Growing up as a Chinese-American, I absolutely loved Mulan (1998) because the movie not only provided an entertaining story, riveting action, unforgettable characters and great action, but it also gave a proper representation and breakdown of Chinese culture.
Joseph Sanok, current Chinese Club president, noted, “It holds a special place in my heart,”
So, when I heard that Disney would be remaking the film with a full-Asian cast, I was more than excited; however, describing the film as a disappointment is a bit of an understatement.
Although there were many issues with the film such as the editing, pacing and stiff acting, my biggest problem with the film is that it changed its main character, Mulan, and completely misrepresented the Chinese culture and what the original story stood for.
The general plot follows Mulan, who is living in 15th-century China and failing to live up to the standards for women at the time, specifically being unable to be matched with a husband. When a group of nomadic invaders invade China, Mulan dresses as a man to take the place of her father, who has become weak in his old age. There are two significant changes to the original Mulan that really highlight the problems with this version of the film.
In the original, Mulan is incredibly intelligent, and she uses her clever problem-solving skills to prove her worth to the men. For example, when given the challenge during soldier training to carry two large weights up a tall pole, Mulan cleverly wraps the weights around the pole to assist her climbing. Her intelligence comes back multiple times later such as when she launches a firework at a nearby mountain to defeat a large number of the invaders.
However, in the new film, she lacks such cleverness. Instead of the challenge with the pole and the weights, the new challenge is to carry two buckets up a mountain. While I understand the importance of making changes from the original to the new, her carrying two buckets up a mountain fails to give her any characterization beyond the fact that she is strong.
The second major change is that the original Mulan begins an incredibly clumsy and a terrible soldier; however, she trains to eventually become a warrior with the other men, an action that highlights the message that a woman is just as capable as a man.
Yet, in the remake, at the very beginning of the film, Mulan is already an incredibly skilled warrior because of her chi.
Sanok explained, “In the remake, the fact that she just goes off into war and she is just able to do these things… really kills off that whole third part of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth which is the road of trials…”
Mulan’s immediate power means the message is that a woman is just as capable as a man, but only if she is incredibly gifted.
Sanok added, “You don’t truly see her struggle…. It didn’t feel very real.”
In the remake, Mulan never challenges the status quo but only really participates in it. At the end of the original, the emperor and a massive crowd bow down to her. In the remake she bows down to the emperor twice. Instead of being promoted to strategist like in the original, she is promoted to soldier. When she comes home in the remake, her sister tells her that she has been matched with a husband. The status quo does change in the slightest, and that can be chalked up to the influence that the movie-making market of China had.
Even though Disney made an attempt to appeal to a Chinese audience, Sanok pointed out, “The remake felt very ‘Americanized’ and like the makers of the film really wanted to be safe. They lose aspects of relatability and without those aspects their main message can seem a little flawed.”
When making the film, Disney spent years attempting to tailor the movie to China, then the film lost hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office. The film should have been a love letter to Chinese culture, but it only made surface-level references that are trying to appear Chinese. The film was directed by a white woman, written by four white people, and had a mostly white crew. Compared with American-made Chinese influenced films such as the Kung Fu Panda trilogy or Over the Moon, Mulan (2020) fails to represent the Chinese culture and only shows what large Hollywood films will do to try and tailor their product to the Chinese market.