Exceptionally Awful, Shockingly Stupid, and Despicable: Mulan 2020
“Mulan” (2020) has it all: human rights abuses, cultural appropriation, and an insult to the very character of Hua Mulan.
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Disney’s live-action “Mulan” is a film that is as painful to watch as it is to review.
The short explanation: the film abuses human rights, regurgitates current nationalistic myths, grossly appropriates one of China’s most beloved characters, and fails both Eastern and Western viewers alike.
The most devastating part of “Mulan,” however, isn’t in the film itself—it’s in the credits. Disney specifically thanked eight government bodies in Xinjiang, an autonomous province in Northwest China where one of the world’s worst human rights abuses is happening: over two million Uighur Muslims have been forced into concentration camps by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Parts of “Mulan” were filmed in Xinjiang with complete awareness of the plans to “re-educate” Uighurs with CCP doctrines.
For several years, the CCP has been systemically repressing the Uighur Muslim minority, subjecting men, women, and children to torture, forced sterilization, brainwashing, and family separation, among countless other horrors. The overwhelming evidence of the CCP’s deliberate, systematic campaign to destroy the Uighur population needs no further explanation: this is a genocide.
Disney, in other words, filmed in regions where genocide is actively occurring and specifically thanked the institutions that are helping to carry it out.
If this wasn’t terrible enough, the film seems to internalize the present crisis into its own storyline. Put crudely, “Mulan” is an Americanized celebration of Chinese nationalism. The film’s enemy army is depicted wearing face and head coverings that are decidedly Muslim. A Chinese imperial army bravely fights and defeats the Rouran invaders (ancient nomads from Mongolia)—a triumphant display of border control at a time where the autonomous region of Inner Mongolia is protesting Chinese reforms surrounding “re-education.” In Hong Kong’s extradition protests, actress Liu Yifei (Mulan) openly voiced her support for police brutality. The ultimate irony of this statement is that the character of Mulan represents empowerment for the underdogs of society by challenging and uprooting the current status quo.
The production of “Mulan” has so much external narrative it seems almost fruitless to review the film on its own merits. What’s worse is that when you do, there isn’t much to look at.
The production staff of “Mulan” is primarily white, and it shows. The dialogue sounds like someone’s oriental fetish. Just imagine someone reasonably saying, “the fiercest winter storm cannot destroy this makeup.”
The film begins with an opening shot of a Tulou, a traditional Southern Hakka Chinese structure that translates to “Earthen Building,” whereas Mulan is an iconic Northern character. It also introduces a new character—a Europeanized witch who does not appear anywhere in Chinese culture.
The film only wants to appear Chinese with a surface level understanding of its culture. Mulan’s “Qi,” which in Chinese philosophy is a concept that describes the pervasive force linking all living entities together, is completely misrepresented and instead shown as some sort of individual superpower possessed only by herself and the two antagonists of the film.
In China, Mulan is regarded as a cultural icon. The original Ballad of Mulan is often taught to Chinese students from a young age. In Disney’s live-action adaptation, characters randomly reference lines from the ballad in throwaway fan-service moments that serve nothing more than attempted brownie points to Eastern viewers.
The movie’s one merit—when considered independently from its external narrative—is its cinematography. The rolling hills and vast landscapes help the movie appear “Chinese” enough to divert the audience’s attention from its blatant cultural appropriation. The sad thing is that, for many, it probably works.
Yet what “Mulan” wins from cinematography is completely lost in the editing of the film. For a major motion picture backed by a corporation like Disney, the editing is surprisingly second-rate. The editing and cinematography are the lens in which the viewer follows the narrative of a film and becomes immersed in what’s happening visually, and these two aspects should work hand-in-hand to be effective. “Mulan” doesn’t bother with establishing shots, and instead rapidly changes location and scenery, making it nearly impossible to follow along visually. The action sequences give the impression of a drunk, manic-fueled fantasy, zipping to shots without rhyme or reason.
The largest, almost criminal offense, however, is how the film fundamentally changes Mulan herself. To grasp its failure fully, we first have to understand how the 1998 animated version of “Mulan” succeeds. Disney’s original adaptation, though not without its own flaws, gives incredibly powerful messages that empower both women and men through Mulan’s journey.
The animated version is set in a non-specified era of ancient China where the greatest honor a woman can bring is to wed and bear children—a task that Mulan fails terribly at. During this time, the Huns attack China, and the emperor conscripts one son from each family to fight in the army. Having no sons, Mulan’s aging father must go to war.
Mulan’s father is entirely compliant with the conscription due to China’s strict social order. Men are meant to fight; women are meant to bear children. Mulan, however, realizes that with her father’s age, he will surely die on the battlefield. She attempts to dissuade him from joining, but he counters: “I know my place! It is time you learned yours.”
Afterward, Mulan reflects on her place in society as a woman and subsequently, that of a man. Emboldened, Mulan decides to take her father’s place and join the army. She starts off as a complete amateur just like the rest of the soldiers, but we see the story progress as they train and grow together. Eventually, Mulan is able to harness strength and power, traits traditionally valued in men, and effectively learns to be “masculine.”
Yet what’s most interesting is the second way the 1998 film empowers women and men—it’s the way in which Mulan embraces her femininity. At first, this sounds strange, since Mulan is a tomboy, a failed bride, or in other words, not “feminine.” And Mulan isn’t the best at being “masculine,” either.
This is because these are the two extremes of gender expression. In a sense, Mulan’s journey is to embrace her own gender expression. Mulan succeeds at traditionally masculine tasks by refusing to engage in hyper-masculinity. She rejects the value of brute strength and instead finds clever and effective solutions to problems. For example, in the famous rooftop scene where Mulan faces off with the movie’s antagonist, Shan Yu—a seemingly inescapable situation—she uses her fan to wield his sword back at him, pinning him to the roof. Afterward, Mushu, her dragon companion, uses fireworks to ultimately defeat Shan Yu and rescue the imperiled emperor. Her friends (Yao, Ling, and Chien-Po) learn from her too, as they start off as hyper-masculine, angry men but grow to be men willing to dress up as women to save the emperor.
We see that there are strengths to both “masculine” and “feminine” sides and that an individual is best when they learn to embrace their own unique gender identity.
At the climax of the film, Mulan saves the emperor. The importance of this moment is that Mulan saves the emperor simply because she sees another human being in need. She doesn’t do it to serve Chinese society or for honor or loyalty, but out of human decency and respect. This message is extended when the emperor offers Mulan a seat at his council, but Mulan declines, rejecting the value in upholding the patriarchal system and instead returns home.
What happens next is even more poignant. After returning home, Mulan presents her father with a sword and a medal, which are symbolic of the emperor—and all of China’s—honor to the family. The father instead tosses everything aside and embraces Mulan and says: “The greatest gift and honor is having you as a daughter,” breaking the final patriarchal relationship.
In the live-action adaptation, however, Mulan is a prodigy. She’s a natural-born fighter, the “chosen one,” gifted with the magical abilities of “qi,” a concept that is utterly butchered in the live-action adaptation. Now instead of having Mulan fight alongside men and prove that women are equally as competent as men, the message is that only the few women who are “chosen” are capable.
And for those who aren’t as gifted? Look no further than Mulan’s sister. At the end of the movie, she announces her engagement, or in other words, fulfilling her role as a child-bearer in society.
Imagine a young girl who watches “Mulan.” She goes to school and sees other girls, who she views as more capable and talented than herself. Instead of the message that with enough perseverance, she is just as capable as the other girls, this film tells her that she is the sister, and the other girls are Mulan. This film tells her that not everyone can be special.
In the animated version, Mulan is a problem-solver, a trait that allows her to outsmart the enemy. The general Li Shang acts as Mulan’s foil by showing that only a select few can make it to the top by mastering traditionally valued ways of fighting, which highlights the importance of Mulan’s alternative thinking and avant-garde approach to war.
In the live-action adaptation, Mulan handles problems with sheer strength and willpower. She beats her opponents by being “manlier” than them. This is emphasized further when she kills the main antagonist with his own weapon.
On the surface, this looks progressive; delving further in, this depiction just buys into the idea of hyper-masculinity and that a woman is good only if she can “man up.” In the live-action adaptation, Mulan’s experience as a woman is not an advantage—it’s a disability. Instead of showing the value in alternative thinking or embracing one’s gender identity, live-action Mulan accepts that in a patriarchy, she must follow it.
The final difference between the two films is the most infuriating. In the live-action adaptation, Mulan is submissive to the emperor, the kingdom, and ancient China’s patriarchal society. When she saves him, she responds with: “I know my place. And it is my duty to fight for the kingdom and protect the emperor.”
Live-action Mulan doesn’t challenge the status quo. She is the status quo.
The ending of the live-action adaptation hammers this message further in. Mulan returns home to her father, but their reunion is short and bland. Shortly after, the emperor sends in his men to present Mulan with a sword. She is invited to join the emperor’s guard, in contrast to the animated version where she was invited to the council. The film ends before Mulan gives an answer, but from her smile, we can guess that she chose to join.
The message of Mulan expressing herself and overcoming seemingly unreachable odds is never shown. She’s born with her abilities and expresses them in a way that not only delivers outdated messages of Chinese virtue, but also upholds the very principles of the society that oppress her.
Disney’s live-action “Mulan” doesn’t attempt to understand or dissect Chinese culture. They filmed and thanked government organizations in Xinjiang, where the genocide of Uighur Muslims is occurring. They internalized Chinese nationalistic messages into the film, and despite the movie’s multimillion-dollar budget, Disney failed to deliver a passable visual experience. They insulted the very meaning of what Mulan means to every Chinese person, every Chinese-American, and to anyone who respects and understands the character of Mulan.
“Mulan” is the definition of a film that is exceptionally awful, shockingly stupid, and despicable.
Fortunately, Disney’s live-action movie is only one adaptation of Mulan’s legendary story. There are numerous books, TV shows, films, and other interpretations of the original ballad that are well worth your time.
The true power of Mulan’s story is that it is universal. The real Mulan doesn’t need superpowers or the help of the “chosen one” trope. The real Mulan is an ordinary person who rises above insurmountable odds to save her father. She could be me—she could be you.
She is us.