Mulan: A critical look at its portrayal of feminism and Chinese culture

The Mulan reboot has sparked several conversations in 2020. Although many people are happy to see an increase of Asian representation in film, others haven’t been as supportive of the Mulan reboot—given the several controversies surrounding it. Cold Tea Collective writer Angie Yu bit the bullet and rented the flick online to see if it managed to hold up to 2020 standards—specifically around topics of feminism and Chinese culture.

Conclusion? This Mulan may not be the feminist we need in 2020.

1998 vs 2020

Disney’s focus to pander to our nostalgia was clear and it’s perhaps the reason why the beginning is the most enjoyable portion of the remake. As an adult, I will have to admit I don’t enjoy the 1998 version as much as I did as a child. Why? Because at the end of the 1998 version, Mulan returns to her family and Shang follows suit to meet her family. She got the man. All is well. She retreats to the countryside to fulfill her womanly duties alongside the men of the household-her father and her husband. Though slightly more subtle in the 2020 version, Honghui becomes infatuated with her and offers his hand in marriage. Again, Mulan got the man. All is well.

Possibly missed by most who have never heard of the original Ballad of the Mulan is the pair of running hares. Mulan’s original story was told in a free verse poem. It ends with Mulan’s army buddies seeing her in ordinary clothes with makeup on. They were not angry at her gender reveal. In fact, they were amazed and simply shocked that they fought alongside a woman for twelve years. In response, she eloquently quotes them an analogy: How can one identify a male hare versus a female hare, while both hares run in a field? Their genders simply cannot be determined. 

When you see hares running in a field, it is not the goal of someone observing them figure out their gender. Eluding perhaps that it’s natural to have missed someone’s gender when you’re not seeking to determine their gender. This scene was added to the 2020 version at the beginning, and I was delighted by it. 

Read also: Op-Ed: We want more than just Asian-inherent roles

Feminism in film

We see Mulan make choices that render her life at the training camp more complicated than her fellow male soldiers. As a woman, she must get up earlier than everyone else. Modern life, not dissimilar, women arguably put more effort into preparing themselves for the day should they choose an appearance that appeals to the masses. A parallel to the reality of the lengths women go to fit themselves into a man’s world, physically, mentally, or emotionally.

We then see Mulan challenge an older female counterpart who has had a difficult path fighting for her right to power. We see the older female sacrifice her life to make way for a younger woman who has more success to “make it in a man’s world.” Screenplay by all-white writers aside, were the writers not at all embarrassed by this troublesome trope?

To be frank, my expectations going into a Disney film is not to see a story that challenges gender norms and modern feminism. What I saw, much to both my expectation, yet also my disappointment, was the reinforcement of a type of feminism that we need to abandon. Feminism is more than what is deemed acceptable to the male cohorts. As emphasized by Hua Zhou at the beginning of the film, only men can achieve chi in this confusing world.

Blessed with the gift of chi, Mulan is then automatically elevated to the same status as a man, thus making her the heroine. This is on the same level as the cool girl trope in many romantic comedies written, surprise, by male writers. A girl is cool if she is cool in the eyes of a man. A girl is equal if she is equal in the eyes of a man.

This movie over-relied on the same heroine traits that were relevant twenty years ago during the 90’s Girl Power Movement. Twenty years later, the film failed to deliver a grown-up version of Mulan, a woman that Gong Li’s character touted and died for. At the very least, the 1998 version pleased a huge western audience with its humour and little girls all around with its princess warrior.

See also: The Paper Tigers: How I Spent Six Years Making a Kung Fu Movie

Chinese Culture in Mulan

What I do see as one of the many explanations for the film’s failure is its position caught between two cultures. In being pulled in both directions, the 2020 version of Mulan is unable to please either side. 

Mulan pays homage to the 1998 westernized version of the story while adding elements from the original Chinese version. What we get is a half-assed story with cheesy dialogue, somewhat salvaged by great cinematography, but paired with incomplete characters arcs unredeemable by beautiful costumes. Oh, and don’t even get me started on the appearance of Fujian tulous in the same timeline as Rourans, in what is supposed to be northern China.

As someone who grew up watching remakes of Jin Yong’s Condor Trilogy and indulged heavily in the make-believe wuxia universe, Mulan’s ability to run up walls and do backflips off of a horse was of no surprise to me. It fits naturally in a movie with Jet Li and Donnie Yen. However, to many Canadian-born Chinese friends of mine, her magical powers ignited with an emotion akin to revulsion and confusion. Though I understand their frustration, as pointed out by a couple of friends who are familiar with wuxia-“yeah, but then, like, everyone should have chi, and it shouldn’t take a woman with special powers to save China.”

See also: Abominable: Animated film to set new Asian milestone

Final Thoughts

Like many who have expressed their honest opinions about the movie, the 2020 version feels surface level. It would be an enjoyable made-for-TV movie, but it is not the grandeur remake we all expected it to be. The Asian representation, much like the roles of Asians in the movie production, is only surface level. The desperation in trying to please both eastern and western audiences reduced the movie down to a confusing story riddled with inaccuracies.

Geopolitical controversies and lack of Asian representation behind the camera, this was subjectively not a good film. These controversies may have been avoided had the executives had formed a more diverse boardroom and a more knowledgeable writer’s room. Let’s hope that the white decision-makers at Disney learn their lesson and take responsibility for the laughable execution of what could have been a fantastic remake.

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