Daughter, Warrior, Woman: The Evolution of Hua Mulan

In the first part of my Mulan article, I discussed what the Disney animation meant for the Chinese in China, as well as for global audiences; looked at the initial trailer of the new live action film and talked about what I hope to see in it. To understand Mulan’s significance as a cultural icon fully, we need to go to her origins and see how she evolved. I will focusing on two relatively recent film adaptations that have made the greatest impact around the world (China included), so we could see where Mulan is culturally, particularly in terms of her representation in cinema, just before a new major work comes out. 


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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.


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The Farewell: A Review

When I saw the trailer for The Farewell, I knew it had the potential to be the film people were hoping Crazy Rich Asians would have been, and fill that cultural void that they were hoping it would fill. Having now watched it, I can confirm it has met my expectations.

Written and directed by Lulu Wang, The Farewell is of the story of Billi (Awkwafina), a Chinese American young woman who learns that her grandmother has lung cancer and only three months to live. Shocked that her immigrant parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) and extended family plan on keeping the news from the old lady, Billi flies to China despite their admonitions to join them and see her Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao). As cultural clashes intensify and family tensions rise, Billi struggles to keep up with the preparations and celebrations around her cousin Hao Hao’s (Han Chen) fake wedding, the pretext the family have devised for the gathering.

In many ways, The Farewell has got the Culture so right, providing a window into the lives of an ordinary middle-class Chinese family of sea turtles, who live in an average city, in a typical apartment block, in a typical neighbourhood. All the major scenes and dramatic climaxes are aptly set during meal times. To the food-obsessed Chinese, eating together is an essential ritual that fulfills a whole range of social functions. Food also is a major way in which people show affection. Everyone who can, emigrates. The film cinches this irony of this Chinese phenomenon by demonstrating the inability of Billi and Hao Hao, who moved to different countries as young children, to communicate with each other.

From the semi-seedy hotels with its prying, nosy caretakers, the popular massage treatments with a dash of TCM, to Nai Nai’s string of live-in carers from the countryside; from the peculiar custom of pre-nuptial wedding photography, to the details of interior décor of the family home, such as the communist-era couples photo hanging on the wall of Nai Nai’s bedroom, the film is telling it as it is. My mother’s hometown is Changchun, which I have often visited, and seeing Hao Hao’s wedding was like seeing my own cousin’s nuptial festivities again on the big screen.

Although the modern China presented in the film feels very limited, its entire focus being based around a hospital, a couple of urban backstreets, and a soulless construction site, I do grant that the story is told mainly from Billi’s viewpoint. Not everyone in the country is just after making money, as the conversation during the family meal in the restaurant seems to suggest, and most old Chinese cities have an old town that’s steeped in history, existing alongside the highway jungle of concrete and glass, where life is slower, greener and more picturesque. I found the (Western) classical, modern classical soundtrack rather over-abundant and at times jarring against the East-meets-West themes explored in a Chinese environment, though again this can be attributed to the point of view.

Another quibble I have with the film is the apparent confusion between different locations within China. We see Billi arriving at Shanghai airport on the East coast, but the wedding takes place thousands of miles away in Changchun, capital of the country’s northeastern-most province. Although migration is a common phenomenon over there, an explanation would have been good as to how the family ended up in Shanghai. Regional culture is often diverse, especially in a vast and heterogeneous country like China, where you can feel very displacement by being in another province. Had the wedding taken place in the south, it would have had a very different feel.

In a point-of-view film that aims to show rather than narrate, the script becomes central. The script couldn’t have been easy for an American-Chinese author to write, being partially in English and Chinese, yet it has been localized well in both languages. The film shines with some very memorable dialogue tableaus throughout, such as Billi’s unexpected arrival at the family home, and old comrades and old flames reuniting at a grandchild’s wedding. My favourite scene is the picnic at the graveside of Billi’s late grandpa. Albeit a visit to the dead, it’s a time when the family seems most at ease, united and happiest in the entire film. The stylized cinematography is certainly an appeal of this film. Bustling contemporary Chinese streets, packed with hawkers, LEDs and multicolour store fronts, provide a gorgeous palette for the deep bokeh shots that frame the story’s more contemplative scenes. The long shot of solidarity at the end featuring the whole family standing together, looking somber in a harsh palette, speaks volumes within the context of the story.

Expectedly, The Farewell explores themes of generational and aspirational conflicts arising out of the East-West culture clash, which no doubt resonates with diaspora Chinese of different varieties around the world. Despite being a very Chinese film, The Farewell is highly relatable for everyone. As with big family gatherings anywhere, antagonisms tend to emerge and the past comes to the surface. We are also seeing three generations of strong women represented here, Lu Jian, Billi’s stern and stoic mother, Nai Nai, a hugely positive portrayal of the formidable Chinese granny who, despite being the invalid everyone is trying to support, holds the family together and proves a wise and caring intergenerational mentor; and of course Billi, the protagonist who is rather downtrodden at the beginning of the film but whom we see grow in understanding, strengthen and transform, while other characters start to unravel.

With a little more humour and irony, I think the Farewell could have been an even better film. However, I sense that it’s a highly personal experience for its creator and has successfully explored some difficult themes. The Farewell will become a classic of diaspora cinema, and in the years to come, it shall be one of the films I’ll recommend when people ask me what it means being Chinese is, or what Chinese families are like.


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My PRI on Mulan

Thanks to works such as Disney’s animation, Mulan has become a global icon of gender queerness, feminism & support for any groups in need of her spirit. I talk to PRI about how Disney’s upcoming live version feature based on Mulan seeks to be relevant to the culture of the her origin.


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Some Thoughts on The Wandering Earth

Hope you’ve all had a chance to watch The Wandering Earth by now. (If you haven’t, its on Netflix, and iQiyi). I’m ready to share my thoughts on it.

Did Wandering Earth live up to all the hype? I think it did! It was an excellent hard sci-fi movie. With very high production values, including the CG, a gripping but logically grounded plot line, which, whilst comparable to some of Hollywood’s disasterporn sci-fi, never loses its very Chinese heart.


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Forgotten Planets: Exploring China’s Long-Running Sci-Fi Film Tradition

In the 18th and 19th centuries, when exploration was a hobby of the British upper classes, you’d regularly hear about the discovery of Brand New Civilizations — as though indigenous people’s generational histories did not pop into existence until someone with a pith helmet and a camera stumbled into the clearing. I had my own “Dr. Livingstone Presuming” moment this week, when I began to read headlines in such stalwarts of the British press as the Financial Times (as well as digital newcomers like The Verge) stating that the just-released film adaptation of The Wandering Earthmarked China’s first tentative foray into sci-fi cinema, before scuttling back and forth between comparisons with contemporary American blockbusters and classic American sci-fi quicker than you can say “White Gaze Genesis.”


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Crazy Rich Asians: There’s A Lot to Chu Over

“Crazy Rich Asians”, has made a huge impact in the short time since its release, not only because it’s based on an international bestseller by an East-Asian author, Kevin Kwan, but because it features an almost entirely Asian cast, (with only five white guys even getting a speaking part). In a U.S.-originated movie, it’s a rare thing for East-Asians to take centre-stage.

With screenplay by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim, this is the story of quintessentially American Chinese Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), who embarks on a trip with her boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) to visit his home, Singapore. It turns out to be the trip of a lifetime. Rachel discovers that her laid-back, low-profile boyfriend is a billionaire whose family built half of Singapore. Between head-on cultural clashes, and the brutal matrimonial realities within Asian family clans, Rachel is way out of her depth, and must sink or swim.


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Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings

As one of the major directors in Chinese cinema, any new work of Tsui Hark’s is exciting news, let alone any work released outside China and Chinese-speaking regions. As relatively more Chinese films make their way to Western cinemas, some top-bill Wuxia titles are now sharing the summer slot with Hollywood Blockbusters. This summer sees the global release of “Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings”, the third film in Judge Dee series (after “Mystery of the Phantom Flame” and “Rise of the Sea Dragon”), produced by renown and award-winning producer Nansun Shi (Infernal Affairs, Seven Swords, Chinese Ghost Story). Five years would have given this film considerable build-up, especially after the second one, which, despite the bold steps it took, was by far the weaker of the two.


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Bao: A Review

After the delays due to the World Cup, I am very happy to see “Incredibles 2” released at last. The major reason for my anticipation for seeing this film in the cinema, is the short preceding the main feature, “Bao”, the first Pixar production with a female director, and one of Chinese heritage, no less. Needless to say, my expectations were high, and this adorable work has met them.


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A Brief History of Dong Hua: Taster

It all began in 1922. Between 1922 and 45 was a period when China discovered and explored animation for itself. The main force behind early Chinese animation were three classically trained art students from Shanghai, the Wan brothers, who taught themselves the techniques of animation from studying 20s American cartoons such as Out of the Ink Well, Popeye and Betty Boop. The very first Dong Hua movie, “Uproar In the Studio”, was born in 1926 in a 7 square metre room in Zha Bei district of Shanghai.


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