Mulan Review: Pack Up, Go Home, You’re Through

The story of 2020’s Mulan remains the same as Disney’s previous take on the Chinese folk story: to take the place of her sickly father (Tzi Ma) in the army, Hua Mulan (Liu Yifei) disguises herself as a man. Beyond a few odd appearances by a phoenix, though, the animal sidekicks of the 1998 Disney film are absent — Mulan has only her handy binder to conceal her secret from the other recruits. Even the invading bad guy’s falcon is now a shapeshifting human “witch.” Gone, too, are the songs, beyond some instrumental echoes and a few clunky dialogue inserts, like commander Donnie Yen insisting that “we’re gonna make men out of every single one of you” (one of the bad guys saying “riches will flow like a mighty river” might not actually be a callback, but it sure sounds close enough to be distracting).

Most of Disney’s live-action remakes are faithful to the point of redundancy (see: The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast), so the decision to change Mulan is a welcome, if visibly calculated one. Despite being based on a figure from Chinese folklore, the animated Mulan was much less successful in the country that serves as its setting. That film’s values and perspective are so altered, so thoroughly filtered through an individualistic Disney lens, that it became even more of an alien object — it’s a cartoon China that nobody in China recognized.

The new Mulan, then, is (or, based on its tepid overseas reception, was) intended as a sort of corrective, ostensibly staying truer to the folklore and, in the process, potentially massaging the brand toward a broader audience — the Chinese moviegoing public has, after all, become a very broad audience in the years since the country opened up more to foreign films. Meanwhile, the film still had to capture the quite separate audience nostalgic for the Disney film. That’s a tall order for any creative team, much less the predominantly white one behind Mulan, so it comes as little surprise that the result is a bland display of artistic bankruptcy for no one in particular.

Mulan

Wuxia-lite

With characters who run on walls, backflip on horses, and generally call upon impossible power to accomplish their goals, Mulan draws heavily from wuxia, the genre of martial arts exploits containing such films as A Touch of Zen, Hero, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It casts notable Chinese actors, many of whom have contributed to the genre in some form or another: Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Gong Li, Cheng Pei-pei. With its proud declarations of dynastic fealty that have Mulan scrambling to rescue the emperor, the film dabbles a fair bit in nationalism that’s amplified by the offscreen statements of some of its stars (in response, there have been calls for boycott).

To be fair, the nationalism is somewhat consistent with the evolution of the original story as a military fable, and it isn’t out of step with certain entries in the genre — while many wuxia stories do critique the state, others like Zhang Yimou’s 2002 Hero end in apologetic support of totalitarianism. The genre is certainly broad, but by any measure, Mulan falls short as imitation wuxia. The resplendent art design of so many films in the genre scarcely translates here, as the film displays the washed-out, overlit quality typical of Disney remakes; despite hundreds of millions of dollars at work, the whole thing looks flat and cheap in its big yet nondescript environments. Even the earliest, simplest action scenes suffer from jumpy editing that obscures choreography, a problem that only gets worse as the set pieces grow more elaborate and reliant on bad CGI. In a few embarrassing scenes, the camera whips around in a ridiculous attempt to fake the speed and momentum that absolutely none of the action displays.

And more to the point, there’s not a lot left to the animated film once you strip away the 90s Disney-isms. Get rid of the fun songs and the veritable clown car of comic relief and what you have is, at best, a broad sketch — the traits of this clever, unruly Mulan and her relationships emerge through the comedy and song, the ability of a cartoon musical to convey emotion via some lyrics and probably a montage. Excising all of it leaves a void that director Niki Caro and the Disney machine scramble to fill with stoic action they’re incapable of staging well.

The “Yellow Force”

Supplementing the action is a renewed focus on empowerment, conveyed in scenes where Mulan does stuff like point at two rabbits and say that when they’re both running so fast, you can’t tell their genders. A lot of that is carried over from the animated film, the sense of Mulan asserting her individuality in a “backwards” culture, only now trumpeted in the more ostentatious, into-the-camera terms of so much modern corporate representation. For good measure, the film injects the proceedings with a bit of superheroism courtesy of the film’s bizarre conception of chi/qi. This Mulan isn’t like other girls, you see — she’s overflowing with chi, the life force that runs through all things yet is, in Disney China, somehow considered a bad thing if you are a woman. Mulan’s parents advise her to hide her gifts lest she be considered a “witch,” and to underscore that point is Gong Li’s actual witch character (there are witches in Disney China, apparently), who helps the Rouran invaders explicitly because the current society shuns her.

To say the least, the film’s use of chi doesn’t totally make sense; it’s strange to say that only men are allowed to have a lot of life energy (another translation of the term is simply “air”). In the hands of Disney screenwriters, chi becomes a sort of Yellow Force, dovetailing with that desire of American blockbusters to explain everything — here, chi provides a concrete textual reason for the high-flying antics that many wuxia stories leave implied as the result of a character’s mastery. And tying up “chi” with Mulan’s empowerment narrative is where things really fall apart, because rather than just saying that women aren’t allowed in the army, the film ends up depicting a world where women are barred from the actions of even the most basic wuxia hero.

And while there are inarguably patriarchal values at play where wuxia is concerned, there are also countless stories of women as capable fighters. Some of them are movies that star actors cast in this very film, with Cheng Pei-pei in particular famous for her role as the swordswoman Golden Swallow in King Hu’s 1966 film Come Drink with Me. Hu would go on to direct other films with memorable heroines (Dragon Inn and A Touch of Zen) while Cheng, who started out as a ballerina, would continue playing martial artists for other directors: she reprised her role as Golden Swallow in a sequel named after her character, and decades later she played the villain of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which stars Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi as other fighters. Zhang appears with Jet Li and Donnie Yen in Hero, which has Maggie Cheung as still another martial artist. The list goes on.

Mulan

Witchy Woman

Mulan is built on a misunderstanding and misrepresentation of quote-unquote “Eastern” values, emerging from a similar place as the incessant yammering about Honor and the stodgy traditionalism that frames the story’s narration as an address to The Ancestors. That misunderstanding, in turn, becomes the stage for a confused empowerment narrative that plays more like an outright denial of the many, many films that preceded it, trumpeting a progressiveness that the American corporation would like to be congratulated for as though they are the ones who discovered it and introduced it to the unwashed masses.

And yet, Ang Lee’s 2002 Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is spurred by characters who feel constrained by gender roles. King Hu’s 1971 A Touch of Zen portrays a woman who inverts the typical dynamics of romance and protection. Yuen Woo-ping’s 1994 Wing Chun comically depicts men alternately impressed and intimidated by the fighting prowess of the title character, who is played by Michelle Yeoh and whose less-capable love interest is played by Donnie Yen. Cheng Pei-pei even cameos as Wing-Chun’s master. In Mulan, Cheng plays the matchmaker, who gets upset with Mulan and proclaims to a crowd, “Dishonor to the Hua family!”

Certainly there are problems with the 1998 film’s American cartoon conception of China. Historical and cultural inaccuracies abound beyond its playful and intentional anachronisms, like a pivotal haircut that ignores how people of the era did not consider long hair an exclusively feminine trait. It exhibits the usual behavioral cliches of western depictions of Asians, in the process reinforcing the limited perspective it’s drawing from; there is doubtlessly a little bit of Disney Mulan, however tangential and unintentional, in the many subsequent conceptions of Asian characters whose primary relationship is with their Honor.

But the 1998 Mulan is also a jokey cartoon. It has a bunch of squabbling ghost ancestors who include an American Gothic sight gag, a tiny dragon sidekick voiced by Eddie Murphy, and a cricket that makes typewriter noises when it (yes, the cricket) writes a letter that becomes an important plot point. The Donnie among its voice cast is not a Yen but an Osmond. And although none of this absolves the 1998 film of its problems, it has also been broadly reclaimed by Asian-American viewers who could cling to it as a buoy in a notably pasty sea. Regardless of background (my own mother is Vietnamese, and neither of us speak any language but English), many Asian-Americans see this visibly American cartoon uncomfortably wearing its Chinese trappings as being reflective of their own experience as people not totally at home with either of the cultures they’re caught between. We embrace the awkwardness because we’re awkward, too.

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Mulan

Down to Business

But to see a similar (if not lesser) understanding of the depicted culture carried over to the “realistic” version is mortifying and embarrassing, not least of which because of the enhanced credibility. Cash grab though this may be, it’s also trying to be a serious movie, an honest depiction of a time period that’s supposed to be more accurate because it believes that’s what a Chinese audience wants even though it exhibits the same misunderstandings as its predecessor while introducing new ones.

And that vision is so easy to take at face value. According to Mulan, women don’t fight unless they’re a Disney heroine, and who’s to refute that representation of Chinese art? That’s the insidious thing about our insular culture increasingly built at the feet of blockbusters, which are bundles of influences from older films a lot of people will never see and put out by companies with an increasing stranglehold on our viewing habits. In countries where wuxia films are common, maybe that’s not such a big deal. But in places like the United States, things with the reach of Mulan can become the dominant lens through which we view other cultures, and the American cultural footprint is so large that we rarely see the need to travel beyond it, to broaden our perspective. We can live comfortably in the whole ballooning Disney ecosystem.

There are not, for example, any wuxia movies on Disney-owned streaming services, and streaming services in general have poor discovery tools worsened by a general ambivalence toward things created before 1980 beyond a canonized few. If you know where to look, you can find some official versions with bad subtitle translations, incomplete dubs, and/or poor video quality (Amazon Prime has a lot of the Shaw Brothers catalog), but that’s the tip of the iceberg. What about the other genres our fav monocultural behemoths crib from? The directors of Disney’s Captain Marvel noted their inspiration from William Friedkin’s The French Connection, but Friedkin’s other big car chase movie, To Live and Die in L.A., floats in and out of streaming availability.

For a Disney+ subscription and a $29.99 premium if you don’t want to wait until December, however, Mulan is definitively and pristinely available. It is widely advertised. It is an event, the latest culmination of our culture’s constant churn of more and new that results in the slow obliteration of context, a disdain for history that has not been repackaged and regurgitated in its newest, most marketable and efficient form. Mulan exemplifies history and culture sloppily written by a company with little financial incentive to get either right, and the main thing blessedly holding this film and the company that produced it back (at least for the moment) is just how bad it sucks.

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Steven Nguyen Scaife

Steven Nguyen Scaife has written about pop culture for Slant Magazine, Polygon, Buzzfeed, Rock Paper Shotgun, and more.

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