Film

In the midst of political controversy, Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan emerges as a watered-down version of the original animation. By Debbie Zhou.

Mulan

Liu Yifei as Hua Mulan in Niki Caro’s live-action film.
Credit: Disney

It’s impossible not to be conscious of the politics surrounding the release of Disney’s flying martial arts, picturesque live-action remake of Mulan. A noisy campaign to boycott the film has been growing since its star, Chinese actor Liu Yifei, voiced support for the Hong Kong police during the city’s pro-democracy protests last year, culminating with this week’s revelation that it was partly filmed in Xinjiang, where human rights abuses are alleged against Muslim Uygurs. Disney’s transparent desire to capitalise on the Chinese market – with a faithfully unquestioning stance – explains the watered-down adaptation, which appeases more than it excites.

In this new take on the epic gender-flipping Chinese tale, solemnity takes precedence over lighthearted comedy. What’s lost from the studio’s delightfully fun original 1998 animation – encapsulated by Eddie Murphy’s vibrant mini-dragon sidekick, Mushu – is shimmered over with a grand multimillion-dollar treatment.

Mulan’s story originated as a Chinese 5th- or 6th-century poem, “The Ballad of Mulan” by Guo Maoqian, in which the (most likely fictional) female warrior Hua Mulan takes her father’s place when the emperor enlists one man from each family to serve in the imperial army to defend the empire from northern invaders.

As a popular children’s folk story, Mulan has been seen as the Chinese equivalent of France’s Joan of Arc, and for centuries has inspired Chinese retellings in films, novels, plays and operas, most recently in the eponymous 2009 film directed by Jingle Ma. Its best-known Western version is Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook’s 1998 English-language animated film, an adaptation that also connected particularly with Asian–American and other diasporic audiences.

New Zealand-born Niki Caro (Whale Rider, The Zookeeper’s Wife) directs the animation’s live-action remake as a cinematic large-scale event with gravitas and occasional family-friendly whimsy. It’s a combination that leaves the film unchallengingly palatable, although spectacularly good-looking.

With characters springing fully fleshed from their two-dimensional animation equivalents (with some changes to boot), Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek and Elizabeth Martin’s screenplay seizes this opportunity to sketch out the ingrained values that propel Mulan to her ultimate humble victory.

The retelling embeds a reflexive play on its narrator, who at the start of the film acknowledges that there are “many tales of Mulan … this one is mine”. The identity of this omniscient narrator is Mulan’s father, Hua Zhou, but the ambiguity of his statement seems to be less of a self-critical nod to its all-white writing and directing team, and more of a shield against any potential criticisms of cultural inauthenticity or historical inaccuracy.

The overall narrative trajectory of the film mirrors its model. The film opens with Mulan as a child, chasing an escaped chicken through her home village. When she gleefully catches the bird, she’s immediately reprimanded for the disorder she’s caused. While there’s some fleeting pride on her father’s face (Tzi Ma, in yet another poignant hard-faced-but-soft-on-the-inside dad figure), the judgemental titters from the village quickly turn that feeling to shame.

In the film’s present time line, Mulan is now a young woman – her “powers” squandered, her personality concealed. Her mother, Hua Li (played by The Joy Luck Club’s Rosalind Chao), teaches Mulan to hide her gift as a form of protection and, instead, to bring “honour to family” as a daughter destined for marriage. But Mulan’s refusal to bow to the pressure to be a quiet, composed woman sees her bolting away on her horse in the dead of night, determined to save her ailing father at the risk of her own life.

It’s difficult to watch Caro’s film and not nitpick the changes between the animation and the live-action film, as Disney’s recent string of remakes have often emphasised nostalgia over originality (Jon Favreau’s 2019 The Lion King included scenes that replicated its animated predecessor shot for shot). On the other hand, Caro’s take on Mulan’s story goes beyond the purist definition of “adaptation”, opening new facets on Mulan’s gritty journey to respected warrior.

There are minor adjustments, such as the inclusion of Mulan’s younger sister, to more significant changes, in particular the splitting up of her previous love interest, Captain Li Shang, into an older Commander Tung (Donnie Yen), and a younger ally, Chen Honghui (Yoson An). It leads to one of the film’s more-awkward-than-funny scenes, in which Honghui catches Mulan bathing in a lake: he offers her a truce as “equal[s]”, as she desperately turns her back to him, attempting to conceal that she is a woman.

The differing attributes of the two versions are tied less to any creative liberties and more to the tone and spirit that underpin each of them. The lively 1998 animation had an amusing, tongue-in-cheek flavour, with the inclusion of Matthew Wilder and David Zippel’s melodic ballad “Reflection” and the catchy boot-camp song “I’ll Make a Man Out of You”. These songs emotionally express, respectively, Mulan’s cathartic questioning of her identity, and the transformative empowerment that comes with overcoming physical adversities.

Caro’s film fades these tunes into the background of Harry Gregson-Williams’ thrumming orchestral score as mere whispering reminders. This furrowed-brow seriousness also leaves the tracking of Mulan’s triumph over her male counterparts to explicit dialogue – Commander Tung literally says, “We are going to make men out of all of you” – and earnest training montages. In skimping the comic antics attached to Mulan’s mistaken identity, the film also sacrifices any angsty romantic confusion between Mulan and Honghui, which had a hand in fostering Shang’s character development in the animated version.

The film’s sombre wartime mood is, however, aesthetically exquisite. In an attempt to create a wuxia film – a martial arts storytelling genre with a long tradition in Chinese culture – the script sneaks in superficial mentions of “the power of chi” that spell out the need for Mulan to harness chi to truly flourish as a warrior. What taps into the genre more successfully are the detailed production design and martial arts choreography, with slow-motion lifts into the air with red drapery, impressive arrow-dodging, wall-climbing and rooftop-jumping on imperial palaces. Mandy Walker’s cinematography slickly turns the camera all degrees and angles to capture its heroine’s gravity-defying movements. Perhaps on the big screen the theatricality of its action would have appeared more dazzling – nevertheless on the small screen, as it’s released on Disney+, it’s still strikingly elegant.

Liu largely plays Mulan as staid and unsmiling, which works in this version as there’s nothing much to laugh about. Liu and Gong Li – in the role of Xianniang, a shapeshifting sorceress who has crossed to the dark side – are Chinese stars who bridge the Hollywood gap, acting in a film where the Asian cast members speak in accented English. In the light of the two actors’ local backgrounds, it presents an intriguing parallel with their characters’ duality as women vilified for their special powers.

As a slave to Jason Scott Lee’s one-dimensional villain, Böri Khan, whose vengeance story is relatively pedestrian, Xianniang’s insecurities are given vulnerable depths. Ironically, although screen legend Gong is easily the strongest actor in Caro’s ensemble, her character ultimately must play second fiddle to Khan. Gong invests Xianniang with a yearning to be accepted, a feeling that Mulan fights under her desire to break free of her disguise. Caro taps into that sensitivity, highlighting how female submissiveness can become conditioned and internalised by anyone. However short-lived, the blurring between good and evil poses a moral question for Mulan, allowing her to emerge as a fuller, more realistic leader who has considered the complexities of her choices.

While Mulan’s adventures as she wields her sword across desert battlefields are more for spectacle than to represent any real progressiveness, Caro’s film still stands as a welcome refreshment among Disney’s repertoire of remakes. The drama may follow the studio rule book of underscoring the same simple message over and over – this time it’s “loyal, brave and true”, as well as the overused Asian principle of “family honour” – but the overall effect is easy enough to swallow if you overlook Disney’s preservation of its own mantra for the obvious commercial benefits. Whether the film satisfies the cultural resonances it claims to uphold is another question altogether.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 12, 2020 as "Empty spectacle".

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Debbie Zhou is an arts and culture critic based in Sydney.