Writer: Sarah Z
Visual: Sarah Z
Amidst a pandemic of bad Disney live-action adaptations, Mulan seemed like a redemption. A remake of a beloved animated film, Mulan was long anticipated since its visually stunning trailers were released in 2019. It has much to live up to, while also battling the lukewarm reception preceding remakes have received. But perhaps, one of the most important things Mulan hoped to accomplish is to be a success for representation of Asians in film.
At first glance, the movie seems to be well represented, with a cast studded with Chinese actors. However, behind the camera, there is a lack of authentic Chinese representation. It has been noted that the director, screenwriters, and, perhaps most crucially, the costume designer, are of white descent. This has led many to claim that in order to tell a story about imperial China properly, the opportunity should be given to those who actually have a cultural heritage from the country. One cannot help but compare the live action Mulan to an American fortune cookie: exotically Chinese in perception, but deceivingly Western in conception.
What’s important to note when discussing Mulan is the difference between Asian representation and Asian diaspora representation. In an effort to cater to the traditional Chinese audience, the new live-action forgoes fan favorites such as the beloved dragon Mushu—which the Chinese audience had described as disrespectful to Chinese lore—as well as the iconic songs. Instead, they have been replaced with what can be described as stark bleakness, seeming to portray Chinese culture as rigid and somber. By choosing to focus on a retelling of the original ballad, Disney seems to have prioritized making Mulan appealing to Chinese audiences. With outrageous botch-ups of both the beloved 1998 film and the original ballad, however, the film company fails to win over audiences with either.
Perhaps one of the worst decisions the film giant made was, in short, taking a character—whose courage and honor in the face of adversity made her a hero—and giving her superpowers. According to the film, Mulan’s uncanny ability to control her “qi” is what makes her a superhuman warrior with an ability to defy gravity and kick arrows, playing with swords, and jumping on rooftops from childhood. Furthermore, for the purposes of the film, “qi” is some kind of superpower that only men are supposed to have. There is little Mulan does that feels like she decides for herself. It is, frankly, a ridiculous addition.
The traditional notion of Qi – which roughly translates to “one’s energy flow” – is a core part of Chinese medicine and martial arts, but the film misappropriated the concept as an absurd divisive gendered force. In taking an ancient element of Chinese philosophy and cheapening it to some blockbuster superpower, Mulan feels less like a groundbreaking embrace of Asian culture, and more like another submission to the wider Western box office.
“It’s a Western film with a Chinese backdrop,” one user on the popular Chinese social media website, Zhihu, said. Other Chinese viewers added that Mulan’s “qi” is essentially treated the same as the Force in Star Wars. Users also complained about some of the characters’ make-up, saying that it reflects Western stereotypes of China rather than being a reflection of actual Chinese culture. Watching the film attempt to straddle Chinese and Western audiences, all one could think about was what it would have looked like if those of Chinese descent had actually been the ones telling the story.
While it’s respectable that Disney risked so many changes to an iconic film, many of its efforts in repainting Mulan fall short. The action is entertaining at a glance but lacks emotional stakes and cultural depth, with new characters who are half-baked at best. Though it satisfies many of the original story arcs, the live-action Mulan still doesn’t quite manage to capture the Disney magic of its predecessor, nor does it manage to pave paths for future Asian representation. Starkly bleak and unrepresentative of true Chinese culture, Mulan is a let-down – for both the traditional Disney audience and Asians everywhere.