By Phoebe Bowers
Disney’s Mulan (1998) was a seminal piece of artistry in forming several young girls feminist identities. With lines such as “How ‘bout a girl who’s got a brain / Who always speaks her mind?” in the song A Girl Worth Fighting For, I and so many others felt heard. So I cannot even fathom what this Disney classic meant to young girls of East Asian descent at the time in terms of representation. Not to say the 1998 cartoon is perfect, as clearly it is not unscathed by a Western Orientalist lens, but that film involved tight interwoven themes of belonging, identity, and family. Writer for The Guardian Jingan Young, has also specifically pointed this out and credits these themes to Rita Hsiao, a Chinese-American screenwriter of the 1998 film. Whereas Disney’s 2020 live-action adaptation is charmless, out-of-touch, shrouded in controversy, and loses all feminist stridency. It is a money snag written by white people complicit to Chinese censors, and I feel embarrassed.
The feminist legacy of the 1998 cartoon is not only lost by Disney having a politically and morally unsound payroll for the new adaptation, but by its re-telling of the plot. The live-action adaptation instead gives Mulan ‘Qi’, which in classical Chinese philosophy is a type of energy or life-force. This adaptation however deploys ‘Qi’ as some corny Jedi-like force. This force in turn gives Mulan super-human-like powers which completely takes away from the original legend of Mulan being ‘just a girl’ who trained herself up to become a warrior. This conceptual decision furthermore exacerbates the historical misogynistic tradition of powerful women simply being witches. This ‘Qi’ is given witchy connotations whereby there is the addition of a new doppelgänger/villain female antagonist opposing Mulan who is fully in touch with her ‘Qi.’ This force is portrayed to be more so apparently feminine, in turn implying a woman could not be strong or a powerful fighter off of her own determination or merit. The inclusion of these super-human attributes simply make for a more boring plot since Mulan is just merely born with ‘Qi.’ The only thematic continuity seems to be a boring storyline, as the script is wooden and dry, and the actors show no investment whatsoever in their performances.
Where does this film bode well? Let’s get the strengths of the 2020 adaptation out of the way: it looks nice. It’s visually pretty. Costume design is great. A notable sequence of scenes in particular being the lead up towards Mulan’s visit with the matchmaker. Both makeup and costume design alike are ornate and detailed. These shots stylistically look similar to some Wes Anderson camera work; beauty utensils are orderly lined up on a vanity table and pop-up one-by-one on the screen. It looks like money has been spent on it, and money has been spent on it indeed. Mulan (2020) stands as the most expensive film ever made by a female director, with a production budget at the grand total of US$200 million. But where has the money been spent? These dramatic aerial shots of the landscapes of Xinjiang are stunning, yet still promotes and romanticises a region where China has Uyghur internment camps. Disney even gives ‘special thanks’ to the Xinjiang government in it’s credits. A region which has detained, by estimates, a million ethnic muslims for supposed ‘re-education.’ Disney’s payroll only gets worse. Money has additionally been spent on hiring a lead actress who has been vocally pro police brutality in Hong Kong (“Crystal” Liu Yifei). The only thing going for this film is how it looks, and yet that is bound up with a much darker political reality.
Live-action cinema usually strives for this intense hyper-realism, meaning all of whimsical and charming elements have been taken away. The impressive score of the 1998 film, the soaring vocals of Lea Salonga, is replaced by the occasional distant pan-flute and a lazy instrumental motif of the iconic song Reflection. There are no ghostly ancestors, no comic relief from Mushu. The exclusion of these whimsical and imaginative elements of the original of course only being the tip of the iceberg as to why the newly released version is plainly not as good.
Just like the chaotic and unprecedented year of 2020, I would like to erase all memory of this remake.