There was a lot of hype surrounding the live action Mulan film. Especially with the news that there would be an all-Asian cast. With the success of Crazy Rich Asians and the growing movement for more Asian-American representation in mainstream media, Mulan was a sign that Hollywood would continue its efforts to accurately portray Asian culture.
However, in the few days leading up to the movie’s release on Disney+, controversy began spreading about both the lead actress, Yifei Liu. Liu had apparently posted her support for the Hong Kong police regarding the recent Hong Kong protests. In addition, the production crew also came under fire. News arose of the production crew thanking authorities in Xinjiang for allowing them to film there, despite reports of ethnic Uighurs being detained in internment camps in that very location.
The hashtag #BoycottMulan spread like wildfire on social media, making it hard to speak about the film without mentioning all its controversies. All in all, this has nothing to do with the quality of the film itself, however it certainly affected the mindset many carried into it. Not to mention the enormous price. $30 for one digital movie? Clearly Disney doesn’t realize Asians are hardly willing to pay for a $10 movie theater ticket.
Despite the backlash, I was still curious to see how well Disney could incorporate accurate elements of Chinese history. The 1998 Mulan is a centerpiece of Asian-American culture – it’s one of the few movies we can genuinely feel pride for. Unfortunately, the live action film was a disappointment, even by objective standards.
An Extremely Oversimplified Theme
Well, to say it was a disappointment might be a little too pessimistic. Really the film was just painfully mediocre. The exposition drew out so long it made me want to put it on 2x speed. Disney was very clear with their reiteration of the film’s theme of rotted prejudice against women and their strengths, but it was almost a little too much. It was to the point that nearly all the film’s dialogue was a blatant statement of this fact. The moral of the story needed no subtleties or greater nuance to uncover it.
I understand that this is a children’s movie, but its oversimplified nature made it boring to watch. Even a first grader could probably read a more thought-provoking picture book. The writing didn’t help either. Most lines had unnatural delivery. Though I can’t blame Disney for this, it was also strange hearing characters who are supposedly Chinese speak English. Overall, all these things just made the movie hard to enjoy.
Incomplete Plot Devices
I thought it was interesting how they introduced a new female villain. Perhaps to see the parallels of two women in power? The witch, conditioned to evilness because of a lack of acceptance, and Mulan, conditioned to disguise her identity for the same reason. I wish they dived deeper into their dynamic, but alas, screen time for Mulan’s flawless hair and impeccable horseback riding skills prevailed. She didn’t wash that hair for days, and there wasn’t a single speck of grease. Maybe my distaste for this movie stems from my utter jealousy over that fact.
At the same time, it was a little contradicting to have a woman play a villain role, especially when she faced similar circumstances as Mulan. What exactly was the message there? That facing similar challenges while growing up can lead to two very different outcomes? Even if it was that, there was no dialogue or interaction that gave this idea any nuance.
This paired with the phoenix, an ambiguous replacement for Mushu, ultimately made the movie seem tacky. In the climax of the battle scene when the phoenix wings framed perfectly against Mulan’s back, I could only laugh. It would have made more sense if there were distinct plot points that integrated the phoenix into Mulan’s hardships during her childhood and training phase, but it only showed up two or three times in the whole movie.
An underdeveloped villain and an incomplete motif. Both intended to be integral components of the plot and evoking a deep emotional response, but fell short. Going into the movie expecting revolutionary (like Crazy Rich Asians) was bound to leave viewers disappointed. Sadly, many critics agree that Mulan lacks anything that makes it remarkable. I really wished I enjoyed this movie, but truly it was difficult to get through without cringing. Although Mulan 1998 had its issues, they weren’t nearly as divisive. Disney should have known this movie would be under intense scrutiny, yet they failed to devote the proper attention to it.
I guess we’ll just have to hope that Marvel’s upcoming “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the 10 Rings” will make up for this disappointment. Until then, I’ll be rewatching Mulan 1998.