravery, truth, and honor, qualities Disney clearly has no qualms preaching without practice.

 

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Sana Panjwani

By Sana Panjwani

Senior Now+ BEYOND Editor