A still from 'Mulan' (Walt Disney Pictures/File)
Since its worldwide release on Disney+, Mulan has been receiving mixed reviews. While it scored a high 75 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, the film directed by Niki Caro has triggered quite a debate, especially given the theme it tries to uphold and its cultural context.
To better understand what the live-action tries to convey, we needed to start with the basic elements the story does differently this time. This piece will cover the plot and the character iteration the screenwriters made based on its source material: the 1998 animated feature that is in turn based on the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan.
Just like any other of Disney’s live-action films, their main objective in retelling these stories is to attract both older audiences who watched the animation and new, younger viewers who are not familiar with the film. In doing so, iterations toward the characters, the plots and the treatments are essential to attract both of the target audiences. In the live-action of Beauty and The Beast (2017), the character of Belle becomes the inventor and the Beast can read, in contrast to the animated version. Aladdin (2019) gives Jasmine more depth and creates a character arc by making her a princess aspiring to be the sultan rather than just a rebellious girl who wants to run away from the palace.
The most contrasting treatment every live action has is probably the absence of comical humor in the characters. Understandable because the comical expression is more suitable in cartoons, and when real people portray comical expressions, they tend to be less realistic. In the dancing scene of the 2017 Beauty and the Beast, Belle and the Beast show intimacy by looking deeply at each other’s eyes. In the live-action of Aladdin, during the “A Whole New World” musical sequence, as opposed to traveling the whole world by using the magic carpet, Aladdin and Jasmine fly around Agrabah, because practically it’s not realistic to travel around the world in one night on a magic carpet.
The aforementioned examples also justify what kind of films Caro wants to direct. Clearly, a talking dragon, like Mushu, and musical sequences will make the film lack realness. Many found the 2020 version less enjoyable than the animated version, which is understandable, because an adaptation is often compared to its source material.
So, what does the 2020 version have that doesn’t occur in the animated version? And how would they provide realness?
The live-action film portrays strong women and the sexual exploration that subtly talks to the mainstream audience -- and this provides more realness than the 1998 version. Just like its live action predecessors, Mulan iterates the characters and its plot. Among many characters, aside from Mulan herself, the most impactful changes are made to Xianniang the Witch (Gong Li), who possesses the shapeshifting abilities and works alongside the main antagonist, Bori Khan. The other one is Honghui (Yoson An), Mulan's compatriot, who’s also her love interest.
Unlike the animated version, Mulan is portrayed as a strong woman whose chi (mysterious energy described as a secret power warriors possess) is powerful. The animation version described Mulan as a smart soldier. She often wins her battle by her mind, not her muscle. Since its first scene of the 2020 version, Mulan already possesses strong chi. Her character’s journey is accepting the fact that she has the potential and accepts herself as she is.
The legendary Gong Li’s character serves as the antithesis of Mulan. Xianniang too possesses strong chi, but when the people notice she’s a woman, she’s exiled and lived as a lone warrior whom people call as a witch. These two characters are blatant juxtapositions on how women are often positioned amid the patriarchy. To what extent can women own their powers and earn their positions? How would women receive their consequences when they know the masculine culture calls them witches when they learn how strong women are? Their dynamics attempt to explore that question.
If you wonder why the 2020 version does not make Mulan fall in love with commander Li Shang, it’s because of the #MeToo movement. The portrayal of the commandant and his soldier could be perceived as abuse of power. Yet, the interaction between Honghui and Hua Jun (Mulan’s undercover name) could even be interpreted as sexual exploration. The 2020 film does not focus on Mulan’s romantic life. We know that because, when the film ends, Honghui does not imply he ever loved Mulan. Their last interaction in the movie is just a half handshake, where we can neither see their faces nor their chemistry. The interesting part is, Honghui is seen as more interested in getting to know Hua Jun. While Li Shang is seen interested in Mulan after learning Mulan is a girl, Honghui isn’t. For that matter, the live-action captures more realness compared to the source material.
Given those circumstances, whom does this film really talk to? Do those changes work effectively in conveying the message they intend to?
The three virtues
Loyalty, bravery and authenticity. These are the virtues possessed by great soldiers, and they feature in the song sung by Christina Aguilera. These are also the struggles Mulan has to overcome -- especially the third virtue: authenticity.
Ironically, these virtues have also become the source of a debate dragging this film down due to its political context and cultural insensitivity, which is understandable because an art form like film is hard to separate from the social context.
In this film, chi is described as a mythical power that’s weakened when you’re not being true when in reality it’s something more complex than that. One thing is for sure: chi is not supposed to be a superpower. With this blunder, the movie is not being true to its own cultural roots.
And if that isn't enough, the fact that the film was partially shot in Xinjiang, an area of conflict where human rights violations happened, sheds a negative light on China, the second-biggest film market in the world. That Liu, the actress portraying Mulan, showed support for Hong Kong’s police in the recent unrest has also ignited a debate.
It is clear that Mulan is not an art form being loyal, brave and true to its culture and its political context when they aim to have the movie consumed in the second-largest film market: China.
Disney would argue that the values represented in the movie are something more universal and that it’s more dedicated to women. Let’s examine that.
While the changes made in the live-action look fresh and entertaining, does that make the quality of the values conveyed better than those of the source material? In the animation, Mulan gains her strength and utilizes her intelligence to save China, but in the live-action, she neglects her true power and only reveals her true power when she accepts it. Which struggle embodies a more substantial struggle? Which version possesses more flaws that eventually provides more accessibility to the audience?
The animation version may not repeatedly state authenticity as its virtue, but since its beginning, Mulan has been true all along while obtaining new skill sets while she’s training undercover. In the 2020 version, Mulan doesn’t learn new things because she’s that good. In fact, she’s too perfect, which is why Gong Li’s character steals more scenes.
And while we’re talking about Gong Li’s character, it is sad that such an interesting character is not explored to the same depth. We need to understand why she failed to choose a noble path. If she’s really a warrior whose chi is powerful because she’s authentic, we need to understand that she has a bigger mission than just seeking acceptance. Her lack of depth only raises a discussion that she became a villain because she’s condemned by society, and it seems she made no attempts to make amends when Mulan didn’t find it hard to make amends to the dynasty.
This should be a wake-up call for Disney. Caro is well-known for her coming of age film Whale Rider, but the risks of producing a film with a strong cultural and political background should be mitigated by hiring a director that can interpret the movie with justice.
There are numerous female Chinese directors. Chole Zhao who will direct The Eternals (2021) and Nomadland (2020), Cathy Yan, who directed Birds of Prey (2020), and even Lulu Wan, who directed The Farewell (2019). Choosing Caro is not a bad idea for showcasing women’s strength, but it seems like she neglects Mulan’s roots. (kes)
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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.