All the Scoops about Disney’s controversial live-action Mulan

Picture of By Quynh (Stephanie) Bui

By Quynh (Stephanie) Bui

[mks_dropcap style=”letter” size=”48″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]W[/mks_dropcap]ho is that girl I see? Well, definitely not Mulan from the beloved animated film of 1998. Disney is back with another live-action movie centering around the well-known character of Hua Mulan, a historically prominent Chinese female warrior. However, this time around, the responses have been quite different from Disney’s expectations. Due to multiple controversies surrounding its cast and production, the hashtag #BoycottMulan has severely undermined its popularity. How did this come to be, and how are global audiences receiving the highly anticipated Disney’s creation?

Disney+, Mulan, and The Pandemic

Since COVID-19 has barred many blockbusters from global cinema release, Disney took advantage of its streaming platform, Disney+, and “early-released” the film. As blockbusters usually take up excessive production costs, Disney naturally needed to “recapture some of that investment.” However, viewers needed to pay an extra $30 to purchase the film on top of their regular service subscription, leaving many bewildered. Moreover, Asian audiences who buy the film were outraged at the lack of Chinese subtitles, as Mulan is an integral figure in Chinese history. Unfortunately for Disney, this is just the tip of the iceberg of the issues that have been raised against the movie.

Why #BoyCottMulan was Trending

Before the film was released, the audience already took issue with the leading actress Liu Yifei’s political view regarding the Hong Kong pro-democratic protests last year, after she voiced her support for the Chinese government on social media. Since Liu is considered one of the most influential stars in mainland China, endorsing the government’s view greatly benefits her career and celebrity status. Unsurprisingly, her open move sparked a wave of opposition from protest leaders who called for a boycott of the movie. Supporters of the Hong Kong activists even named one of the most prominent anti-government activists the “real Mulan” after she was detained for violating government regulations.

Although Disney is not typically associated with political matters (pretty much the opposite), they are now caught up in a myriad of unintended scandals. When the film finally made its debut after wavering complaints, it faced another backlash for filming in Xinjiang, where many Uighur Muslims are detained in the government’s “re-educational camps” and live under abhorrent conditions. While Disney wished to “accurately depict some of the unique landscape and geography for this historical period drama,” their location was less than ideal. Rayhan Asat, a Uighur graduate of Harvard Law School and sister of a camp’s victim, spoke out against Disney: “When I saw that they partnered with these Xinjiang agencies, I felt they were reducing Mulan from a symbol of female strength to an endorsement of female oppression.”

Disney’s “Courtship” with the Chinese Government

You might be wondering: Why would Disney go this far in upsetting these many people? The answer might surprise you: It is appealing to China, one of the world’s biggest markets for moviegoers. Since Mulan is an incredibly symbolic figure in Chinese history with the infamous Ballad of Hua Mulan, many Chinese felt that the 1998 version was a Western disservice to their highly respected warrior. Thus, Disney set out to correct that, with the director stating that her movie would be a “love letter to China” that “resonate culturally with moviegoers.”

This determination was realized by Disney and their immense ambitions to tap into this resourceful yet restricted playground. The answer: An live-action closely resembling the original ballad. The co-chairman of Walt Disney Studios went as far as to confirm that: “If ‘Mulan’ doesn’t work in China, we have a problem,” with the Chinese government having access to the script.

So… Did Mulan make the cut? 

While Mulan receives fairly decent reviews from major Western newspapers such as The New York Times and The Guardian, general viewers and critics have been lukewarm. Comparisons between the new live-action with the animated version and the actual story of Hua Mulan continue to be drawn, where the new film seems to fall short.

Many fans grew up with the jolly animated film, rejoicing at how Disney finally depicted Asian stories. Therefore, we were disappointed to find out that the live-action was not reliving the goofy elements that we held dear to. As this version failed to impress the Chinese public 20 years ago, Disney decided to cut out Mushu, the fuzzy little dragon, and the film’s insanely memorable musical hits. And no army captain Li Shang, because, according to the live-action film’s director, “in the #MeToo era, having Mulan have a relationship with her commanding officer was never going to fly, and I would not sign up for that.”

Then, did Disney perfectly recreate the patriotic tale of Hua Mulan? According to Chinese viewers, not precisely. One critic pointed out how Disney misunderstood Mulan’s role in the story and made her into a “palace guard protecting the emperor” while disregarding the filial piety towards her father and patriotism towards her people. Another viewer identified Disney’s flawed research as the film’s setting did not match with the period when Mulan was alive.

Many comparing the movie to “General Tso’s Chicken”

In 1998, Disney attempted a deviation from a remarkably well-known Chinese story. It did not succeed. Did the tables turn this time? The movie’s revenue in its first opening weekend was far from the entertainment conglomerate’s hope. The film only gained $23 million compared to its gigantic budget ($200 million, to be exact), the highest Disney has invested in a live-action movie. The 76,000 reviews on Douban, a popular Chinese review website, average to a depressing 4.7 out of 10, with many comparing the movie to “General Tso’s Chicken,” where “the shell was Chinese, but the soul was still foreign.” Another reviewer of The New York Times remarked: “They made Mulan too westernized yet still succumbed to Orientalist stereotypes. They cast popular Chinese actors yet gave them lines in English that felt awkward in a Chinese setting.” This film seems to have failed to escape the Hollywood curse, and a “missed opportunity for Hollywood to explore Chinese history and identity.”

Disney attempted to be different. Did it work? 

For some viewers, the film’s plot was rather bizarre with some irrelevant twists. The animated film’s freaky villain has doubled into two new characters, Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), a nomadic leader, and a witch called Xian Liang (Gong Li). Furthermore, the movie decided to give Mulan, an originally ordinary female, extraordinary abilities (Chinese qi) such as spear-kicking, rooftop-hopping, and sword-fighting. A powerful message that the animated movie and the ballad emphasize is how Mulan, through practice and courage, forms her identity under the patriarchal society and undergoes relentless and brutal army training to prove herself. However, this spirit is lost somewhere in the film with Mulan suddenly becoming a superwoman.

“People forget that it’s just meant to be a princess movie with a little comedy and magic.”

However, a Chinese viewer defended Mulan, citing that people were holding unrealistic standards against the live-action. She also loved the “strong feminist scenes and magnificent” scenery.” After all, she concluded, “people forget that it’s just meant to be a princess movie with a little comedy and magic.” So much for Disney trying to portray “female empowerment”…

Nonetheless, the only silver lining out of the Mulan fiasco is the overwhelming Asian representation in a Hollywood blockbuster, featuring an all-Asian cast. Yoson An, the actor who plays Mulan’s love interest, affirms how “representation is very important, especially accurate representation.” As opinions of the film remain divided, we shall wait to see whether its destiny will prevail after the world’s debate concludes. For now, we might have to settle for an unsatisfying, less-than-authentic, and incoherent mix of Hollywood and traditional Chinese stories.

Cover: Disney via Mobile Syrup

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