Mulan: A fierce feminist icon or Disney's amends to China?
Disney just dropped a teaser trailer for the new live action film, Mulan. This remake of the 1998 smash hit has already garnered a lot of debate online.
I was six years old when Mulan, the animated musical action film from Walt Disney Studios first released. I was 13 when I saw it for the first time. Ever since then, it’s been my favourite Disney movie of all time. Somehow, Mulan, in all her awkward self-doubt, resonated with me more than Cinderella, Princess Aurora, or even Simba ever could. Her clumsiness, her earnestness, and her ability to fit in better with the boys, than in a crowd of girls, all showed me a Disney character I could finally identify with. When Disney announced that in 2020, we would see a new remake of Mulan’s story, I was overjoyed. I couldn’t wait to see how the story aged with me, if I would still identify with the self-conscious teenager trying so hard to please her parents.
I just saw the trailer, and I have to say, on first glance, it’s brilliant, but also very different from the Disney movie in my memories. It features a strong, martial woman, with incredible dexterity and coordination, fighting for her country with a deadpan face and looks that could kill. The shots are all highly realistic, exhibiting a marked shift from the animated musical style of the 1998 release. Additionally, it was previously announced that this film would not be a musical - and so the songs that formed the background score of my childhood wouldn’t be a part of this new retelling.
Adding to this is the description of the movie in the trailer - “When the Emperor of China issues a decree that one man per family must serve in the Imperial Army to defend the country from Northern invaders, Hua Mulan, the eldest daughter of an honored warrior, steps in to take the place of her ailing father. Masquerading as a man, Hua Jun, she is tested every step of the way and must harness her inner-strength and embrace her true potential. It is an epic journey that will transform her into an honored warrior and earn her the respect of a grateful nation…and a proud father.”
This suggests that the movie will be more faithful to the original Ballad of Mulan, representing a warrior in Imperial China. The Ballad tells the story of Hua Mulan, a fierce Chinese soldier who fought the threat of Rouran invasion. In the original story, she takes her father’s place in the army because he is old, and her brother is only a child. She was able to do this because she was already trained in archery, fencing and martial arts; and she went on to put these skills to use in the army for a 12 year period. The entire time, she hid her identity as a woman, convincing those around her that she was a man.
Apart from the conversations on identity and gender roles surrounding The Ballad of Mulan, the story also reinforces the idea of nationalism and obedience to one’s ancestors. This latter idea was beautifully and abstractly captured in the 1998 animated film, with the voices of Mulan’s ancestors playing a role in her decision, and sending her a protector in the form of the much-adored miniature dragon, Mushu.
Wise cracking, sarcastic Mushu, voiced by Eddie Murphy was such a highlight of the animated movie, that any mention of Mulan immediate brings to mind his acerbic sense of humour. It was Mushu who helped Mulan along her path to fighting for the Emperor of China, who was by her side while she was protecting her country by putting her own life at peril. In a hyper realistic feature film, however, this political dedication, in the absence of comedic relief, takes on nationalistic undertones.
This is particularly significant considering the national agenda being pushed by the Chinese government right now. There’s also been a trend of the government targeting historical dramas that exhibit any extravagance or are perceived as having a “negative influence on society”.
In this context, Disney’s motivations behind presenting Mulan in this iteration need to be reconsidered. The 1998 movie bombed at the Chinese box office, as it came out at the same time Disney funded a movie about the Dalai Lama. The Chinese government had effectively banned movies made by Disney; and this pandering to China’s self imposed identity of nationalism and patriotism - anything for the Empire! Anything for the People’s Republic! - is problematic in mainstream media.
Coming to the feminist undertones of the movie, I have to say, I was struck by the beautiful juxtaposition of the narration and visuals.
The voice over was describing the ideal wife - quiet, composed, graceful, and disciplined - while the visuals showed a montage of Mulan as the ideal warrior. My heart soared, to say the least. Finally, we have an intersectional feminist movie from Disney.
The trailer is just a 90 second glimpse into what is sure to be a richly immersive world that gives the latest generation of Disney fans a much needed nuanced representation of culture, gender, and nationality on the big screen. That being said, it also comes with problematic aspects that need to be addressed.
Whatever the movie ends up being, I will always have the memory of a childhood bolstered by the courage lent to me by my favorite warrior woman.