Disney’s ‘Mulan’ Dishonors a Beloved Folktale

Disney’s ‘Mulan’ Dishonors a Beloved Folktale
Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
What you need to know

'Mulan' is a cringe-inducing misrepresentation of Chinese history and culture.

“There have been many tales of the great warrior Mulan. But ancestors, this one is mine.” The opening lines of Mulan, Disney’s live-action remake of its 1998 animated classic, set the stage for a disappointing and offensively orientalist take on a beloved folk story. The latest remake takes too many liberties in places that matter and adheres too closely to the animated film in unnecessary ways. 

It’s hard to begin talking about the film without reference to the numerous controversies that have engulfed it. From the pro-police brutality statements of the lead actress Liu Yifei, to filming in Xinjiang, where the Chinese government has forced over a million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities into detention camps, the film could never escape the politics inherent in Mulan’s story — much to Disney’s chagrin. Calls to #BoycottMulan have been circulating since Liu’s comments in August 2019.

After its release, the film was also under fire for its cultural insensitivity, which many argue is due to the all-white crew of director, producers, screenwriters, and costume designer. Audiences have taken to the internet both in China and the United States to critique the many missteps in the film, which at this point are too many to cover. 

The 1998 animated version of Mulan had failed to capture audiences in China. With the remake, Disney has attempted to market it as more “authentic,” hoping to capture the significant revenues of the Chinese market. Many Asian Americans have rallied behind the film as a victory for representation because of its all Asian cast. But others in the community have also critiqued its insipid transnational politics and called the film a de facto “yellowface” orientalist fantasy as Asian actors play parts directed and scripted by white creators.     

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Photo Credit: 《Mulan》

Whenever I think of the story of Mulan, I have fond memories from my childhood. Even before Disney’s animated Mulan was released, my parents, immigrants to the U.S. from Taiwan, would read the story of Hua Mulan to me in Mandarin at bedtime. For a young tomboy like me, knowing that there was precedent for Chinese women who enjoyed martial arts and roughhousing with boys gave me a sense of belonging in Chinese culture. This stood in contrast to the depictions of white American womanhood with which I have never been able to identify. Beyond Mulan, there are many examples of female warriors in the Wuxia genre that solidified my place in the canon of warrior women.

That Mulan has been a subversive story set in the context of patriarchal Chinese culture is what makes this latest live-action remake’s depiction so egregious. It fails to paint the picture of that context, downplaying the significance of Mulan’s story, her actions, character development, intelligence, and loyalty. The entire premise, plot, and character arc of the film were built on Western concepts of universal sex, gender, and womanhood. The attempts at depicting Chinese themes or cultural values revealed the production team’s total lack of understanding of Chinese culture, history, art, or philosophy. 

A distorted view of gender and Chinese culture

Chi or qi (氣), the energy or life force that is found in all living things, is somehow turned into Mulan’s special magic power. It’s a power that she cannot reveal lest she be branded as a witch, as “only a son could wield qi.” Qi is not some sort of magical Chinese testosterone that is found in abundance in male warriors. Those who practice the disciplines of qigong or tai chi work seek to manipulate their existing qi or improve its circulation rather than “increasing” the amount of qi they naturally have. Qi is not gendered; rather, masculine and feminine energy are represented in Chinese culture through yin-yang (moon and sun), which exist in harmony. This is unlike a Western concept of masculinity and femininity as conflicting, opposing forces, under which men and women idealistically must be wholly masculine or feminine. To be sure, women have received unfair treatment in Chinese society and have been at times excluded from martial arts traditions, among other areas of Chinese culture. But this is no excuse for the distorted orientalist premises used in this film.

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Photo Credit: 《Mulan》
Liu Yifei as Mulan preparing to meet her matchmaker

In the “Ballad of Mulan,” she fights valiantly in wars for 10 years before she returns home. It’s not until then, when she puts on a dress and makeup, and is with her family that her fellow soldiers realize that she is a woman. But in this live-action film, Disney departs even from its own animated canon, making Mulan unable to be a good warrior until she “tells the truth” that she’s a woman. This is opposed to what most versions of Mulan emphasize, and what the “Ballad of Mulan” illustrates: “Two rabbits running side by side male and female but who can tell the difference?”

A battle of virtues

The commander of the imperial army tells the soldiers that their triumph over the Rourans is inevitable because unlike them, they possess three virtues: “Loyal, Brave, and True” (忠、勇、真), the same characters engraved in Mulan’s father’s sword. Twitter user Xiran pointed out the remarkable similarity of the slogan to the FBI’s motto: “Fidelity, Bravery, Integrity.”  

While the imperial army chants these three virtues, Mulan falters at “true,” knowing that she is lying about being a man. This internal conflict becomes explicit when Mulan faces Xianniang (played by Gong Li) in battle. When Xianniang asks for her name, Mulan responds, “Hua Jun” (花軍) (the name of her masculine “alter ego”), and Xianniang tells her, “Your deceit weakens you,” a fatal transgression resulting in the “death” of Hua Jun. 

Mulan then rises from the ashes with the phoenix, her ancestral guardian, flying above her. She tears off her armor, returning to battle with her long luxurious hair flowing around her. She battles in the “full strength of her qi” because she is no longer held back and corrupted by her deceit and moral failure, she is now “loyal, brave, and true,” and her enemies see her and scream, “Witch!” Here there are several narrative jumps and assumptions, the first being that Mulan is now fully identifiable as a woman because she has taken off her armor and her hair is down, a logical jump that did not land for me or most Chinese audiences since men in historical dramas like this traditionally have long hair. She was also wearing the same uniform as other soldiers under their armor as well. But the filmmakers relied upon Eurocentric understandings of gender presentation and absolute truth to orchestrate the major turning point of the story. 

The film relies again and again on Western dichotomies of the conflict between masculinity and femininity, truth and lies, to move the story forward. The emperor’s imperial army — the qi warriors — represents righteous masculinity while their enemy, the Rourans, have aligned themselves with evil femininity, the witch Xianniang. The primary villain, Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), promises Xianniang a society where she can live openly as a woman with powerful qi, even while despising her and her power.

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Photo Credit: 《Mulan》
Gong Li as Xianniang in 'Mulan'

Both women in this universe face discrimination and marginalization for their “feminine” power. Mulan chooses to support the emperor, the existing bastion of power, while Xianniang challenges that existing system having been promised a better future — she invites Mulan to merge her power with hers. Mulan counters that she will not fight for a coward like Bori Khan who flees from battle. Her place and her duty, she says, are to fight for the emperor. This is one of the strangest lines of dialogue in the film, again, invoking the logic of a European medieval knight. Mulan’s character defends her position to Xianniang: It is inherently moral and righteous to serve the existing structure of power, embodied in the emperor.

To make sense of this, it is helpful to remember that in order to film in China, productions must share their scripts with the Chinese government for approval. Over the last century, the story of Mulan has been a favorite tool for bolstering patriotism and nationalism. The film’s main point, “Do not challenge existing systems of inequality but continue to serve the empire faithfully without question” is one variation on this theme. Is this the message the Chinese government wants to send to young women?

A film utterly lacking in vision

The moral quandaries at stake in this film are Eurocentric. Psychologists Ying Wong and Jeanne Tsai have identified how a shame-based model, like Chinese culture, morality is socially positioned within relationships. In most individualistic Western cultures, morality is constructed through a framework of codified ethics, as opposed to relationally; sex and gender roles are consequently also understood as concrete, absolute, and rule based. 

Mulan’s gender deviance at the beginning of the story is not “dishonorable” because it transgresses divinely pre-ordained roles for men and women. Rather, she fails to honor the relationship and responsibilities she has as a daughter to her parents. Her decision to take her father’s place in the army is out of the love and devotion she has for her family, which ultimately makes her actions admirable sacrifices — not individualistic self expression. Similarly, hiding that she is a woman is not a moral failure but a social necessity for performing her duty. While many adaptations emphasize different ideological priorities, Mulan has often been regarded as a paragon of filial piety and patriotism not in spite of her gender but through her navigations through the fluidity of gender. 

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Photo Credit: 《Mulan》

Lines of dialogue and visuals make some subtle and overtly obvious nods to the animated film. Missing are the sentient manifestations of ancestral figures, and in their place are half-hearted and misplaced invocations to the ancestors. The dragon Mushu has been replaced with a phoenix statue, pendant, and mystical guardian. Staying true to the film’s theme of cultural incongruence, the writers used the European mythological phoenix that rises from the ashes instead of the Chinese mythological “phoenix” which represents the power of feminine yin. In a nod to the song “Honor to Us All'' from the animated film, the word “honor” or “dishonor” is repeated so frequently in the film that it becomes an earsore. 

What is missing from this live-action remake is its own vision for the Mulan story, making it a very expensive and poorly made imitation. Unable to emerge from the shadow of the animated Mulan, this film is sure to disappoint fans of the original film. Director Niki Caro and the screenwriters’ inability to abide by one of the most basic rules of storytelling to “show, not tell” makes this adaptation of the 1,500-year-old story of Mulan and misrepresentation of Chinese history and culture painfully cringe-worthy. 

In sum, it is as if a group of white first-year Asian Studies majors got a US$200 million budget to produce a film on Mulan for their semester final project — knowing just enough to get themselves in trouble, but not enough to realize the gravity of their errors. 


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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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