Although Niki Caro is not a Chinese director, considering the controversy around the film as well as its all Asian cast compared with the 1998 Animated Mulan, I wanted to provide my take on the film. As I write this right now, our school is a little torn between whether or not we want to offer the film as a movie night. There’s a lot of reasons why we should. For one, offering a $30 film to students for free is how we can take down a social justice barrier to accessing media. It’s something that we have done in the past with films like Black Panther and The Hate U Give. But, at the same time, Liu Yifei’s comments have led to a widespread boycott of the film due to her stance on Hong Kong. And on top of that, the fact that the film has pushed for such a corporate and unforgiving release certainly leaves a bad taste.
I was curious to say the least, to see if the film was worth all the flaming hoops in the end. And so... I saw it and here are my initial thoughts.
It’s not a new story, but it’s portrayal is certainly different. From the very beginning, we know that the story is meant to challenge gender roles. And the film starts on a different foot to show Mulan’s youth before she reaches the age of pursuing marriage. From the get-go, one of the earliest things that I noticed was definitely the portrayal of characters. The physical features of both men and women are quite more realistic rather than prince and princess-esq. And the settings certainly feel as though they’re closer to realistic Imperial Chinese life (rugged wooden buildings, stones, fields, and even sulfurous wastes) rather than the classic tiled roofs and cement walls.
A noteworthy side plot occurs when the Witch of Bori Khan, Xian Lang, shares screentime with Mulan. When we meet the Witch, her character is introduced as someone who was not accepted by her society. And in the first confrontation between the Witch and Mulan, the Witch shares with Mulan that this is something they both have in common - not being accepted in their respective worlds. The Witch eventually “kills” Mulan’s male persona, Hua Jun, and allows her to re-awake in her female persona, Hua Mulan. And eventually by the end of the film, it’s actually the Witch who sacrifices her life in order to save Mulan. It’s moments like this that make the film acknowledge the toxicity of our culture as well as the need for unfair, unjust, and unpayable sacrifices to be made. In order to break the rules of society, we need to show just how terrible they are.
By the end of the film, Mulan subverts expectations in all aspects. She rejects the Emperor’s offer to join his guard and go home. She refuses the love interest. And she even loses her father’s sword in a forge fight. But, something about it all, just makes it seem like very little steps up from its 20 year old Disney animated counterpart. Certainly, seeing Tzi Ma and Jason Scott Lee are pluses, but there’s a lot that this platform could have done to make it a little less western and more eastern. There are aspects - especially the Phoenix stuff and chi stuff - that felt very misplaced when they could have been great tools for showing the greater public about Chinese culture.
I don’t really know if moving forward, we’ll end up showing the film. I think that the film needs to also come with critical conversations on what it means to be watching / supporting it.