Yifei Liu in character as Mulan with her sword. (Photo credit: Disney)
Directed by: Niki Caro
Written by: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Elizabeth Martin, Lauren Hynek
Starring: Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen, Li Gong, Jet Li, Jason Scott Lee, Yoson An, Tzi Ma, Rosalind Chao, Pei-Pei Cheng, Xana Tang, Ron Yuan, Jun Yu, Chen Tang, Doua Moua, Jimmy Wong, Nelson Lee
If I’m getting flashbacks to the mental horror I went through when writing my A Wrinkle in Time review while watching Mulan, then you know things are dire.
“Dire” might seem like a strong word when writing about the 2020 adaptation of Disney’s highly-successful 1998 animated film. But that might be the best way to describe the dumpster fire that is the discourse surrounding the film.
Like with A Wrinkle in Time, the main issue at play here is representation. For many, A Wrinkle in Time was a watershed moment for the new Black media renaissance. Would a film that is weird and experimental with a Black female lead be accepted? Would it fail, causing Hollywood to revert to its original stance against unique films starring non-white actors? Would audience support be enough, or would people have to hype the movie beyond its actual merits to compel people to view it?
As we have seen, the joint answer to those questions is that we, as an audience, can, in fact, critique “watershed” films while supporting them with our dollars. We can even choose not to pay for a theater ticket and still hope the movie marks a sign of change in Hollywood. In short, while monetary and social media support pushes the needle regarding how studio execs view POC-starring projects, we don’t have to lie to ourselves if the movie is not up to our standards.
The act of voicing my opinions about “watershed” films, good or bad, is something that can scare me sometimes, even though I’ve made my stake in life as a film and TV critic. I don’t always feel like raining on people’s parades. I also know that execs read reviews, too, and I don’t want the added pressure of thinking my honest review could play into an executive’s biases against POC filmmaking. But, you have come to me for my opinion. So, like with my Wrinkle in Time review, I’m going to write about Mulan from several vantage points.
What I thought of Mulan
As a film, Mulan is merely okay. The biggest detriments are the threadbare script and the film’s bizarre time management.
Every actor in this film is doing what they can with characters let down by the script. Tzi Ma, Jason Scott Lee, and Gong Li, for instance, outshine most of the cast by transforming small roles into meaningful, complex characters that anchor the film. I’d love an entire movie about Gong’s character Xianniang, a woman who was outcasted by society because of her powers. Ma brings much more understanding and openness to Zhou, Mulan’s (Yifei Liu) father, than in the 1998 animated version. For instance, Ma’s Zhou apologizes to Mulan for pushing her away, something I wish the animated version did. And as Bori Khan, Jason Scott Lee empathizes with his character’s wish to avenge his father, who was killed by the Emperor (Jet Li).
I’m going to guess that Asian-American writers did not write this script. How else would the overuse of “honor” and “chi” happen, to the point where I felt like I heard dialogue from the awful Mulan 2 animated film? I’m not Chinese, but I believe that honor isn’t always at the forefront of a Chinese person’s mind, and chi–a person’s life force–doesn’t work like a superpower. Regarding the latter, I felt like giving Mulan copious amounts of “chi” took away some of the character’s magic. If martial arts comes easy to Mulan, it leaves little room for her to connect the masses. If we go by psychology, having Mulan be innately gifted in extreme fighting brings a “fixed mindset” to the character and the film. To be great, you must be born great if we let this film tell it. (But, Mulan can still inspire despite the fixed-ness of her characterization, as I’ll get into below.)
Maybe her inherent greatness is what left the script feeling like there weren’t many places to go, character-wise. For whatever reason, nearly every scene in this film felt rushed. You can see this happen the most during the camp training sequences. Nothing flowed. One minute, people were trying to climb the mountain with buckets of water. The next, Mulan is talking to Commander Tung (Donnie Yen) for five seconds before the screen fades to black, and we hear Tung’s voiceover yet another montage. It felt like everything was happening in the past tense.
Mulan herself isn’t fleshed out, even though the film bears her name. Unlike seasoned actors like Ma and Gong, Liu doesn’t give her character any inner monologue. We see a flat rendering of a character who has been more multifaceted in other versions of this classic story, including Disney’s animated original.
Similarly, the side characters, like her questionable love interest Honghui (Yoson An), and friends Ling (Feast of Fiction‘s Jimmy Wong), Po (Doua Moua), and Cricket (Jun Yu), are just above being afterthoughts. To me, it seems like they are only in the film because millennials will recognize their characters’ names from the original.
There was a chance to tell a layered story that advanced the original. Xianniang and Mulan’s relationship as frenemies begged for more detail since the two share the commonality of being ostracized by society for daring to be more than what it expects of women. When Xianniang asks Mulan to join her in taking over China, I wished we watched a film where she would have said yes. Watching two women taken on a social structure that has denied them a sense of belonging would have been a bold statement.
Even if the film wouldn’t take that radical approach–an approach I’ll have to turn to fanfiction for–the story of a woman changing society by being herself should have been a lot more fun, exciting than it was. Mulan is a film about a legendary war hero, after all. But for me, it was boring and unsatisfying.
However, that doesn’t mean that the film doesn’t have merit.
Who the film is actually for?
As I alluded to with my opening about A Wrinkle in Time, Mulan is a film that puts Asian representation at a precarious point. Many see Mulan as pushing the boundaries even further for Asian and Asian-American actors in Hollywood, and its success means more freedom to take on bigger, more challenging projects. Even though Crazy Rich Asians came before it, a film with tons of pressure to be everything to everyone, Mulan seems to have even more expectations placed upon it. Therefore, many are hoping it does above-average at the now-virtual box office–especially as the first of Disney+’s “Premier Access” films. That hope, plus the amount of pressure placed on the film, could once again put some people in a weird position of defending a movie that is only okay, not great.
As I wrote in my Wrinkle In Time review, it’s unfair to put this type of pressure on a film and its audience. Yet, that’s the game we feel we have to play as consumers trying to change a system from within. To top it all off, Mulan has had the bonus of being at the center of political strife between China and Hong Kong, leading to activists boycotting the film. With everything going on, I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling damned if you like the movie or not.
Instead, I’ll write above all of those issues and say that while I don’t love Mulan, I admire it for what it means to the Hollywood landscape. For all of its flaws, it is putting more cracks in the glass ceiling for POC artists. Like Disney’s live-action remake of Aladdin, which I also thought was just okay, Mulan doesn’t have to be the best film of all time to be important to the cause.
Both Aladdin and Mulan are inspiring a new generation of children, particularly children of color, to be bold and courageous, as well as loyal, brave, and true. Mulan‘s target audience isn’t the 30 and 40-year-olds who grew up with the original, despite the film attempting to cater to us old-heads–its biggest mistake. The actual target audiences are the kids and preteens who need a hero for their age. They will probably get a lot more out of this film than us adults might.
A flawed film that can still inspire
Overall, Mulan aims to be a sweeping, cinematic adaptation of an animated classic. But the film might miss that mark for adult audiences. Despite this, the film has a place in our discussions about positive representation.
Even though this film is not as exciting as it should be, it still introduces new audience members to a hero they can see themselves in and be inspired by. Mulan doesn’t have to please everyone for it to be a meaningful film, and hopefully, a day will come when films, and audiences, don’t have to feel pressured to succeed.