Disney’s Mulan: Past and Present

When Disney announced the live action Mulan film, there was huge excitement around the world for its release. However, the film has had its run of bad luck, first delayed due to controversy surrounding the lack of diversity in its casting decisions. Once that was rectified with a now stellar cast and an excellent lead that represents the story’s original culture, it became embroiled in political controversy and its highly anticipated release was then, cancelled as the pandemic broke out. On the 4th of September, the film will be finally released in cinemas in certain countries and on directly on Disney Plus in others. Despite the set backs and much dampened public energy around this film, I intend to give Mulan some major coverage. For she is an important cultural symbol not only in China but around the world, starting with some thoughts on the significance of the original animation and of this new live-action film to those in China.

The Disney “original” was pretty much superfluous in China, where we’d already had plethora of films, TV series, and radio plays based on the legend, all of which had to bring new things to keep an audience interested, and here was a Western studio, albeit a popular one, trying to tell us our own story but with completely alien motivations. Some people will point to the musical numbers and the romance as reasons for it flopping, but quite honestly, that’s all been there since Ivy Ling Po’s portrayal in 1964’s “Lady General Mulan”.

It was this very American story, telling us our folk heroine acted in the way that she did for reasons of self-actualisation, when we’d had it drummed into us practically from nursery that it was for familial duty and honour. Even watching it now, it just feels off. It’s trying so hard to be Chinese, but in a stereotypical and misguided way. There’s lanterns, fireworks, they even stuck a panda in there, but it’s just not Chinese. The humour, the pacing, the relationships, are either wholly American, or what America imagines China would be like. Even getting Coco Lee and Jackie Chan to dub the Chinese versions weren’t enough to save it.

The trailers of the new live-action are beautifully shot and from the tone of them, much closer to the original legend (a ballad of the northern Wei era, later adapted during the Ming Dynasty into a play) than the 1998 animation, and therefore closer to Hua Mulan, as the Chinese know her, the brave young woman who upholds her duty to family and state. I did like Mulan’s mischievous spirit in the animation, though she looks beautiful and grave in this new film, I do hope we still get a little bit of humour.

Social media had erupted with enthusiasm as well as debate on the inaccuracies of historical renditions such as the anachronistic costume designs. I particularly noticed that the beautiful Wei Lou round houses, which feature in the first trailer. These are representative to the Chinese of the Hakka people and a signature architectural  style of southern regions such as Fujian and Guangdong, whereas according to legend, Mulan’s hometown is in the north, so the threat of invading tribe is far more pertinent, and the reason why the conscription was decreed. We are having all this debate, precisely because the producers are trying to be true to the original legend and we have something comparable to talk about. It’s far more pertinent that big Western studios like Disney could now be taking artistic inspiration from indie-led productions like Big Fish and Begonia.

Mulan has become an international icon of feminism, gender freedom and self-realisation and I do hope that this comes through in the new film so that the Chinese in China could begin to see her in this light. A timeless, immortal icon from any culture needs to evolve in order to stay relevant in the public consciousness, and in a way, Mulan as a symbol of duty is no longer quite as relevant in today’s changing society, and the Chinese need to find a new meaning in her as a cultural symbol on their own terms. She certainly inspired androgynous fashion when Ivy Ling Po played her for Shaw Brothers Studios.

Over the last decade, we have seen how Hollywood has attempted to engage with Chinese audiences, whether it’s buying soy (featuring one or two big name Chinese stars) or featuring locations in China, or trying terribly hard not to offend its audiences. I think this time round, the live action will have a much better chance of winning over the Chinese audiences than the last time, especially with so many big names in Chinese cinema in the cast, such as Gong Li and Donny Yen. It’s fantastic to have Zheng Pei Pei, who portrayed one of the most famous instances of the cross-dressing warrior-heroine in Chinese cinematic history. In my next article on Mulan, I’ll be looking at key influential works in the 20th century and their representations of this phenomenal cultural icon.




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