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Mulan bad – are we surprised?

Let's make a decent movie out of you, Mulan.

Art by Nishta Gupta

Disney’s live action remake of Mulan is the most expensive film to be directed by a woman. $200 million was lavished on it in hopes that the Chinese market would in turn flood Disney’s coffers with yuan. But upon its release—among a spectrum of non-Asian, diaspora Asian, and the coveted Chinese critics—the reception has ranged from ambivalent about plot changes to downright hostile about its cultural missteps.

Let’s not feign surprise at the reception. The project was doomed to failure from the start; it all comes down to how Disney addressed its two key directives.

The first directive was to satisfy the Chinese market with a more authentic story. This meant revamping the script to exclude elements that Chinese viewers in the 90s had disliked and introducing a cast comprising only of Chinese faces, including Chinese action heavyweights Donnie Yen and Jet Li. The film also borrowed distinctive visuals, like wirework, that were pioneered in Hong Kong kung fu films.

The second directive was to still appeal to the expected modern Disney audiences. In the last few Disney princess live action remakes, this has meant dialling up the feminism—that is, as YouTube film critic Lindsay Ellis describes, a corporate-friendly “girlboss” version of feminism. It was in this spirit that Li Shang was cut from the script, because a relationship with a superior was deemed inappropriate after #MeToo; Mulan’s superhuman qi powers in the live action also stem from this agenda. Niki Caro was Disney’s ultimate choice to head the representation of the “culture of Disney” in the new Mulan.

As a white female director, Caro was expected to bring the feminist chops to Mulan’s updated and more authentically Chinese story. But in this choice, Disney revealed a fallacy in their thinking: that Chinese authenticity and feminism are mutually exclusive. See, the cast and the influences are Chinese—but Chinese directors are not similarly entrusted to make sure the story is feminist. Even though directors don’t appear onscreen, they make every decision in the film. The Chinese aesthetics and actors masked a mechanism composed entirely of white people. This is where the film’s dissonance emerges.

The problem from the start was that Disney could not conceive of the film in an intersectional way. Caro, as feminist and determined to respect Chinese culture as she may be, does not have an insider’s perspective on what it means to be feminist as a Chinese woman. It’s not enough to get the script, written by four white people, ticked off by the Chinese government—a body that we all know is the ultimate purveyor of culture and filmmaking, obviously.

In a time when Chinese feminists are becoming more outspoken about the constraints of traditional values like filial piety, Mulan’s story seems like fertile ground for a culturally appropriate feminist revaluation. Instead of hamfisted references to “honour” and “family”, the film could’ve sent Mulan to war at first motivated only by filial piety, before embracing her identity as a soldier and genuinely coming to embrace her otherwise-suppressed martial abilities as a female warrior. By handing the reins of the live action Mulan to Caro, Disney dismissed the fundamental differences between white womanhood and Chinese womanhood.

At the very least, Disney could have united these two elements by giving a Chinese woman the director’s chair. That’s not saying that this measure would make the film magically perfect but at the very least it wouldn’t be plagued with that jarring inauthenticity, which even the least culturally literate filmgoers could detect. 

Now, as it stands, Disney’s failure to understand the importance of an intersectional feminist approach to the film has left it inevitably dissonant as it fails to tap into Chinese cultural realities and Mulan’s humanity as a Chinese woman. In the end, this kind of portrayal isn’t going to benefit anyone—except the two sets of boycotts railing against the film.