Okay, folks. Another trailer has dropped for the live action reimagining of Disney’s Mulan. Now, there are a lot of trailer reaction videos out there and probably some trailer reaction blog posts too. But I thought maybe I’d do a trailer breakdown video with an eye towards folklore, culture and the original source material. Sort of pointing out the things that I notice. But first, the trailer itself:
1) The importance of the Phoenix. So, what they’re calling a phoenix here isn’t really a phoenix, nor is it a cosmically powered mutant (sorry, X-Men fans). The bird they’re talking about here is a mythical creature called a Fenghuang. The Fenghuang (called Ho-oh in Japanese. Pokemon fans may recognize that name) was originally two different birds with the males being called Feng and the females being called huang. Since then, they’ve been combined into one singular feminine entity, which has come to be representative of the Empress of China. It is often paired with the Long (Chinese dragon) which represents the Emperor of China. The Fenghuang today is described as having the head of a golden pheasant, body of a mandarin duck, tail of a peacock, legs of a crane, mouth of a parrot and wings of a swallow. The fenghuang’s body is said to represent the celestial bodies and that its body also contains the five fundamental colors: black, white, red, yellow and green. The Fenghuang is often associated with political prosperity and harmony and seeing one is said to be a sign that a new emperor has ascended the throne. There are some suggestions that the Fenghaung in this movie is a new take on the dragon Mushu from the animated film.
2) We see Mulan weaving. You might think this isn’t that important, but it is if we’re going back to the ballad. The earliest recorded version starts with Mulan sitting at her weaving. One source gives the translation of the first two lines as: “The sound of one sigh after another/As Mulan weaves at the doorway”.
3) We are introduced to our villains. They are referred to in the trailer as “Northern invaders”. So, for this iteration of Mulan, we have a threat from outside of China rather than an insurrection from within. Neither seems to be uncommon in past iterations of Mulan. We also have a new name: Bori Khan, taking the role Shen Yu had in the animated film. Not sure why the name is changed. There might be a reason.
4) Next we are introduced to a new villainess in the form of a witch. Compared to the animated film, this version is not dispensing of fantastical elements as some thought they would, but using them differently. In the animated film, all the supernatural elements seemed to be allied on Mulan’s side even if they were somewhat inept (like Mushu) or trying to make her give up her plan (like the ancestor spirits). Here, the first major magical character is actually an antagonist. The Fenghuang referenced earlier might be on Mulan’s side and it may play a more neutral role. We don’t know yet. In regards to the witch herself, it’s not so unusual. China, like many countries, has its own superstitions and folklore about witchcraft. I am having a little trouble finding any definitive sources, but there is some interesting stuff to be found online regarding a form of black magic known as gu. Also, neither this movie nor its animated predecessor are the first retellings of the legend to add supernatural elements, though they’re hardly necessary for the main part of the story.
5) “I am blessed with two daughters”. Aww. Sweetness of that aside, this is something different from the animated film. Mulan is an only child in that. From what I’ve read, it is not all that unusual for Mulan to have a sister. Heck, in a lot of versions she actually does have a brother. However, he can’t take their fathers place because he’s always way too young to go join the military. This does remind me of Disney Animation’s tendency of whittling families down to the barest necessary. Belle’s nasty sisters disappear from Beauty and the Beast once Gaston becomes the new villain. Cinderella’s father is killed off rather than being present but useless like in many of the fairy tales. The one exception I can think of is Ariel from The Little Mermaid and her many, many sisters.
6) “Hua Jun, son of Hua Zhou”. Here we hear that they’re going with the more standard surname used in China for Mulan. In the animated film, her surname was Fa rather than Hua. We also hear that her male alter ego will be named Jun rather than Ping.
7) Not really a folklore/cultural thing, but we hear a little dialogue and see Mulan speaking to the new witch character. This suggests that the villainess will learn Mulan’s secret and try to tempt her to the other side. It’s an interesting addition to the story if that’s the case.
This movie is set to come out in March after having been delayed for a while. However, now it is fraught (yes, fraught!) with controversy. There was controversy enough with the Disney fans being angry about the changes made from the animated film, presumably to make the movie more culturally accurate. The real controversy started when the movie’s star Liu Yifei took to social media to express support for the Hong Kong police who’ve come under fire for dealing violently with protesters. Now there’s talk of boycotts for this movie (if you need more information about what’s happening in Hong Kong, this article might help).
For all the trouble, I’m probably still going to buy a ticket. Why? Because through it all, my goal and desire remains the development of a more cosmopolitan canon of fairy tales and legends here in the United States. Disney taking a mulligan on Mulan and trying to create a more culturally appropriate product (one that doesn’t turn the majestic Chinese dragon into a jokey sidekick or have a gag about Chinese-American takeout food) may not be much, but it’s a start. I don’t know. It just always strikes me about how unfair and unbalanced cultural exchange is in our world. Like, why does Japanese popular culture show that they know all the major Western fairy tales, but Westerners very rarely know any Japanese ones? Why are there Disneylands in Tokyo, Hong Kong and Shanghai while no Asian media company has nearly that huge a presence over here (the closest would be, what, Nintendo?)? Heck, China has codified its “Four Great Folk Tales” and Westerners wouldn’t know what they were unless they study this stuff (for the record, they are “The Butterfly Lovers”, “The Tale of the White Snake”, “Lady Meng Jiang” and “The Cowherd and the Weaving Girl”). And this doesn’t even cover what impact our cultural colonization has had on Latin America and Africa.
I do have to say, I did at least swing by the Amnesty International website to see what other ways I could help.
[SIGH] Until next time.