If you were patiently waiting for Disney’s live-action “Mulan” to bring your animated favorite to life, you might have to wait a little bit longer. This is not a retelling of the 1998 classic, but rather a new interpretation of the “Ballad of Mulan,” a Chinese legend, with some aspects of the animated film thrown in for good measure.
If you were patiently waiting for Disney’s live-action “Mulan” to bring your animated favorite to life, you might have to wait a little bit longer.
The result is a fun but ultimately hollow action movie that lacks the humanity that made the original “Mulan” film so special. This new Mulan, played by Chinese actor Yifei Liu, isn’t just a regular girl who takes her father’s place in the Imperial Army and triumphs despite her fear and physical limitations. No, in this version, she’s special.
“Mulan” takes a character whose courage and honor in the face of adversity made her a hero and gives her superpowers. No longer a regular girl, Mulan now has an abundance of “qi” (aka “chi”), which, for the purposes of the film, means she has some kind of superhuman balance and strength that only men are supposed to have.
In the world of “Mulan,” a man with qi is a true warrior, but a woman with qi is a witch — as embodied by Li Gong’s Xianniang, whose abundance of qi gives her the power to shape-shift into birds and fight with superhuman precision and skill. Xianniang is introduced as a sort of cautionary tale about what happens when a woman refuses to hide her qi and is cast out by society.
It’s obvious in the film that qi is a gendered metaphor for physical skill and strength, bravery, the ability to fight for oneself — qualities that are, in the film, encouraged in men but are meant to be hidden in women. But in elevating these qualities to superpowers, the film ends up undermining its message.
Women don’t need to have superpowers to feel marginalized. Mulan, as American fans know her, isn’t shunned because she has this mystical qi; she doesn’t fit within society’s expectations of what a young woman should be. She’s ordinary, and that is what makes her pain relatable and, later, her actions heroic.
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Perhaps what’s most strange about the new “Mulan” is that every decision made to differentiate it from the animated version, like the addition of qi, lowers the stakes. In the live-action film, Mulan has a younger sister who is excited to bring honor to her family through marriage, meaning that, unlike in the animated film, Mulan is not her family’s only hope for survival. The villain Bori Khan, played wonderfully by Jason Scott Lee, is menacing, yes, but, unlike in the animated film, he doesn’t target a village full of innocent children on his way to kill the emperor. Mulan doesn’t have her ancestors or Mushu looking out for her — no dragon sidekick here — but who needs a wisecracking fire-starter when you have literal superpowers on your side?
But not all the changes in “Mulan” are bad. Splitting Li Shang into two characters — a fellow conscript and love interest, Honghui, and a mentor, Commander Tung — allows Mulan and Honghui to have a more equal relationship. It also gives actor Yoson An, arguably the most charming actor in the film, a chance to shine as the heartthrob, and Donnie Yen, who plays the commander, gets the opportunity to show off his jaw-dropping sword skills. Similarly, expanding the role of Mulan’s father lets actor Tzi Ma flex his status as the best Chinese-girl dad on screen. And Liu, with her quiet presence and impressive fighting skills, makes an excellent Mulan.
It’s a fine Disney action movie, featuring all the gorgeous scenery and costume detailing one would expect from such a blockbuster. It also deserves credit for not relying too heavily on the animated film, a trap both Disney’s “live-action” “The Lion King” and “Aladdin” fell right into. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable movie that pushes themes of identity and girl power — all good things.
As for what “Mulan” might mean for Asian representation in Hollywood, it’s hard to say. COVID-19 has forced the film to be released exclusively on Disney+ in the U.S., which will no doubt hurt its worldwide gross. (And as any minority knows, Hollywood only listens when money talks, and the lack of a big theatrical success could keep Disney from investing in projects with Asian or Asian American leads.)
What’s important to note when discussing “Mulan” is the difference between Asian (in this case, Chinese) representation and Asian American representation.
Beyond the box office, what’s important to note when discussing “Mulan” is the difference between Asian (in this case, Chinese) representation and Asian American representation. By choosing to focus on a retelling of the original ballad and featuring a majority-Chinese cast (as in, not Asian American), Disney seems to have prioritized making “Mulan” accessible to Chinese audiences.
This is also evident in the characterization of Mulan, who in the live-action version has a much greater sense of duty to her family and her father. In the animated film, Mulan went to war in part because she didn’t feel comfortable in the role she was meant to play at home — it’s a feminist story. In this new movie, Mulan goes to war almost solely to protect her father, which reflects the original theme of the ballad. That, in addition to the concept of qi, makes Disney’s live-action “Mulan” more of a story about honor than female empowerment.
By pivoting more toward Chinese audiences, Disney made a gamble with lucrative high stakes, but one that counts on an entire generation of millennial Asian Americans to show up for a story that isn’t really theirs. It’s hard to say what Disney could have done differently in this regard. (Major movies in the current market need to be successful in China to be successful at all.)
At the same time, “Mulan” was helmed by New Zealand’s Niki Caro and followed a script written by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Elizabeth Martin and Lauren Hynek. Watching the film try to straddle Chinese and Asian American audiences, all this Asian American girl could think about was what it would have looked like if Asians — both from China and across the globe — had actually been the ones telling the story.