Woman is the Future of Man: Caro Adapts a Folklore Classic for Western Eyes
At first glance, Disney’s live-action reboot of Mulan, a long-gestating project which has been envisioned since 2010, seems a major step forward as far as intersecting representations. Behind the scenes is the established Niki Caro, whose past works and themes parallel the intentions and messages of the beloved narrative based on Chinese folklore.
And while comparisons to the 1998 animate mega-hit also posit this latest mounting as an improvement in several regards, it is still, unfortunately, a watered down product highly abridged and fitted for appeasing both progressive attitudes while maintaining an appeal for the family friendly mainstream in the US as well as an even more conservative audience in the Chinese market.
Sans the jaunty musical numbers, this is a serious, po-faced affair which may find Disney out of its comfort zone with a PG-13 rating due to, you know, battle sequences in which humans are killed, but robs the property of its intentions with such blatant sanitization.
More egregious is the continual adherence to cobbling together international narratives and forcing its actors to speak English, since we’ll likely never truly divorce ourselves from xenophobic tendencies which prohibit challenging audiences in favor of currying box office glory. In short, by taking a Chinese fable and catering to English-speaking audiences, we only continue to patronize ourselves while diminishing the subjects of the narrative. The capabilities of Caro, therefore, are downplayed in this version which, two decades from now, will perhaps be remembered as one of countless displays of archaic cinematic exercises.
During China’s Northern Wei Dynasty (386 to 534 AD), Hua Mulan (Liu Yifei) is the eldest daughter of Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma), a man who was never able to beget a son and so reared her with masculine tendencies. As this begins to pose an issue with conditioning Mulan for marriage, life is interrupted when the Emperor (Jet Li) issues a decree imposed upon every family to supply a man to serve in the Imperial Army. A band of invaders led by Boris Khan (Jason Scott Lee) have started a war in the North due to ongoing personal disputes. Since Hua Zhou has no sons, he must honor his family by serving despite a handicap which doesn’t permit him to walk without assistance. Though she risks losing her family and their honor, Mulan sneaks off in the night with her father’s armor and sword, posing as a man named Hua Jun in order to save her father’s life. Under Commander Tung (Donnie Yen) and Sergeant Qiang (Ron Yuan), Hua Jun excels as a soldier and saves the lives of her peers despite Khan’s utilization of a mysterious witch, Xianniang (Gong Li) and her band of shadow warriors. But forced to reveal her gender, she’s exiled, only to return and save the life of the Emperor himself.
There’s much to praise about Mulan with its diverse cast, excellently choreographed fight sequences, and a divorce from some of the frivolity and demeaning gender codes blatantly on display from the 1998 animated film. Though Eddie Murphy’s animated lizard stole the show in the earlier version, it’s a character which sticks out like a sore thumb, speaking to a 1998 audience’s perceptions about what amounts to a girl in drag, and the discomfort surrounding such actions. The presentation is a bit more complex with Caro’s version, which downplays the romance/attraction between Mulan and Honghui (Yoson An), and not so much as a way to elevate her but to rather avoid showcasing two male-presenting characters who share potential romantic chemistry.
Likewise, there’s still a nagging air of propaganda to the film, which is not assisted by the femme-power witch addition, courtesy of the beguiling but underutilized superstar Gong Li. Mulan is positioned at a queasy nexus of fealty to her father and the empire, both entities which rebuke her but, in fantastical fabled form, celebrate her success (as compared to, say, Joan of Arc, who was burned at the stake). For a more traumatic but arguably more portrait of the trouble women face under misogynist regimes, Siddiq Barmak’s harrowing Osama (2003) more realistically touches upon the consequences of such survivalist tactics by women who defy the patriarchal powers of the land. However, Mulan is in keeping with the spirit of Caro’s award-winning breakout sophomore film Whale Rider—though again, by staying true to its cultural specificity was able to convey human universality, which includes its use of the Maori language.
Newcomer Liu Yifei fares reasonably well considering the limitation of the role, since in live-form, it’s harder to dissuade the audiences from ever believing she could pose as a soldier, at least as far as the presentation here. The villains are reduced considerably, including the Chancellor, one voiced with bitchy aplomb by James Hong, now a cipher portrayed by Nelson Lee. And those problematically portrayed Huns of the animated version? Here they’re formed as disparate bands of marauders brought together by Boris Khan thanks to a revenge mission against the Emperor (Jet Li, also underutilized beneath heavy old-age make-up). Although it features many notables from China and Hong Kong, including Tzi Ma, Rosalind Chao, Pei-Pei Cheng and Donnie Yen, no one really gets a chance to truly shine.
At its best, Caro captures some arresting moments utilizing Wushu performance (though this has nothing on the elaborate sequences of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000). Yes, there’s a dearth of representation and equality in English language cinema, and superficially this live-action Mulan represents a small progression. Much like the animated film, its existence and consumption is profoundly inspiring for young girls. But our collective unwillingness to accept authenticity if it means forsaking comfort (i.e., reading English language subtitles) and the continual cinematic patronizing of families and children by dumbing every unseemly aspect down to vague notions about dishonor and disgrace relegates Mulan as a lavish form of lip-service, which, like all films made to please everyone, runs the risk of pleasing no-one beyond momentary symbolism.