Well, they tried. Sort of.
It’s been a while since I posted anything on here. Especially considering all that’s happening in the world. But I had been waiting for this specific movie and it had finally come albeit not in the form many of us had expected.
To make it clear, the original Disney’s Mulan has never really been my favorite Disney animated movie. I like it, certainly. It was never at the top of the list, though. However, a few years ago I had developed a persistent curiosity toward the legend itself. Then, when the Disney live action reimagining was announced, it caught my attention. Mulan is one of a handful of properties that feels like a bit of a stretch for Disney. Something outside their usual comfort zone and the storytelling traditions they’re used to. So, how they handle it should be interesting to see.
The end result was . . . eh.
The story this time around is that Mulan is a girl born with extremely strong chi. This allows her to do some amazing things even at a young age. Her parents worry over it, though, as it’s believed that girls shouldn’t have strong chi because that’s considered being a witch (at least in the world of the movie, but I’ll get to that later).
Time passes, Mulan grows up, and Mulan is made to go to the matchmaker with disastrous results. Then the call goes out for young men to go to war. The enemy is Bori Khan’s Rouran army and his shapeshifting magical ally Xianniang. Mulan’s father is called to serve, but Mulan who is worried about his welfare steals his armor and sword and goes in his place. She then becomes a soldier under the guise of Hua Jun where she meets her commanding officer Commander Tung as well as her fellow soldiers Ling, Chien-Po and Yao (her three soldier comrades from the 1998 Disney movie), Cri-Kee (the cricket sidekick made over into an unlucky human character) and Chen Honghui (a savvy young soldier who is suggested to have figured out Mulan’s secret, as well as her love interest in the absolute vaguest sense of the world).
That’s the set-up and it plays out reasonably well. The movie was pitched to audiences as an action movie and some of the action scenes and set pieces are rather fun to watch. The cast is really talented and they give this movie their all. One thing that does strike me is that it sometimes feels like an oddly lonely movie compared to the animated version that preceded it. Throughout the animated version, Mulan had Mushu and to a lesser extent Cri-Kee to talk to as confidants. Mulan here has no one. She keeps her secret from everyone else. The closest she comes to talking with anyone is with Chen Honghui who she repeatedly pushes away. You’d think that if they were at least going to keep the cricket around as a human that he might at least get to play the role of confidant/sidekick but no. Heck, past versions from China just made it work by giving her a friend from back home that recognizes her and agrees to keep her secret or by just not emphasizing the conflict of her charade in favor of emphasizing her conflict with the enemy army. The only explanation I can come up with here is that Disney was playing it up to later play into this whole thing about “her dishonesty clouding her chi”.
Mulan’s relative isolation isn’t the biggest problem here. It’s the cultural stuff.
So, I’d like to make clear my feelings about the cultural aspects of the 1998 animated Mulan first. The 1998 Mulan approaches the Chinese cultural stuff in Mulan like an American (specifically white American) elementary schooler would. It’s all stuff about the Great Wall and why it was built, Chinese dragons, ancestor worship and lucky crickets. There’s even the expected misstep of doing a joke about Chinese-American takeout food. It’s not terrible taken that way and in a bubble. However, as a film that was supposed to show internationally, it’s a weak sauce attempt. Especially with things like making the dragon a silly, fire-breathing sidekick when Chinese dragons are almost uniformly wise, powerful water elementals and symbols of the emperor. I’m honestly just glad they weren’t working from an American high school level for Chinese cultural references, or else we might have ended up with a joke about foot-binding (shudder!). Now, in the live action version they’ve improved somewhat. They’ve embraced more from the actual ballad. They make Mulan more capable before enlisting like many versions of the legend do. They also reference part of the ballad about two rabbits running side by side, albeit out of any useful context. They also give Mulan the more common surname of Hua used in most versions of the story. They even move on from the “easy mode” Chinese history stuff by foregoing the Huns and the Great Wall in favor of the enemy being the Rouran Khaganate. But it kind of stops there and more problems show themselves. For example, within the first half hour they confuse the legend of the Chinese Phoenix or Fenghuang with the Greek Phoenix. There’s also just the way they handle the concept of chi. The movie is pretty much insistent that women who have exceptionally strong chi are shunned and discriminated again because they’re seen as witches. This is embodied in the character of Xianniang, who’s depicted as an exceptionally strong chi witch/warrior and meant as kind of cautionary figure for Mulan. The thing is, chi and witchcraft traditions in China don’t really work that way. Chi is supposed to be the life force that flows through everything. Everyone has chi and no one is discriminated against for having “more chi” than anyone else. Just the whole bit about stronger chi giving someone powers feels like they either confused it with The Force or took their interpretation from a Japanese or American cartoon from the ‘90s (it’s either Star Wars, Dragon Ball or the Double Dragon cartoon. Take your pick). And then there’s Xianniang as a “witch”. The ins and outs of the cultural view of the supernatural and magic in Chinese tradition can be tricky for outsiders to completely get. I’m not fully getting it myself. But from what I’m seeing, there isn’t really a Chinese tradition of “witchcraft” exactly. Especially as depicted in the movie. There’s Gu or Jincan which is depicted as being like spell-casting, but is actually more about administering poison. There is wu jiao which is a sort of Chinese shamanism. More religious practice than witchcraft. It’s far more likely that Xianniang would have been mistaken for or classified as a Huli jing, China’s version of the mythical fox spirit that exists in folklore throughout Asia.
At first I thought that maybe it was just a case of an American studio not being able to get out of its own way. But now I’m wondering if we were all a bit confused as to what the movie was supposed to be. We had heard since early on that Mushu and the various songs were being removed to appeal more to audiences in China. We assumed that this meant that the movie was going to be more serious and more culturally accurate. However, it may be more because of how hard it would be to translate verbal humor and songs that convey the plot into Mandarin. The question then becomes: what was this movie trying to be? The best I can assume is that it was just Disney trying to make wuxia film. On that front it’s fine, I guess. But compared to actual Chinese wuxia movies, there’s really not much to it. So, their desire for big box office numbers in China through this probably isn’t going to work.
It’s not like there’s a shortage of Mulan movies out there. We just need to indulge the world of online piracy to find some of them.
Yeah, I know I shouldn’t be condoning this sort of thing, but it’s a basic truth that finding foreign films and TV in the United States can be hard without a little bit of video buccaneering going on (just ask any American who got really into anime in the 1980s).
One option which can be attained legally in the United States is the movie Mulan: Rise of a Warrior from 2009. It’s available on DVD in multiple regions and can be rented digitally on Amazon Instant Video. Then there’s one of the earlier examples of Mulan on film, 1939’s Hua Mulan Joins the Army. That film is available on the Modern Chinese Cultural Studies YouTube page. This is a page that curated by the Deapartment of Asian Studies at the University of British Columbia. (Note: this isn’t the earliest version of Mulan in film. There are silent movies from 1927 and 1928 that I can’t find anywhere). Next in our timeline is Lady General Hua Mulan from 1964. This movie is from famed Hong Kong studio Shaw Brothers Studios, best known for their martial arts action films. I should probably mention that this is also a Huangmei opera film. Huangmei opera has a whole history that I can’t get into right now, but just think of the movie as a Chinese musical (in case anyone was still upset about there being no singing in their live action Mulan movie). This movie is also up on YouTube, albeit in parts. There’s a playlist that will allow you to watch the whole thing through, though. And finally, even this year’s Matchless Mulan (sometimes called Peerless Mulan) is also up on YouTube in its entirety with English subtitles. Now, these movies aren’t necessarily family-friendly, but war movies rarely are. If you live elsewhere in the world and can access these films in more copyright-law friendly ways, I would encourage you to do that. But if you can’t, then they are up on YouTube.