Why Mulan is a Muddied Reflection of the Original

Samantha Liu '22

Navigating a landscape of political tensions and social unrest, Disney’s live-action Mulan could not have been more timely. With a $200 million budget, it is the largest movie ever to be directed by a woman, and it is Disney’s first movie with an all-Asian cast. Its release had the potential to connect people at a period of escalating U.S.-China tensions, celebrate heritage amidst a virus proclaimed “Chinese,” and grapple with identity inside an emerging social revolution. Its all-Asian cast included actors with household films to their names – Rosalind Chao, from The Joy Luck Club and Star Trek, Cheng Pei-Pei from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Gong Li from Memoirs of a Geisha – that could have made my Chinese-American mom jump with joy. And yet, in spite of its unprecedented budget and cinematic grandeur, Mulan simply falls flat.

The film itself takes few liberties from the 1998 original. Director Niki Caro’s removal of more childish features–Mushu the talking dragon, the Li Shang romance, and all its musical numbers–implies a will to take Mulan in a more mature direction, possibly closer to the original Chinese folktale of Hua Mulan. Besides that, most of the new film’s storyline is the same, centering around the struggles of Mulan (Liu Yifei) to balance her family tradition and personal desire for individuality. As a child, she constantly fails to bring “honor through marriage,” embodied in the iconic matchmaker scene. Instead, she aspires to be a fighter and seizes her opportunity when Huns threatens the imperial palace. Mulan joins the army disguised as a man and leads her unit to victory with the power of her qi

The key difference from the cartoon takes the form of evil sorceress Xianlang (Gong Li), who attempts to turn Mulan to the dark side by showing her how much they have in common. Xianlang alone, a perverse mirror to Mulan’s own feminine strength, elevates the film to Caro’s desired level of maturity. Not only is the tension she creates captivating, but her ornate costume and makeup speak to the talent of the production team. Indeed, the best part of Mulan lies in its visual beauty, with stunning traditional Chinese backdrops, epicly choreographed battles, and vibrant magic. The opening scene itself brings out the best of China’s landscape, introducing what must be a plot as grand and beautiful as the setting itself.

And yet, in what The Verge calls “the year’s most beautiful letdown,” Mulan fails at doing justice to the original [2]. Its plot feels forgettable, bland, and potentially even offensive to Chinese culture. As an addition to the original, a fortuneteller reveals that Mulan’s ability to lead stems from a superhuman qi. That is, she does not make the choice to become a bold, empowered warrior. Rather, she is birthed with an abnormally high level of qi, the fortuneteller says, that women are not supposed to have. The meaning behind this is dubious–is Mulan meant to embody what women can or cannot naturally be? The audience is left to wonder how much Mulan can truly be called a feminist film. Rolling Stone describes the protagonist, whose personality is lost to the idea of qi, as more of an “icon” than “person,” removing the level of relatability that made the original beloved to audiences [3].

Yifei’s character is not the only one that falls flat. Besides Xianlang, almost all the characters feel distant and cold. As a Chinese-American, it was painful to watch the stiffly and stereotypically Oriental parents parrot honor over happiness. The soldiers, while they do make a couple of jokes, lack camaraderie and banter. Mulan herself makes few meaningful relationships outside of Xianlang. In her attempt to create a traditional setting, Caro succumbs to impersonalness and Western notions of East Asia. The result is a movie without heart, laughter, or warmth – a movie without Disney’s trademark. 

Mulan is, at its best, forgettable, and at its worst, problematic. It has all the elements of what could have been an incredible movie, but they don’t feel cohesive. Instead, Caro marginalizes Xianlang’s arc, raises a dubious statement on feminism, and portrays a detached, antiquated, and stereotypical mirage of China for diversity bonus points. I can’t help but wonder what could have been of Mulan if it had hired Asian screenwriters as well as actors. One thing is for sure: it would have been better than this.