Yes, and that’s a problem.
Disney’s release of Mulan 2020 was preceded by the headline news that the lead actress, Liu Yifei, had “tweeted” support of the Hong Kong police. Why is everyone so upset? Because the Hong Kong police have been aggressively stifling freedom of speech during protests for human rights. Why am I upset? Because the remake is a terrible film that I believe has worse connotations for human rights than Liu’s post on Weibo.
To understand the extent of why Mulan 2020 was a mistake, it’s first important to examine the 1998 film. It’s nearly impossible for a remake to exist without carrying baggage from the original and this film is no exception.
Disney’s original Mulan wasn’t bad
Brief synopsis of the 1998 film: Mulan’s family expects her to follow tradition and have an arranged marriage, but Mulan feels like she’s failing to be a typical woman. Meanwhile, the Huns attack China and one man from each family is conscripted. Mulan’s father is too old to fight another war, so out of love, Mulan runs away to take his place in the army. Disguised as a man, Mulan slowly learns how to fight, making friends with her fellow soldiers and her commander Shang. In battle, Mulan uses her brain to kill the enemy but an injury leads to the reveal that she is a woman. Instead of executing Mulan, Shang and the others decide to believe her that the Huns survived and are attacking the Emperor. Sneaking into the palace, Mulan again uses her smarts to take back the palace and save the Emperor. She turns down the Emperor’s offer of becoming his advisor, choosing to return to her family. At home, Mulan offers the Emperor’s gifts to her father, but he tosses them aside saying that no honour is greater than having her for a daughter.
The 1998 Mulan was received positively by both western audiences and those in China. Based off of Chinese folklore “the Ballad of Mulan”, the animated film is by no means accurate to the original tale and has some problematic elements. However, it’s generally considered to be pretty innocent when compared to some other Disney films (for example Pocohontos or Dumbo) and actually has a really positive message: Women are not inferior to men and anyone can achieve their dreams through hard work and perseverance. Also, perhaps accidentally, it gave the world a bisexual icon in Li Shang (Who they removed in the 2020 Mulan). Therefore, the 1998 film is actually a rare moment of “well done Disney!” If you read that as an indication that I have more to say on this, then you are right; I plan to cover Disney and their present attitude towards diversity in the future.
The main criticism of the 1998 film is that it’s not very Chinese. A few of the problems: the hair-cutting scene, less than half of the cast are Chinese, and the tiny comedic dragon, Mushu. There are also some issues with inaccurate facts and their racist depiction of Huns. However, the majority agreed that it was still a good film and supported the main idea of the original legend. Mulan did a wonderful job of empowering Chinese people and those of Chinese descent, especially women, that perseverance and dedication can overcome societal stereotypes. There is unparalleled power in seeing yourself represented in media if you are from an underrepresented group and the 1998 Mulan went a step farther by doing a pretty decent job.
With this in mind, the 2020 Mulan messes up in two big ways.
Mulan 2020 destroys the message
In the last lines of the Ballad of Mulan, her comrades express surprise that they didn’t realise Mulan was a woman. She replies,
“The buck bounds here and there, while the doe has narrow eyes. But when the two rabbits run side by side, how can you tell the female from the male?”
Mulan 2020 gave a nod to these lines at the beginning where Mulan says “Black Wind and I rode alongside two rabbits running side by side, I think one was male and one was female”. Incidentally, this defeats the whole point of the original statement.
Mulan 1998 is the story of a regular girl who is questioning her place in society. She feels like she’s failing to fulfil the gender roles that society and her family expect of her. As a woman, I deeply feel her pain; society puts impossibly high expectations on how women should act, dress, look, and sound. This has been true for a vast portion of history. Mulan 1998 combats this view by showing that through love for her father, she learns to succeed in battle by focusing on her strengths rather than her weaknesses: in this case, her mind.
Mulan 2020 ignores this entirely and gives us a superhero. There is no humanity in Mulan’s actions either, we rarely know what motivates her and she has no flaws. Any writer worth their salt knows that you have to give your main character some kryptonite. Mulan hiding her full potential is not a flaw. In fact, her choice to hide her fighting abilities makes no sense for the plot — according to her father at the beginning, “chi is only for warriors”. This implies that showing her abilities would be helpful in hiding her gender.
But Mulan 2020 goes a step farther with its weird gender messages. Not only does Mulan have superpowers, but she has a sister who does not. Her sister ends up having an arranged marriage, which everyone is happy about. This suggests that only “special” women are allowed to break through society’s expectations.
Even if I ignore these choices made by the writers, I couldn’t help but feel weird whenever gender was mentioned. Despite Disney’s claim that they changed the story to have a more feminist attitude, the way gender is portrayed doesn’t feel like 2020 — as a woman, I felt uncomfortable, not empowered.
Mulan 2020 is LESS Chinese
The 1998 Mulan didn’t have a full cast of Chinese actors, while the remake fixed this issue the whole film reads as more white and more disrespectful to Chinese culture than the original animation. But how? Did Disney really hire a team with a clear lack of knowledge about Chinese history? Yes, they did. All four writers were white, but instead of trying to learn more about this culture to whom Mulan is extremely important to, they made several huge mistakes.
Some of the smaller, less offensive mistakes (to me) involve the costumes and set design. The round houses at the beginning are from the wrong region and the colourful dyes within would have been too expensive for a family like Mulan’s. The lack of a hair-cutting scene is historically accurate, but other historical facts are discarded such as proper etiquette in and around the great hall and new year decorations displayed incorrectly and at the wrong time of year.
The most disappointing mistake in my book is the misunderstanding of chi. I can understand that the definition of chi might be confusing at first for a westerner like myself, but even a quick google will solve that. Chi is “vital energy” — a human’s life force. The question isn’t wether we have chi or not; the consensus is that everyone is born with chi, it is only by fostering a connection and learning to focus our chi that we can improve ourselves. Mulan 2020 states that Mulan’s power is because she has chi, which only warriors have, and her chi is strong. They’re missing the point: chi just is, it’s by dedication and time that someone can harness this power and cultivate their chi. Interestingly, this traditional idea of chi mimics the messages in the 1998 Mulan…
For me, the oddest mistake is the phoenix. I liked Mushu the tiny dragon, but I’m not too upset that they took him out. I am, however, very confused as to why they replaced him with a phoenix. For context, the phoenix isn’t Chinese, instead associated with greek and medieval lore. Instead, China has the fenghuang bird. There are a few similarities between the phoenix and the fenghuang bird, namely that they’re both related to fire and symbolise prosperity and good luck, but the lore is completely different because the fenghuang bird doesn’t rise from the ashes. Mulan 2020 ignores these facts entirely, using the western phoenix and its greek mythology throughout the film.
What’s sad to me, is that I believe the film could have been a lot better if they’d used the fenghuang bird. Not only would it have been an interesting piece of Chinese culture, but it would have fit better with the theme. The fenghuang bird is often used alongside the dragon in a sort of yin and yang metaphor — you often see them together at weddings as the fenghuang bird is considered feminine and the dragon masculine.
In a story about gender norms, I think the fenghuang bird could have been used to generate some interesting discussion about conformity. For example: If I’m a woman do I have to relate to the fenghuang bird — what if I prefer dragons? Isn’t the whole point of yin and yang to find a balance? And so on.
But what about Liu Yifei’s tweet?
Is it wrong to consider current politics when critiquing the Mulan remake? I don’t think so, but the situation is not black and white. The discussion around the Mulan 2020 politics has a lot of very misleading information. In my opinion, this covers up the real problems.
First of all, the viral tweet saying Liu supports the Hong Kong police is misleading. Here it is:
This isn’t her quote. The words are from a reporter who was kidnapped and beaten by a handful of protestors until he was rescued by the Hong Kong police. What Liu Yifei did was share the reporter’s story on Weibo with #我也支持香港警察 (translates to “I also support the Hong Kong police”). Personally, I’m still not okay with this. It’s important to remember that the majority of protestors have been peaceful and that the Hong Kong police are guilty of violently shooting at these peaceful protestors — portraying them as heroes is wrong.
That being said, I am a bit doubtful that Liu’s intent was malicious. Both Hollywood and the Chinese government are very powerful, and have been known to ruin the careers of those who openly disagree with them. For Hollywood, this happened a lot around abuse before the #metoo movement. Liu no longer lives in China, but who’s to say that the Chinese government or Hollywood didn’t prompt her to say something. Remember that this is only speculation — there’s no way to know the full story of why Liu stated that she stood with the Hong Kong police.
Personally, I just wish everyone would stop crediting that quote to her and turn their gaze to Disney instead, because I think what they’ve done is much worse.
In the end credits, Disney thanks the government bodies of Xinjiang for allowing them to film in an area near some internment camps. For context, an estimated one to two million Uighur Muslims (a local, oppressed minority) have been forced into these camps where they experience starvation, beatings, and forced sterilisation. When asked why Disney didn’t address these issues all they said was the controversy had created “a lot of issues for us”.
This means Disney spent 200 million on a film which misrepresents China, silences women, stereotypes Chinese people, and alludes to the fact that the company is willing to overlook genocide in order to make money.
Don’t boycott Mulan 2020 because of one actress’s “retweet”. Boycott the film because it violates your morals, pushing millions of people further from equality and back into the dark. One person isn’t as problematic or as dangerous as a multi-billion company who doesn’t care about human rights.
In the words of Accented Cinema, “It is the perfect time for a new generation of Mulan to inspire people… And you fucked it up”.
These views are a mixture of my own and those of some great Chinese youtubers. I am not Chinese, so if you’d rather watch their video essays instead, here they are: EVERYTHING CULTURALLY WRONG WITH MULAN 2020 (And How They Could’ve Been Fixed) by Xiran Jay Zhao and Mulan: A Case of Failed Empowerment |Video Essay by Accented Cinema. They made many really good points, so I want to give them credit for inspiring several aspects of this post.
Also, I want to apologise if I downplayed or miscommunicated any of the current political issues in China. I did my best to research, but I had some trouble understanding the full extent of what is happening. Feel free to call me out if any of my facts are wrong.