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Historian: I watched ‘Mulan’ so you don’t have to

by Michael McDevit
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Kelly Hammond

Opinion by Kelly Hammond

* Kelly Hammond is an assistant professor of East Asian history at the University of Arkansas. Her first book, “China’s Muslims and Japan’s Empire: Centering Islam in World War II,” will be released in November. Follow her on Twitter. The views expressed here are the author’s.

With the new live-action version of “Mulan,” Disney missed the mark with viewers in China and the United States. How did they mess this up so badly? There are numerous controversies surrounding the film’s release, but most of them do not even have to do with the fact that the movie itself is a boring, drab and inaccurate mess. Although the story is well known around the world, the live-action movie is slow, repetitive, and lacking in any substantial character development.

In an era when diversity and representation should mean more than simply putting Asian actors on screen, Disney missed a chance to make a movie that was broadly inclusive and widely appealing. With a timeless story as beloved as “Mulan,” it seemed Disney had backed a winning horse. But they managed not only to completely blunder the movie itself, but also to wade into a political quagmire that could prove to undo the precarious balancing act they have been trying to manage between making a profit and kowtowing to China.

The movie, which cost $200 million to make, was expected to be a hit in both China and the United States. Instead, the studio is on the receiving end of criticism from viewers in both places and has had a disappointing performance thus far, especially in China. Pro-democracy groups in Hong Kong pushed the hashtag #BoycottMulan ahead of the American release. They wanted to draw attention to the fact that the star of “Mulan” — Liu Yifei — supported the Hong Kong police in a social media post amid accusations of the force’s violent crackdown on pro-democracy protests. Disney has also come under fire for filming scenes in Xinjiang, where the record of human rights abuses against the Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities who live in the region are well documented. Ignoring what the US government has described as the unlawful incarceration of over one million Muslims in order to “accurately depict” the story of Mulan is not only ethically wrong, but it is completely historically inaccurate.

Mulan’ has a lackluster box office debut in China Projecting the current borders of the People’s Republic of China back to the fourth century is a historical anachronism that reinforces the current authoritarian state’s claims to the western region known as Xinjiang. In the movie, when the Chinese emperor calls for his troops to “defend the Silk Road” from the Rouran invaders, he is laying claims to territories that were far beyond China’s territorial control until the 18th century. The literal translation of Xinjiang is “the new territories” because the region was only brought under Beijing’s control by the Manchu Qing Dynasty and was not made a province until 1884.

Director Niki Caro said she wanted to create a strong female lead in her version of “Mulan.” But the story is narrated by Mulan’s father, played by ubiquitous Chinese American actor Tzi Ma, giving it a sort of “girl-dad” vibe. By removing Mulan’s agency in the telling of her own story, Caro gives us a character stuck in the patriarchal system she is born into rather than the empowered character Caro imagines Mulan to be. Relying on outdated orientalist tropes about Asian loyalty to the family, Caro again reinforces rather breaks down deeply engrained gendered stereotypes about the role of women and the family in East Asia.

Perhaps one of the biggest missteps was a departure from the well-received cartoon version of the movie. Viewers in both China and the United States noted the absence of Mulan’s dragon companion, Mushu, and the comic relief he provided in the 1998 cartoon version. Without Mushu, the movie relies on lame jokes made by Mulan’s male soldier companions about outdated gender roles in marriage to try to bring levity to an international audience. They were cringe-worthy and fell completely flat.

Historical inaccuracies are forgivable, unless you are making claims to authenticity. In this regard, “Mulan” fizzles so badly that both American and Chinese viewers can see right through Disney’s efforts to position the film as either authentic or empowering. As Sean Bailey, president of Walt Disney Studios Motion Picture Production, said at a Disney expo event last year, according to state-run news agency Xinhua, “We spent a lot of time in the beginning with scholars, experts and people from the region. And we spent a great deal of time in China.” Bailey added that the studio “not only has a Chinese cast but also brought in a Chinese producer to make the movie with them.”

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