by Esther Sun
You’d think Hollywood would have learned its lesson by now. In the past two years, films like Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell have achieved immense success through their Chinese writers’ compelling focuses on Chinese characters and culture. For some reason, however, in its highly-anticipated, “unprecedented” live action remake of the year – Mulan – Disney thought it wise to enlist an all-white writer lineup with not one person of color, much less one with a Chinese heritage.
The result is an overly-westernized narrative which forces unearned radical plot changes onto the world’s beloved 1998 Mulan and ultimately China’s historic Ballad of Mulan that dates back to around 400 CE. The most obvious creative liberty these writers take is having Mulan reveal herself as a woman during the first onscreen battle by letting down her hair as she rides back into the fray. Mulan should know that would never fly in the army, no matter which attractive low-ranked soldier is willing to wax prosaic about her noble virtues. This is not a powerful reclamation of womanhood, which is a largely Western narrative that I imagine the white Hollywood writers intended. It simply doesn’t make sense and seems to have arisen out of a twisted interpretation of Mulan’s idealism. As my mom said regarding the true Chinese attitude, “We don’t have to let down our hair to be women.”
A secondary but also very noticeable inconsistency is that the writers don’t seem to understand how fundamental deference is in this historical Chinese setting. Near the beginning of the movie, a random messenger interrupts the emperor when bringing news about the invading Rourans. Later on, Honghui, a low-ranked soldier, speaks out of turn with the army commander in making his climactic speech about trusting Mulan. In fact, deference is literally a matter of life or death. Anyone who has watched a single Chinese historical film of quality should know that these actions would lead to execution, or at least some cruel punishment for contradicting the army commander. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t be surprised if I heard that none of the screenwriters bothered to watch a Chinese historical film while working on the script. This bare-minimum research doesn’t seem like too much to ask, considering that the budget for the movie was reportedly over 200 million dollars.
Non-POC might complain that my issues with this Mulan remake are just technicalities that don’t merit such fierce, nitpicky criticism. To this I have two responses. First, these technical contradictions of Chinese culture could probably have been easily avoided by signing on Chinese-American screenwriters — or East Asian at the very least — to spearhead the creation of this movie. Second, accuracy in details regarding culture and values is largely what makes certain media representation for POC so profoundly impactful and moving. An example that has always resonated with me is the 1998 Mulan animation’s portrayal of bringing honor to the family as an inspiring goal rather than as a restrictive crutch. Ultimately, until Hollywood becomes willing to hand the reins over to Asian-American writers for movies that celebrate Asians, I might just stick to watching Rita Hsiao’s 1998 Mulan animation instead.
(Sources: CBC, IMDb, Columbia University)