Alyssa Leong ’23
Like many other Chinese-Americans, my anticipation for Disney’s live action “Mulan” kept fluctuating from anxiety and excitement, right up until its release date. Despite my initial mixed emotions, I can confidently say that “Mulan” is a blatantly soulless cash grab. This was something that I had known well before my viewing, but was only made worse through its attempted pandering to Chinese nationalism and lazy “representation” of Chinese culture.
It’s impossible to talk about this movie without mentioning the political controversies surrounding it. Lead actress Liu Yifei has been vocal in her support of the Hong Kong police in their use of brutality against protestors. Her actions inspired the #BoycottMulan hashtag months before the movie’s release.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the movie was partially filmed in the Xinjiang region of China, where the government’s so-called “reeducation camps” for Uighur Muslims is nothing short of a cultural genocide.
Even putting these (considerable) political issues aside, many were angry that the movie wouldn’t include the beloved characters of Mushu and Li Shang, nor the iconic soundtrack. Disney’s reasoning for this was “cultural accuracy,” something that I was initially excited about.
While the original is an important movie to me and my other Asian American friends, from my perspective, there’s a sense of awareness among us that it could’ve portrayed Chinese culture better. Seeing a live-action Mulan adaptation with cultural and historical accuracy made by such an influential company was something that I knew would be important to many, myself included.
Keeping all of these things in mind, I tried to keep an open mind when I finally sat down to watch it on a website that was definitely Disney+ that I definitely paid thirty dollars for. But by the time the credits rolled, with my knowledge of the backlash in tandem with the quality of the actual movie, it was clear to me that Disney wanted to be “culturally appropriate” without doing any of the actual work.
First of all, it’s important to note that Disney’s claim to “authenticity” is one that is rooted in appealing to Chinese markets (and thus less, in my opinion, in accurately representing a culture). Not only is China set to become the world’s top source of movie theater revenue, but China is a co-owner of the Shanghai Disney Resort. Additionally, Disney’s Hong Kong park has lost over $13 million due to closures, as a result of the city’s anti-government protests and coronavirus.
As a result, Han hegemony and Chinese nationalism are heavily reflected in Mulan, specifically in its treatment of Muslims. The Muslim-coding of the villains mirrors the historical Han dynasty’s colonization of Chinese Muslims. Similarly, Disney’s defense of filming in Xinjiang for the sake of “authenticity” reflects recent China nationalist ideas of cultural assimilation, especially within ethnic minority groups.
Ironically enough, Disney’s attempts to cater to Chinese markets made it more unsuccessful, earning only $23 million in theaters (compared to the $29.6 million earned by Tenet, which released in theaters around the same time). By trying to make Mulan more culturally accurate and leaning away from the more goofy aspects of the cartoon version, the historical missteps were made all the more clear to Chinese audiences.
Much of this is likely due to the fact that while the entire cast of Mulan is Asian, there were few Asian voices actually behind the camera. The director, costume designer, makeup designer, and cinematographer were all white. While I’m sure they’ve done copious research for their respective jobs, the fact that it had to be conducted from visiting museums that colonized the very culture they were trying to depict already showcases white bias.
This follows a common pattern behind Disney’s live action remakes. The live action “Lion King” similarly lacked Black voices behind the camera, as it was both written and directed by white creators. Additionally, the live action “Aladdin” remake was fraught with accusations of initial plans to whitewash the cast, as well as making extras’ skin darker.
The lack of Asian voices is not only a disservice to the so-called accuracy of “Mulan,” but is also a contribution to Hollywood’s diversity issues. Despite the recent successes of more diverse movies, Hollywood is still very much a white-dominated industry. For instance, according to a report by UCLA, 80.7% of the directors for the top movies of 2018 were white, with only 4.3% being Asian.
As one of the largest media companies in the world, Disney clearly has the power to hire people of color behind the camera. By repeatedly not doing this, they tell the industry that people of color don’t have the right to tell their own stories.
Even if it didn’t have these issues, the live-action “Mulan” is just not a good movie. Although the characters are ones I knew from the original, I couldn’t seem to care about them in the reboot. The editing is choppy and the CGI seems discordant, which is ironic considering that it’s the most expensive Disney live action remake (and one of the most expensive live action movies ever).
While the songs aren’t in the actual movie, the score harkens back to them in the moments that parallel the scenes they were used for in the original. Rather than creating any emotional impact, these moments remind the audience that this “Mulan” isn’t the original.
Much like the movie itself, it relies on the familiar music to create emotional moments rather than creating its own, solidifying it as an empty and forgetful live-action Disney remake. On the whole, it just lacks the charm and soul of the animated version.
Admittedly, I haven’t seen the other live-action Disney remakes, but to me “Mulan” is a sign of the emptiness behind all of them. Sure, this movie is soulless in comparison and clearly just a cash grab, much like the other recent remakes. But “Mulan” is also empty in its hollow promises to POC–in Disney’s refusal to let them control a story that is historically theirs but also in their refusal to make room for them to make new stories of their own.
In a Hollywood Reporter interview, “Mulan” director Niki Caro said that “Although it’s a critically important Chinese story and it’s set in Chinese culture and history, there is another culture at play here, which is the culture of Disney.” And if that doesn’t sum all of this up, then I don’t know what does.
Image Source: IndieWire