In trying to square Disney girl-power tendencies with perceived Chinese values, the new remake ends up in a baffling limbo of motivations.
Mulan doesn’t sing “Reflection” anymore. In fact, no one sings in the new live-action remake, which trades the 1998 film’s musical numbers for wuxia-inflected action scenes and deploys its most famous ballad only as an instrumental passage underscoring a pivotal moment for its heroine. 2020 Mulan, played by Liu Yifei, is made of sterner stuff than her animated predecessor, a character from the tail end of the Disney Renaissance era who was adapted from Chinese folklore about a young woman who disguises herself as a man to take her infirm father’s place when he’s conscripted to serve in the emperor’s army. Mulan has become a princess without an “I Wish” song, which feels, in some way, fitting — she was never a royal to begin with, and now she’s a character caught between the time-tested formulas of an American entertainment giant and what that entertainment giant believes will appeal to a Chinese audience. It’s impossible to articulate what, exactly, this iteration of Mulan is wishing for.
Disney’s live-action remakes of its own animated hits have become one of the more cynical and successful endeavors in recent cinematic memory. Mulan, the latest of them, follows in the footsteps of 2019’s Aladdin ($1.05 billion at the global box office) and The Lion King ($1.65 billion), which were less movies than they were recreations, proof that years of film advancements and increased resources could be used to make something so much worse than the original it was attempting to remind you of. In comparison, Mulan at least has more going on in terms of creative vision and getting beyond the lure of nostalgia, though it may be the most calculated venture of them all — less Disney eating itself, and more the company trying to eat the world. It’s a saga that, oddly, feels like it owes as much in its touch points to something like Zhang Yimou’s Hero as it does anything else.
It even shares cast members with that 2002 film — Donnie Yen, who plays Mulan’s regiment leader Commander Tung, and Jet Li, who’s the emperor — while longtime Zhang collaborator Gong Li has been given the part of a fabulous but ill-served witch named Xian Lang. Director Niki Caro doesn’t have an aptitude for fight sequences, which get cut to bits in a way that dulls all momentum, but her use of color and wide vistas does provide a sense of sweeping scale. Mulan shares some of Hero’s unapologetic nationalism, too, with a painstaking reverence toward the state that it then struggles to square with a character who chafes against her assigned lot in life. Mulan isn’t the silent, delicate, biddable girl she’s expected to be by her community and, more pressingly, the local matchmaker (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s Cheng Pei-pei). She overflows with qi, “the boundless energy of life itself,” which the movie treats as akin to the Force.
Her father, Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma), confesses in voiceover that he’s been reluctant to tell his daughter to dim her light for the sake of conformity, though eventually he does, scolding her that, “Qi is for warriors, not daughters. Soon you’ll be a young woman, and it’s time for you to hide your gift away, to silence its voice.” Instead, she takes off in the night with his sword and armor, and journeys to join the ranks of soldiers preparing under Commander Tung to fight the Rouran invaders, nomadic warriors led by Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) who want revenge, or maybe gold, or whatever. Mulan has to conceal her gender from her colleagues, among them the fetching Chen Honghui (Yoson An), who’s so barely a love interest that their relationship has as its romantic apex a lingering handshake. More confusingly, given where she is, she feels the need to downplay her martial arts talents as well, until they inevitably come to light during a training bout she seems to expect to be scolded for.
Mulan feels terrible about lying, but she doesn’t seem to feel any anger about the forces that have required her to lie — the ruler who’s demanded human tributes from every family, the army that would refuse to have her despite her gifts because she’s a woman. All bitterness is outsourced to Xian Lang, who’s positioned as a kind of dark parallel to the movie’s heroine — a woman whose wielding of qi made her an outcast, and led her to align herself with Bori Khan, who’s promised her acceptance in exchange for her servitude. Xian Lang can shapeshift to look like other people, turn into a hawk, fight with incredible skill, and stalk around in an enviable scale-covered outfit, and in any other movie she and Mulan would end up teaming up together to battle for a changed world. But in this one, she’s turned into a tragic fool, while Mulan proves that by devoting herself to those in charge and constantly apologizing for her own gifts, a woman can indeed be welcomed into the ranks of those in power — on a case-by-case basis, of course.
Mulan is a dour drag as a work of art and entertainment, an empty if occasionally impressive-looking spectacle propped up by some incredibly clunky writing — the screenplay is credited to Lauren Hynek, Rick Jaffa, Elizabeth Martin, and Amanda Silver, and if someone were to do a shot every time a character mentions “honor,” they would surely die of alcohol poisoning before the credits roll under a new recording of “Reflection” from Christina Aguilera. But it’s a fascinating cultural object, an attempt to meld reflexive American corporate girl-power tendencies with perceived Chinese values. The 1998 Mulan famously bombed in China, with a Beijing interviewee bemoaning to the Baltimore Sun at the time, “She’s too individualistic. Americans don’t know enough about Chinese culture.” Maybe this new film, which heads to reopened theaters in China next week while being released as a $29.99 premium rental here, will perform better. Then again, maybe it won’t, because trying to reverse engineer what it is that another country wants from the outside is an inexact and entirely depressing way to make movies.
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