AMY BROOKS comments on Disney’s live action remake of Mulan and its representation of Asian culture.
In Disney’s string of live-action remakes of wildly successful animated movies, Mulan was just next on the list. Both the animated and live-action movies center around a Chinese girl, Hua Mulan, who defies the patriarchal society of ancient China by cross-dressing as a man to join the army in a desperate act to save her crippled father from conscription. Unlike others who already denounced live-action Mulan for getting rid of beloved side-characters or hiring a controversial lead actress Liu Yifei (known for supporting the Hong Kong police), I decided to watch it with an open mind. Animated Mulan, which was released in 1998, was a breakthrough in Hollywood — Mulan was Disney’s first Asian main character. Its feminist message of going against the status quo of patriarchy inspired girls like me who grew up watching it to follow our passions. As a Chinese-American girl, I looked forward to Disney’s live-action release not only to relive my experience from watching the animated one as a kid, but also to imagine how kids like me growing up now might identify with a story on the big screen. On the surface, you would think live-action Mulan was a great representation of Asian culture and celebration of female empowerment, with an all-Asian cast and Mulan retaining her status as a warrior. After watching the movie, the absence of these aspects is clear. Keeping an open mind only works so much when the movie itself could not pull its weight.
Half-Hearted Attempt at Asian Representation
On screen, there are a plethora of Asian household names who populate the cast of the film, such as Donnie Yen, Jet Li, and Gong Li. Behind the screen, we have director Niki Caro, costume designer Bina Daigeler, composer Harry Gregson-Williams, film editor David Coulson, casting director Debra Zane, and screenwriters Amanda Silver, Elizabeth Martin, Lauren Hynek, and Rick Jaffa. Commonality? They’re the ones pulling the strings, and they are all white. The lack of Asian talent behind the screen is unfortunate, but it’s the fact that the crew did poor research that really undermined this whole Asian representation thing. This resulted in dialogue filled with Chinese words that are used erroneously and cultural elements clearly Westernized.
Throughout the film, there is the recurring traditional Chinese concept of qi, which is the natural life force that flows throughout the body. Like how the Star Wars series has the Force, qi becomes some sort of superpower in live-action Mulan. Unlike the Force, qi is a real philosophical concept with no interpretations of it as supernatural. Live-action Mulan simply replaces the meaning of qi with their own. The army commander, played by Donnie Yen, says, “But only the most true will connect deeply with his qi,” which doesn’t make sense if applied to the real word. Qi isn’t something you can just “connect” deeper with — we all have this life force. Qi can be improved, though, and that’s through taking care of your body, not by being “true.” The crew could have at least come up with some new word for a superpower life force to fit the narrative rather than to use a centuries-old word.
Mulan also wields a sword with three characters—zhong, yong, and zhen—which Mulan tells us means loyal, brave, and true, respectively. The problem is not just that the engravings are in modern simplified Chinese (which did not exist in ancient China). It is that the character zhen is a tautology of the word zhong, meaning that these specific characters are redundant synonyms. As someone fluent in Chinese, I see this mistake as an easy fix. However, this mistake shows that if there was at least a Chinese person among the crew, simple things could be fixed. It is unclear whether the Asian cast caught this detail but considering the myriad of errors in other parts of the film, it does not seem like they had much say in the behind-the-scenes process.
Where the whiteness really shows is when Western cultural references are applied to Chinese culture. Mulan’s father says the phrase: “Some say the phoenix is consumed by flame and emerges again.” This is a Western legend that simply does not exist in Chinese legend — Chinese phoenixes live forever. There is also the concept of witches in this movie (which was not in animated Mulan). Chinese folklore does not have witches — there are shamans, spirits, demons, and a whole lot of other supernatural beings, but witches are clearly a Western concept.
Maybe this quote by costume designer Bina Daigeler sums it up. When asked about the research behind the Chinese costumes in Mulan, she responded, “I went to Europe in all the museums that had like a Chinese department. And then I traveled to China during three weeks. We really got deep into it, and I just soaked up all the Chinese culture as much as I can [sic].” What really gets me is that she went to museums in Europe when she could have spent that time exploring ones in China, especially since she was only in China for three weeks (quite a short time for a huge production like this, especially about a culture she doesn’t seem familiar with).
There was an undeniable feeling of hollowness in Mulan. For me, Mulan was someone I could identify with growing up. Mulan was born as a normal girl who, through perseverance and hard work, became a warrior in the end. The animated Mulan had all these aspects, and character development was often displayed through the songs, whether it was “Reflection” or “I’ll Make a Man Out of You”. Live-action Mulan has none of this. Now, Mulan is a girl born with the superpower of qi, which is incredibly problematic. She doesn’t have to go through trials or think of cunning solutions in the army to make up for her being physically weaker than the men. She’s just naturally gifted with this power that makes her as powerful as a man. Wait a second…doesn’t that then imply girls can only be equivalent to men if they are born with powers?
Live-action Mulan also does not challenge the status quo. Here are two quotes, one from animated Mulan and one from live-action Mulan—try to distinguish the difference.
1) “I know my place, and it’s time you learned yours.” – Mulan’s father, Mulan (1998)
2) “I know my place. And it is my duty to fight for the country and protect the emperor.” – Mulan, Mulan (2020)
The first quote is said by a male figurehead, who basically represents the patriarchy of China. Animated Mulan is very much a feminist movie, with Mulan defying the patriarchy and being a woman who doesn’t “know her place”. The second quote is said by Mulan herself. It could just be patriotism, but this small but important change makes Mulan submissive — she is no longer the same feminist icon.
Beyond the Movie
What the root of the mess may be is that Disney sees their live-action remakes as money-making machines rather than opportunities to celebrate cultures and send empowering messages. Disney live-actions usually rack up profits way beyond their budgets. With live-action Mulan, there was a budget of about $200 million, with an expected earning of around $750 million. However, due to the Covid-19 pandemic shutting down theaters worldwide, Disney vastly underperformed; this would be a loss in their books. To us, the audience, live-action Mulan was a loss on our end as well.
Live-action Mulan had all the raw ingredients to become a revamped version of the original animated film. This was an opportunity to create the experience I had from watching the original animation for a new generation of children. This was a chance to create something meaningful for Asian-Americans who hardly ever see Asian actors in Hollywood films. This was a moment to teach girls to forge their path based on their own free will, especially since we are still in the fight for gender equality. Instead, all we have is a shell of a movie.
Amy Brooks can be contacted at email@example.com.