This is another Disney live-action remake (the 15th, by my count) of one of its animated features. The original, a girl-power story, was released in 1998 and is discussed later in this piece.
The story comes from traditional Chinese poems about Hua Mulan, a brave young woman who disguises herself as a man and serves with distinction as a soldier in the emperor’s army for 12 years and whose sex is revealed to her fellow soldiers only after she returns home. The story has been revived many times since it was written around 500 AD.
In this case, Mulan is the daughter of a former soldier who admires her strength and agility.
“Your chi is strong,” he tells her. (Chi translates into “essential life force” for westerners who haven’t been paying attention the last few decades.)
There is the usual blah blah blah from the mother, who tells her husband, “You forget, Mulan is a daughter, not a son. A daughter brings honor by marrying well.”
When Rouran nomads invade from out west, the Chinese emperor calls for the conscription of one man from every family to defend the (yet-unnamed) Silk Road. When the recruiter arrives at the Hua home with a summons,
Mulan’s father agrees immediately even though his health is poor.
“I am blessed with two daughters. I will fight,” he declares with pride.
The night before her father has been ordered to report, Mulan takes the conscription scroll and lights out on the family horse to enlist, presenting herself as a young man.
At training camp, Mulan hides her femaleness and proves herself. The commander, who remembers her father, says, “I know your secret. You need to cultivate your gift.”
Then it’s off to battle after battle. The Rouran leaders are Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee), plus a possibly magical female leader, Xian Lang, (famed Chinese actress Li Gong). Mulan deals with both, effectively, while her comrades, including the serious Chinese soldier who admires her, defeat the rest of the enemy team.
All ends well. The film is beautifully shot (appropriately, given its $200 million budget), and the characters of Mulan and the people who care about her are portrayed movingly.
But the justification for a war with nomadic tribes who perceive their land to have been seized is taken as a given, rather as in another recent film whose viewpoint is less benign.
As someone unfamiliar with the geography or history of the Asian steppe, I have no way of evaluating the matter. Interestingly, China’s current leaders preferred that this newer film, unlike the one discussed below, involve enemy invaders from a different century. The Chinese government, of course, controls film distribution in the country.
This Mulan functions as a late-century Disney princess movie in which Mulan is a more active version of Snow White.
Mulan goes off to war and is surrounded in training by silly recruits who act as humorous relief and who are improved by their association with her. (Similarly, Snow White fled her castle and settled in with the seven dwarfs, gray-haired goofballs who were won over by her kindness and sincerity.)
Also in the Disney theme, Mulan 1998 is assisted by a comical dragon named Mushu, who is voiced by Eddie Murphy and who camps it up with American idioms and is very funny but who is absent here and perhaps not just because Mulan 2020 is not a film aimed to make children laugh. (The Han Chinese are not thought to be welcoming toward persons of different ethnicities.)
In addition, this movie has a musical score and popular songs that are referenced, infrequently and orchestrally, in Mulan 2020.
Mulan 2020 is a more sincere and more serious movie than other Disney live-action remakes of cartoon stories. It has been designed to appeal to Chinese audiences, who have been deprived of the opportunity to see typical R-rated American releases like Deadpool, the poor folks.
The single kiss between Mulan and her presumed infantry admirer has been excised.
Her military commitment to be “loyal, brave and true” has been given an added requirement: devotion to family.
Both film and earlier cartoon portray soldiers devoted to their country, but the film does a bit more valorizing of the emperor and his devotion to “my people.” China’s dynastic history stretches back thousands of years and ended only in the very early 20th century. It is likely that its most recent strong man, Xi Jinping, sees himself as something like the emperor in the movie, protecting his people from threats in Tibet, Xinjiang and Kazakhstan, among others.
A few days ago, the Los Angeles Times reported that six million Mongols who live in greater China are resisting the government’s efforts to make them speak Mandarin. From the story: “’All ethnic groups must embrace tightly like the seeds of a pomegranate,’” read a slogan from Chinese President Xi Jinping printed in Mandarin on the wall.”
Another interesting point is that the Mulan star, who was born in China and raised in the United States, has signaled support for the police in Hong Kong — the police who have been suppressing agitators who want democracy and want China to abide by the “one country, two systems” 50-year deal that it signed in 1997.
This may be the actress’ personal opinion (and is an unusual one outside the National Basketball Association in the US), but it has been noticed and has inspired movements to boycott the film in Thailand, South Korea and other Asian countries.
On reflection, I wish I had not paid $29.99 to see Mulan 2020 on Disney +. If Disney wants to kowtow to China, I can understand but I prefer not to participate.