dir: Niki Caro
I am not embarrassed to admit that I have sat through and enjoyed the Disney animated movie Mulan a couple of times, in the same way that I’ve watched most of their cheesy products over the years, both with and without my daughter. But now that she’s too old for me to use her as an excuse when I want to watch something, the choice to watch a new version of this tale has to be a more conscious one.
Everything is so freighted and problematic these days. By watching Mulan, and enjoying the pretty visuals and the costumes and the performances, and tearing up a few times, am I supporting the genocide of the Uighur people by the one party totalitarian government of China? Well, probably, I don’t know. I’ve been watching Hong Kong and Chinese films for decades, and I’ve long known that now the government has to approve every script before it goes into production, and virtually every Chinese film, even ones made by Disney, have to toe the party line.
And, yes, the party line is a cruel, inhuman and brutal one. I don’t really have a justification beyond that. I have to hope that, at least from the perspective of the person playing the lead character, and the person directing, being Kiwi director Niki Caro, most famous for Whale Rider all those years ago, their intent with this film, with its predominantly Chinese-American cast (with some major exceptions, being legends like Gong Li, Jet Li and Donnie Yen), is to side-step the political stuff and to tell the ‘classic proto-feminist story of a girl who fights great pretending to be a boy in order to save her dear old dad, the emperor and all of China.
That it is all told within the context of a story that glorifies empires / totalitarian states, and emperors that rule by Divine Right, and obedience to patriarchal structures and such, well, as my daughter handily points out, this is Disney after all. What were we expecting?
This mostly sticks to the script set out by the ‘original’ animated version, doesn’t update it in any way, but wants to use the look and the tropes of wuxia epics to deliver something that looks like one thing but appeals to both a mass Chinese audience as well as a mass American audience.
When you try to make two different people happy, who have two completely different agendas, and you do it in the most ham-fisted and timid way, you’re not going to leave anyone happy.
Of the many names of people who ‘worked’ on the screenplay (the greater the number of names, the shittier the end product, quite often), there wasn’t an even vaguely Asian-sounding surname amongst them, let alone a Chinese or Chinese-American one. Sure, there are Chinese actors, but they are awkwardly singing to an American tune. Thankfully there is no singing in this flick, if that metaphor used in the previous sentence gave you the impression this was going to be a new Chinese Cats inflicted upon the world.
I am literally shuddering at the thought. And, yes, apparently they filmed some of the footage here in Xinjiang, the very region where the government is trying to genocide the Uighur ethnic minority out of existence by gently incarcerating over a million of them in concentration camps, considerately forced sterilising them and kindly trying to re-educate them out of being an ethnic Muslim minority. To which Disney thanks the Chinese government for letting them hang out there and chill in the credits at the end.
What a clusterfuck. As if the Chinese government, which nods agreeably whenever Disney money looks to be flooding in, and is happy to let billions of dollars’ worth of Disney’s merchandise be manufactured there for export, would let a Disney produced Mulan succeed at the Chinese box office. It gains nothing from such cultural imperialism. Better to profit from it, then tell its own people not to go to the cinemas because it would be supporting outside produced bullshit, which is exactly what the Chinese government did.
Anyway, I could keep marveling at the bullshit surrounding the film (like how there were two sidekick thief characters of different backgrounds but Indian – Sri Lankan appearances that were meant to be Disney’s solution to getting into the Indian market, that were thankfully dropped because it’s not ALL fuckheads amongst Disney’s producers, we hope), but that wouldn’t be a review of the film; it would be an ongoing review of the shamelessness / cluelessness / bottomless capacity for greedy tokenism that is Disney. So, onto the film.
It’s okay. Yifei Liu plays Mulan, and she plays it well. She doesn’t steal her father’s armour and sword for glory or for a desire to hang out with sweaty men: she does it solely because she loves her father, and sending him off to war would be a death sentence, because he’s so delightfully old. No explanation is given for why Mulan has parents in their 60s, but that’s their private business. And I’m not complaining about the presence of the legendary Tzi Ma, who plays the stern unemotional dad in a million Asian-American flicks, even recently in The Farewell with Awkwafina, and Rosalind Chao as the stern and not very supportive mum. Both parents are exasperated by Mulan’s energetic ways, all of which make her less valuable as a marriage prospect, which is all the value that daughters have in this era.
By the way, this is set like a million years ago in a strange era of human history where women weren’t valued as much as men and didn’t possess the personal or legal right to self-determination.
You know, unlike today. So what’s a girl to do? She hides her identity by… well, I’m not sure exactly how she does it other than by lowering her voice a tad, and wearing her dad’s armour, which, let’s be honest, shouldn’t have fit, and signs up, pretending to be the family’s boy representative.
See, Mulan also has this thing called Qi, or Chi (pronounced ‘chee’). You might have heard the phrase if you ever saw people or yourself did tai chi, or drank herbal teas, or wasted any amount of time listening to people talk about feng shui like it’s a real thing that exists. In the hands of this screenplay, though, qi is, pretty much, The Force. Mulan has a lot of qi, and that lets her do amazing things fight-wise, but there is an obstacle to her greatness. In order to keep being in the army, amongst these fine young fellows, she has to essentially lie (also not to be executed). But in lying, it’s bad, apparently, even if she saves a shitload of people’s lives (and kills many of the evil, no good, very bad Rouran invaders, what with their dark skins and dark clothing and all).
Because lying is bad, even if it’s for a noble end (which means this society is very much following the path laid out by Immanuel Kant and his categorical imperative that lying can never be ethical or moral regardless of its purpose, which was bullshit back then, and bullshit now). But this is the message the government was happy with, so accept it, you chumps. The message to Mulan is clear: “You have special powers that you could be using to be awesome and to save everyone, but because you’re a girl, everyone will be very insecure about you doing so. At least initially. Then we’ll somehow accept you with open arms once you save the day, and you’ll face none of the repressive repercussions that we threatened you with constantly. Unless we change our minds.”
Mulan keeps being given no choices by any of the people around her, but is almost shown an alternative path by another person with power: a “witch” played by Gong Li, who for some reason that we are never told serves the evil jerks and kills heaps of people and can shapechange at will, and yet she, too, doesn’t feel like she has a place in this world, or any other. It’s because the world has rejected her a) for being a woman b) for being a woman with power that she lashes out, we are meant to assume, but, damn, the lady has some serious skills.
They of course start as antagonists, but over time they almost like each other? Mulan doesn’t believe that she would be happy going her own way, not living to obey the strict rules of filial piety that govern her life, or obedience to the state, but at least she has a counter example. I really don’t understand what the character’s deal is, but Gong Li is by far the most amazing character in this, and yet the story short changes her. She’s so ridiculously powerful she even gets to sit on the throne, if only for a second, but we’re given no understanding of why she restricts herself when she seems like she could live without anyone controlling her.
The emperor, to a certain set of eyes, is meant to convey majesty, importance, the favour of heaven, all that sort of stuff. We are meant to look upon him with awe, the kind of awe that Winnie the Pooh / President for Life Xi Jinping wished he commanded. But he just looks like a small, old man. The fact that he was played by Jet Li, the legendary Jet Li, is the only reason I didn’t want him to die painfully and shamefully.
There could have been an alternate reality version of this story where the two ladies realise they don’t need the approval of these other bozos, where they lop the heads off of the Emperor and his Rouran opponent Bouri Khan (Jason Scott Lee), pile the bodies at the bottom of the steps leading up to the throne, both sit there and share a kiss, much to the horror / delight of the assembled court, who now have to celebrate and embrace whatever their two new leaders propose, and the world would have been the better for it. Instead, well, we get what we get. Mulan wins over everyone who opposes her, saves the day, saves the Emperor, saves a China that didn’t exist back as China when this is set, and reinforces rather than challenges any of the restrictions in place in their society.
Sure, we might hope for something more, but we’d be fools to look for it from Disney. It entertains well enough for its duration. It looks pretty, the colours are bright, the fights are well-choreographed, with lots of slow motion. Mulan fights like a champ, Donnie Yen gets to be all stoic and stern, and shows off some of his superlative fight skills, Mulan achieves her moment of self-realisation, and then…? Is it left open for a sequel? How’s that for optimism triumphing over experience…
Niki Caro is a solid director, and she does okay work here, but a lot of this feels like it was ‘directed’ by legions of producers, who were massaging the message and throwing everything including to kitchen sink in then out in order to keep multiple masters happy, real or imagined. It’s what keeps the flick from truly being epic. It definitely doesn’t feel epic. And while there’s lots of CGI, and it was probably of the pricey, expensive kind, it doesn’t really help that much. I could have done without endless scenes of a CGI phoenix literally pointing the direction where the lead character had to go.
As a lead, she does okay, probably better in the fight scenes than in dialogue scenes, seeing as Yiufei is Chinese, not Chinese-American, like most of the non-top billed cast. It does strike you (well, it struck me) as odd that you’re watching a Chinese fable about a Chinese hero in a film filled with Chinese and Chinese-American actors, and there’s not a single word of Chinese spoken other than qi, but that’s what you get in this strangely globalised world where Americans still act like English is the global language.
Mulan. It’s okay for the kids to watch if they don’t mind seeing a heap of bloodless bodies every now and then. This is a war film after all.
7 times a two hour film with Gong Li sipping some moutai or baijiu and just talking shit about Chinese actors and directors would have been even more enjoyable out of 10
“When they find out who you really are, they will show you no mercy.” – that’s true for most of us, though - Mulan