By Mohamad Taufiq Morshidi
On 19 June 1998, the film Mulan was released to theatres worldwide. The animated film by Walt Disney Pictures was a landmark in animation history as the success of the film worldwide proved viable to create and cater to both Asian Americans and Asian markets with a global box office gross of USD$300 million from a budget of $90 million.
While the film did not succeed in markets like China due to rampant piracy, its success in the United States and other parts of the world paved the way not only for Asia-centric animated films like Kung Fu Panda, but also for Hollywood films with focus on Asian and Asian-Americans like Better Luck Tomorrow and Crazy Rich Asians. Suffice to say that Mulan succeeded where The Joy Luck Club failed in introducing Hollywood to both financial and social opportunities for Asians.
The original animated film was an adaptation of Hua Mulan, a story about a general’s daughter who disguised herself as a man to conscript herself to the army in her father’s place in 4th Century China. While Mulan had received many adaptations into cinema and television including a 2009 Chinese live action starring Zhao Wei, Disney’s Mulan remains the most popular adaptation, and Mulan became a part of the Disney Princesses alongside Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast and Pocahontas, among others.
Live Action Adaptations
With the success of live action adaptations of Cinderella and Beauty and The Beast, Disney went on a push to adapt all their previously-animated films into live action. This includes the Jungle Book, The Lion King, and Mulan of course. The financial success of The Lion King in 2019 proved that Disney would continue their streak with Mulan. But unlike The Lion King, Mulan is a property that Disney has to tread carefully.
So when Disney decided to remake Mulan as a live action film, they had to focus on balancing between:
- -Appeasing Mainland China, a growing yet strict cinema market that is picky about foreign cinema;
-Providing acting opportunities for Asian Americans while casting actors from mainland China;
-Releasing the film during the 2020 COVID-19 Pandemic.
Disney tried its best to tick all three boxes. The main actress for Mulan expressed support for the Chinese Communist Party during the 2019 Hong Kong Protests, sparking a backlash and calls for boycott of the film in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Southeast Asia & other Asian diaspora, but Disney remained silent during this whole controversy due to its relationship with China since they opened Shanghai Disneyland in 2016.
Not only did they cast a Chinese actress as Mulan (though she was raised in Queens, New York City), they also casted famous Chinese actors and actresses like Gong Li, Jet Li and Donnie Yen among others in very important roles. Due to the fears of a backlash from the Asian American opportunity, Disney also casted veteran Chinese-American actor Tzi Ma as Mulan’s father and a Youtuber named Jimmy Wong as a military recruit.
The film was supposed to be released on 27 March 2020, only to be delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was then delayed to 27 July 2020, but due to the rising death toll of COVID-19 in the United States, it was then released on 4 September 2020 in both theatres and Disney Plus for the price of $30 while it had a theatrical release everywhere else. Variety Magazine said that the film had to be rented by 8.4 million subscribers for it to break even in the United States.
As for the film itself, it was not a great experience. The problem lies with how the film tries to emulate Hong Kong & mainland China cinema but it still ended up as an American film by the end of the day. What makes the original animated film stand out was that it was honest about being an American animated film about Chinese folklore. It doesn’t try to be like a film from China.
The film was directed by Niki Caro, a New Zealand director who has directed Oscar and Emmy-nominated films before. However, her previous works were not action-oriented films and they are certainly not Hong Kong or mainland Chinese cinema in particular. Her direction aims to emulate the likes of Wong-Kar Wai and Zhang Yimou, but the difference is that the latter two directors were not making Disney films with English-language voices. After all, the most popular Chinese film in Hollywood was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon which was filmed in Chinese, directed by a Chinese filmmaker from Taiwan and was set in China.
The action scenes were made to focus on replacing the animated film’s musical numbers and for this they had on emulating wuxia films of Hong Kong, China & Taiwan. But the problem is that in the end, it still ends up feeling like you’re watching a Disney film with wuxia fight scenes in between. It also does not help that Chinese culture has a huge history of musicals and operas, which makes the insistence of replacing the animated film’s musical sequences with action scenes in the live action film even more pointless.
Liu Yifei was serviceable as Fa Mulan, but the fault lies in how the character was written rather than how the character was played. It feels like a Star Wars film but set in medieval China rather than in space. In the animated film, Mulan was a terrible warrior but an excellent strategist. In the live action film, she was born a warrior and was warned to have too much “chi” which is basically no different from what the Star Wars film portrayed with the Force.
While this film is technically adapting the story of the animated film and the Chinese folklore tale of Hua Mulan, you still feel like you’re watching a post-2015 Disney film that tried to portray female characters as someone tougher than the male characters in order to showcase strong women without criticising the misogynistic conditions of the era. As novelist Lindsay Ellis says about the other Disney remakes: “The tendency to self-correct the outdated or questionable morality of the source material is all over the place in these remakes.”
It also doesn’t help how the marketing of the film pushes for a “serious” Mulan film only to end up with a CGI Phoenix appearing behind Liu Yifei’s Mulan in the end. Any claims made by Disney or the filmmakers about how they approached Mulan makes even less sense when they removed Eddie Murphy’s Mushu from the film but thought that a CGI Phoenix was okay.
Overall, 2020’s Mulan is basically Chinese American food trying to be like “authentic Chinese food”. What makes the original Mulan and Kung Fu Panda a success was that it’s honest about being Chinese American food. Chinese American meals are great when it calls itself Chinese American food, not authentic Chinese food. But when you try to make Chinese American food with ingredients from China, it’d still end up as Chinese American food. That’s what Mulan 2020 is.