SCREENCRUNCH: Let’s look at the film based on its own merits
There had been a lot of political disputes, boycotts, cancellations, and international social media debates leading up to the recent premier of Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan. With the movie preempted with a bit of backlash from Liu Yifei’s supposed support for Hong Kong police amid the alleged human rights violations committed against the region’s protesters, many viewers see a flop out of the remake, no matter how hard Disney tried to try and save it.
But let’s look at the film based on its own merits. Here are the most interesting bits from Disney’s new Mulan that many might have missed.
*Oh a lot of spoilers ahead*
It’s a tad bit more Chinese
Compared to the 1998 release, the new Mulan got rid of a lot of things (other than the musical side of it) and replaced them with new additions, from elements and themes to characters, which made the movie closer to Asian culture. For one, Mulan’s trusty sidekick back in 1998 who also served as the movie’s comic relief was replaced by a phoenix. The phoenix in Chinese culture represents female leadership and balance in the universe. The silent phoenix in the movie, apart from being a symbol closer to its Chinese origins, gives the film a more serious flair.
Mulan has more powers in this movie too, not because she fell into a sea of toxic nuclear waste, but because of the ever so trusty “chi” (氣). For those unfamiliar, chi is basically an inner flowing energy that provides vitality and strength in life. She initially keeps it to herself, but soon uses it, revealing it to her commanding general. The scenes portraying Mulan’s chi also look like something from one of those classic Cantonese kung-fu movies.
In terms of casting, perhaps the fact that seasoned Chinese actors Jet Li, Donnie Yen, and Gong Li play significant characters in the film makes it really exciting. They each do so well in their roles.
Another noticeable bit is the changes in characters. Li Shang from the cartoon version gets split into two new characters for this live remake. Donnie Yen plays the role of Commander Tung, and Yoson An as Honghui. Producer Jason Reid says that it was inappropriate to have Commander Tung and Mulan to be lovers in the remake, so Honghui was the next best thing, putting him as a fellow soldier. The Witch of Xianniang is a sorceress capable of shapeshifting into birds and taking control of others. She replaces the 1998’s falcon of Shan Yu, and her character puts emphasis on how women in China were seen not really fit to hold positions of power—and to control chi.
Disney also converted the famous lucky cricket Cri-Kee into a human character named Cricket (played by Jun Yu). Cricket is seen by his mom as a good luck charm, and is sent to join the military alongside Mulan and Honghui.
Mulan presented by Mulan
Yes that’s right. Mulan presents Mulan in this movie. Ming-Na Wen who voiced Mulan in the 1998 motion picture has a cameo in the 2020 remake. Many wish that her time on screen could have been longer, and others even suggest a more involved role. But we get what we get, and the Mulan voice actress shows up in the movie as the unnamed “esteemed guest” who presents Yifei’s Mulan to the emperor.
Values above romance
Disney’s 1998 animation is a musical that sets the romance between Hua Mulan and Li Shang against the backdrop of war between the Huns and China. This year’s Mulan is a live action adaptation of the narrative poem Ballad of Mulan, so it got rid of the romance and emphasized more the so-called Pillars of Virtue: Loyalty, Bravery, Truthfulness, and Devotion to Family—each of which are engraved on the sword passed down to Mulan at the end of the movie.
One scene from the animation you won’t find in the new film is Mulan cutting her hair with her father’s sword. Western cultures might interpret it to be cutting connections with family, but it’s a whole different story in Chinese culture. As the saying from the Confucian Classic of Filial Piety goes: “Every part of your body is given by your parents, therefore, shall not be harmed by yourself in any means.” In the new film, which is more centered on family and the notion of serving one’s nation with honor, Mulan keeps her long hair. This makes for a stronger impact, not only for women empowerment but also in teaching the East Asian values of family and respect.
In the new film, which is more centered on family and the notion of serving one’s nation with honor, Mulan keeps her long hair. This makes for a stronger impact, not only for women empowerment but also in teaching the East Asian values of family and respect.
In today’s increasingly relativist world that leaves cultural values somewhat on the wayside, it is refreshing to see a film that reminds us to go back to our families, and stick to values that make us insanely human.
There are more hidden gems and interesting bits you can see in Mulan, but we’ll leave it to you to find out. Something Disney could’ve done to complete the cultural immersion was, perhaps, to have the film completely in Chinese. Apart from making it more authentic, it could’ve made better use of the actors, most of whom had Chinese heritage in one way or another, instead of having them sound like ABCs (American-born Chinese) or ABGs (Asian Bad Girl).
Mulan definitely has its moments but there is also room for improvement. We give it a 3.5 out 5.
Author’s note: From someone who has a close relationship and extreme love for the people of Hong Kong, I could say that cancelling the film is a sweet gesture from the rest of the world to support the protesters of the region. Not being able to see the new Mulan, however, serves as a missed opportunity to view a work of art, another perspective of Asian and Chinese culture, and a unique portrayal of the centuries-old ballad.