Arts critic's notebook

Disney cannot decide on what it wants ‘Mulan’ to be

Without a cohesive goal, the live-action remake fails to live up to the original animation

9478 mulan battle   erika yang
Mulan (Liu Yifei) wields her father’s sword in the midst of battle.
Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

Directed by Niki Caro
Screenplay by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek, Elizabeth Martin
Starring Liu Yifei, Donnie Yen, Tzi Ma, Jason Scott Lee

Disney’s Mulan has been through a lot of controversy in the past year. From lead actress Liu Yifei’s public support of the Hong Kong police, to the pushing back of the release and hefty price tag of $30 beyond a Disney+ subscription, and to flaunting an all-Asian cast while keeping the positions of influence for a white director and writers, there are a lot of reasons why many people have decided to boycott the movie. 

Like other Disney live-action remakes, Mulan opted for more realism than the animated film. Mushu is gone, the iconic soundtrack is missing, and Li Shang has morphed into a barely-there love interest, Honghui (Yoson An). Yet, the movie comes off as a fantasy film instead, with Mulan being born with magical qi, the new shapeshifting witch Xianniang (Gong Li), and a phoenix spirit who leads Mulan along her path. 

Most strikingly, Mulan doesn’t know who its audience is supposed to be. Disney could have honored the audience with which the original cartoon resonated most, Asian-Americans (and indeed, it did not resonate with the Chinese audience), by highlighting Chinese-American actors who could have benefited more from the publicity than actors already famous in China. They also would not have risked the backlash of filming in Xinjiang and thanking a Chinese government agency in the credits, given that most of the historical scenes were filmed in constructed sets in New Zealand anyway. 

On the other hand, knowing that Chinese moviegoers bring in more profit, Disney could have committed to a movie for the Chinese public. In that case, they could have made the movie in Mandarin (or at least provided Chinese subtitles) and discarded elements of the animated original that were not well-received 22 years ago, as two other Chinese adaptations of Mulan’s story released just this year have done. Instead, Disney’s Mulan oscillates between these two opposing motivations, satisfying neither the Asian-American nor Chinese viewers.

Another mark the movie misses is cultural accuracy, despite the effort to make it a more researched adaptation. A blatant blunder in this movie is the misuse of the idea of qi (or chi, per the English subtitles) throughout this film. qi represents energy that flows in everyone, not just men and some especially gifted women, like Mulan and Xianniang. It is not something that is strong or weak, but something that is cultivated through practice.

A second example of a gauche reference is when Mulan tells her family about two rabbits she saw in a field. While it does tie to the final line of the historical ballad about how male and female rabbits are indistinguishable while running (a metaphor for how men and women are indistinguishable in battle), its placement and delivery are awkward, with no context provided before or afterwards. 

Putting the political controversy and cultural faux-pas aside, Mulan does not hold its own as an action movie. As a PG-13 movie, the barbarity of killing is impossible to show, leading to lackluster depictions of war. The large battle scenes are few and far between, making the nearly two-hour movie a drag to watch. 

The side characters Yao (Chen Tang), Ling (Jimmy Wong), and Po (Doua Moua) barely play a part in the movie. They are reduced to one conversation during a meal, in which Ling talks about the woman with whom he was matched, and the rest of them begin to objectify women for their looks and cooking skills. When Mulan describes her “ideal woman”, who is intelligent and courageous, no one takes her seriously. The conversation only moves on when Honghui jumps in, not to support her, but to take a jab at Yao’s ego.

Furthermore, characters do not act logically, with Xianniang letting Mulan escape to alert the capital when she easily could have killed her on the spot, and General Tung changing his mind about executing Mulan instantly after his subordinates stand in solidarity with her. The dialogue is stilted and unnatural, sounding like neither a period piece nor modern language. 

The Hua family’s reactions to both Mulan’s departure and arrival, which should be deeply emotional, read more like indifference. In the beginning of the movie, there is no setup for a happy family life together, with Mulan spending the majority of her time being dressed up or alone. When she leaves in the middle of the night, Mulan does not even stop to look at her sleeping family, as she walks out of the temple of her ancestors. After Mulan returns to her village, she shares just one hug each with her sister, mother, and father, before the Emperor’s Guard arrives. While it may be more accurate to the reserve in familial interaction in Chinese culture, it leaves the heart wanting more.

Perhaps the worst tragedy in Mulan is replacing the message of hard work with the importance of being born special. In the ballad, as well as the 1998 film, Mulan is an ordinary girl, who just wants to protect her father. She shows up to training camp with other equally incompetent soldiers, and they learn the art of war together through hard work. That character development can’t exist in the new Mulan, because she already has all the skill she needs to win the war. The new moral of the story, one that will pervade the lives of this generation’s Asian-American children, is that you are either born special, like Mulan, or not, like her inconsequential sister Xiu (Xana Tang), whose most defining trait is her fear of spiders.