Despite the relatively recent release, Disney’s live-action remake Mulan (2020) is already calling for boycotts from around the world as many are unhappy with the actual movie, and even the artistry itself. Mulan has always been the most adaptable of heroines. Long before fans criticized Disney for taking liberties with their beloved animated heroine, poets, writers, playwrights and filmmakers had been creating scores of wildly different versions of the legendary woman warrior. When Disney announced the new project, many fans rejoiced as they were excited to see their childhood movie be brought to life, especially when Asian representation is still not the norm in Hollywood. It seemed like nothing could go wrong, with a full Asian cast and a big corporation to fund it, it had the potential to be the highlight of 2020. Yet, the pandemic, strangely enough, was not the hamartia of Mulan but rather an amalgamation of other problematic issues.
The 1998 film was based on the “Ballad of Hua Mulan,” which was a poem written during the Northern Wei Dynasty between 386 A.D. and 534 A.D. about a girl who enlists in the army to save her father. Even though the 1998 film does include this as a major plot point, there was no mention of a love interest in the poem, nor any inclusion of familial spirits. The 1998 version is arguably less feminist than the poem because at the end of the movie, after saving China and the Emperor from invasion, the leading character’s family reacted more when she brought home a man than in response to her dangerous and heroic achievement.
“Ballad of Mulan” is a relatively simple tale, only six stanzas long: Mulan leaves her village to take her infirm father’s place in the emperor’s army. For a dozen years, she serves nobly, all while disguised as a man; in the end, she refuses rewards and honors to return home, where her former comrades learn at long last that, surprise, Mulan is female. The poem ends with an image of two rabbits (“how can you tell the female from the male?”) running alongside each other — a scene replicated in the new movie. Another central theme in the legend is filial piety, with Mulan getting her parents’ blessing before heading off to war. Filial piety also dictates that she return home to her parents after her tours of duty are over. Her cross-dressing is forgiven (there was a war on, after all), as long as she resumes her proper place as a daughter and wife, postwar. “That’s why, despite her transgressions, she was put on a pedestal even in premodern China,” Professor Dong said. “She’s breaking the rules without threatening the system.”
One would think Disney would learn from their past criticism and remake the 2020 Mulan with a predominantly Chinese production team. The screenwriters, director and producers, however, are all white. This information was extremely disheartening to read, especially after hearing so much about Disney’s effort to stay within the cultural guidelines of the poem and Chinese culture in general. Disney also made a public search for a Chinese actress to play Mulan after multiple petitions were released over rumors of whitewashing. The remake of Mulan was a step in the right direction for Hollywood in terms of honoring cultural significance, but it ultimately proves how far behind Hollywood is in diversifying powerful production teams.