New film, new issues (DeDisnification, Part 2 Addendum B)
Against my better judgement I watched the live-action remake of Mulan. There are of course several political issues with the film, which have been well discussed elsewhere; I would encourage readers to be aware of them, but don’t feel they need to be rehashed here, especially since I’ve been on that sort of soapbox too much recently, and I’d like to get back to my usual media-culture-history bailiwick.
As my earlier article suggested, the new film did lose the anthropomorphic animals, but also the singing and has instead become a Wuxia (武俠) flick. I’m down with the genre in general, but using it in this context is pretty strange, especially as it typically favors style over substance even more than a Disney film. Additionally, there are very few Hollywood success stories in the genre, which doesn’t mean no one should try, but it should at the very least be a caution sign.
And this film crashes: although Mulan is replete with martial skills, the essential story remains unchanged. Her accomplishments are no more spectacular; she merely does them with greater flair. Furthermore, the emperor Mulan is trying to save is played by Jet Li (李连杰), who naturally displays his own fighting prowess and so seems in little need of saving. Nonetheless, they somehow contrive to make a rescue necessary.
This also means there’s no character arc: Mulan as a young girl is already running across rooftops like Spiderman, so where can she go from there? Only some vague idea that females have to hide their chi (氣) holds her back, but the struggle to set this aside feels as abstract as the “rule” itself. Again, it’s great that they didn’t present someone as inept as Mulan was at the beginning of the original film, but the result is this flatness. All that happens is she decides to stop hiding her chi and be the badass she is—not much of a change.
Mushu (Eddie Murphy) has been replaced with a phoenix, which makes some kind of sense as the Chinese fenghuang (鳳凰) is often used as a feminine counterpart to the masculine dragon. However, they clearly have in mind the Western mythical creature, having only superficial resemblance to the Eastern king of birds. The legend related in the film of the creature rising from it’s own ashes has nothing whatsoever to do with the lore of the fenghuang. In the end, this new “character” does nothing—it doesn’t speak; it only turns up when Mulan needs help, though it provides none and she has to rely on herself instead.
By contrast, the witch Xianniang (線娘, played by Gong Li; 巩俐) is pretty cool and intriguing new character. She reminds me distinctly of Baigujing (白骨精, White Bone Demon) from Journey to the West (西遊記, Xī Yóu Jì), who I imagine the creators may have had in mind. Indeed, it’s probably no coincidence that Baigujing was also played by Gong Li in 2016’s The Monkey King 2 (《西遊記之孫悟空三打白骨精》). This demon is able to transform herself and uses the ability to deceive all but the wily Sun Wukong (孫悟空) who eventually defeats her. Xiannang too can change shape at will, including assuming the forms of other people as well as a falcon, and indeed, she seems to be a replacement for Shan Yu’s trained falcon.
It’s interesting that ultimately, as her name implies, Baigujing is a skeleton spirit, since depictions of bones are anathema in games in the PRC, where I’ve had to change art many times in order to meet these standards. Certainly 500-odd years have passed since Journey to the West was first penned, but it’s still quite an odd shift in cultural norms. I wondered while watching Mulan whether the bony details of Xianniang’s headdress and belt would make it past the censors.
The name of this new character seems to be a reference to Dou Xianniang (竇線娘), a female Chinese general who defeats and captures, Hua in an early Qing Dynasty (大清, 1636–1912) fanfic of the tale by Chu Renhuo (褚人獲).¹ Even though she is a barbarian, Hua wins the enemy commander’s respect through her display of Confucian virtues, and they become blood sisters. Indeed, this background might be what informs Mulan’s Xianniang abruptly choosing to take an arrow for the protagonist, which makes no sense to the actual film. In fact, the witch is the most powerful character in the film, making one wonder why she serves Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee), the new film’s replacement for Shan Yu.
On the plus side, the film is beautiful. The scenery is breathtaking, with filming mainly taking place in New Zealand rather than the PRC. The island nation was easily the biggest star of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit film trilogies as well. In fact one of the locations tipped me off to the fact we weren’t in China before the credits rolled: Mulan rides past a rock outcropping that I distinctly remembered being overrun by warg riders.
In the end, the film does nothing to address the likely non-Chinese identity of the “real” Hua Mulan (花木蘭). Hua’s Chineseness is widely acknowledged to be incorrect, as I’ve previously mentioned. One of the surnames under which she is known, Wei (魏), is drawn from the name of an Empire to the north whose people the Chinese referred to as suolu (索虜, “Plaited Barbarians”) because of the requisite male hairstyle of long, braided hair coiled atop their heads. Even Chu’s version clearly states Hua’s half-Han (漢人) race and status, describing her as a jienu (羯奴; “barbarian slave”) after her capture.² As professor of Chinese literature Wilt Idema notes:³
[O]nly in the final years of the Qing is Mulan turned into a Han dynasty Chinese maiden patriotically fighting the northern Xiongnu.
The historicity of the setting is improved where the original film was a hodgepodge of elements from throughout Chinese history, but the time period they depict is that of the Tang dynasty (唐; 618–690, 705–907). This is not correct to the known-but-lost original 5th century Ballad of Mulan. Chu’s version contains authentic details the film omits entirely: the Xianbei (鮮卑) with which she would have been associated underwent a program of Sinicization, intermarrying with their southern neighbors. This meant that mixed ancestry became common, though mainly among the nation’s elites so not squaring with the film’s low-status Mulan. These programs of cultural borrowing also included Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism (道教, 漢傳佛教, and 儒家 respectively), so aspects, particularly of the morals of the last, which are portrayed in both films may well have eventually penetrated even to remote villages.
Overall, it seems that the production team took some pains to educate themselves in the lore of this woman warrior, as there are clear references to not just one, but a variety of versions in the film, which even quotes knowingly from the 6th century version’s closing passage about the hares as I did in my original article. But being informed didn’t stop them from making bad decisions as to their protagonist’s ethnic origin, the historical time period portrayed, and their retention of much of the original film’s structure.
One reason for this is that although the production staff did contain several women—most notably the director and most of the writing staff—there was a distinct lack of East Asians of any kind. Another factor was the hard courting of the Chinese audience, which, while it’s something many studios have been doing of late, often yields not-so-great results because of how forced it is. Presenting a non-Han Mulan would hardly have endeared a film to those viewers, but even this nationalistically Chinese one failed to find favor. Despite an all-Asian cast, audiences in the PRC found the performances wooden and the themes and trappings stereotypical.⁴ Ironically, it ends up falling short in many of the same ways as the original, but viewers missed the humor and music of the first one.
Furthermore, very much in keeping with Disney’s risk aversion, the story of Hua Mulan has already been told repeatedly, with no fewer than 17 large- and small-screen versions having been produced in China since 1920. Although I might not be able to find my Xianbei Hua among them, I can only imagine there would be some that improve dramatically on this flashy but flat one.
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- Chu Renhuo, Romance of the Sui and the Tang (隋唐演義, Sui Tang yanyi), c. 1675.
- Wilt Idema, “Blasé Literati: Lu T’ien-Ch’eng and the Lifestyle of the Chiang-nan Elite in the Final Decades of the Wan-Li Period”, Erotic Color Prints of the Ming Period with an Essay on Chinese Sex Life from the Han to the Ch’ing Dynasty, 2004.
- Rebecca Davis, “China Hates Disney’s ‘Mulan,’ but It Has Nothing to Do With Politics”, Variety, 2020.