“Let's get down to business, to defeat the Huns!”
I will always remember those summer nights I spent sprawled on my grandparents’ living room couch in China, as I passionately sang along to “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” from the animated movie “Mulan.” Based on an ancient Chinese ballad, Disney’s cartoon “Mulan” told the story of a young girl who disguised herself as a man and enlisted in the army in the place of her father. She was constantly picked on in the beginning by other fellow soldiers due to her physical weaknesses, but she eventually proved herself with her determination and saved China from the Huns.
Though I was only four at the time, in the early 2000s, I was fascinated by Mulan’s courage and amused by her clumsy yet witty charm. I always laughed uncontrollably when Mulan spilled a pot of hot tea on her matchmaker’s face and had my eyes glued to the TV screen when she saved Shang (her love interest) from the avalanche during a battle with the Huns. As a little Chinese girl, it was refreshing for me to see a heroine who shared my skin color in a Disney film and inspiring to see my own culture being represented in such a positive light. She was the first Disney princess that I could relate to and look up to.
Therefore, when Disney announced that Liu Yifei had been cast to portray my favorite Disney princess in 2017, I was beyond excited. I was also relieved that this role would be represented by a native Chinese actress and celebrated Disney’s choice for diversity. Ever since, I closely followed the production timeline and made plans to see it with my friends upon its release. When I went to see “Little Women” at my local theatre last December, I saw the “Mulan” trailer play on the big screen. I shed a few tears as I watched Yifei fighting fiercely on the battlefield while the orchestral version of “Reflection” played in the background. I was so thrilled to see my childhood heroine being represented authentically and the film’s potential to make Asian American cinematic history.
Yet, as I settled in to watch the remake, I felt skepticism creeping up even from the opening scenes. I raised my eyebrows at the sight of a hakka tulou — which is a form of architecture unique to southeastern China — as Mulan’s home, which is known to be located in northern China. I cringed again when Mulan’s father said to her: “Chi is for warriors, not for daughters.” Originated from Taoism, Chi is a vital energy that everyone is born with regardless of gender. I was also confused when writers used “abundance of chi” to describe the witch as powerful, because one does not gain power by merely having chi but rather through their cultivation of it.
As the film went on, I became increasingly angered by the obvious neglect the production crew showed for Chinese cultural references key to the central plot. The film showed the Chinese character for filial piety, an ancient Confucian “virtue,” engraved on two objects: on the “amulet” (with an oriental design that did not resemble anything real Chinese people would carry) that belongs to Mulan’s father and on the sword that was gifted to Mulan by the emperor. The writers clearly dismissed the fact that in Chinese culture, filial piety means more than “devotion to family,” as it is criticized by contemporary feminists for its implications of blind obedience and submission to elders. It is true that Mulan is no modern tale, but the values that she fights for in the film are directly contradicted by the outdated notion of filial piety that Disney writers inadvertently imposed on her.
While I was infuriated by Disney’s lack of effort in historical fact-checking, I was disappointed the most by Mulan’s “flawlessness” as a character. In the original movie, she is an ordinary girl who knows nothing about fighting, but through her perseverance and grit, she becomes a true warrior. In the remake, however, Mulan serves as a “Chinese Elsa” whose superpowers are rejected by society because they do not conform to social expectations of women. While such reinvention of the folklore establishes a feminist premise for Mulan’s story, it rejects further possibilities for her growth. What is the point of her story if she already fights better than all the men?
This new portrayal of Mulan feels foreign to me, as I was unable to connect with her innate power and lack of vulnerabilities. My favourite Disney princess used to be Mulan, not because she was an all-powerful warrior, but the fact that she felt like one of “us.” She was just an ordinary girl who was both scared and excited about the world, who simply wanted to be understood, and then left alone. The way she clumsily finds herself through hardships and betrayals was inspiring because it gave me hope that I could do it too.
By drastically changing the story and Mulan’s motives without any explanation or foundation behind it, her character is denied agency and becomes an Asian fantasy with no real identity. In the remake, Mulan becomes General Tso’s Chicken — an essentially American dish with some Chinese sesame drizzled on top. With the new film, I lost a childhood heroine whom I most identified with, and a generation of Asian American girls have been misrepresented by an orientalist puppet for Hollywood white feminism.
Prior to “Mulan,” the only all-Asian-cast Hollywood film that had entered the mainstream was “Crazy Rich Asians.” Though the film was a huge milestone in cinematic history and inspired more Asian faces to be represented on screen, I was unable to form a real cultural connection to the characters and storytelling. Yes, the film included many Asian cultural references such as families making dumplings together and playing mahjong, but it failed to explore many themes key to the Asian American identity, such as the notion of the model minority and internalized racism. Rather, “Crazy Rich Asians” focused mainly on class anxieties, which was a theme universal and therefore more digestible for Western audiences. While class remains an important topic to address, omitting themes and issues relevant to Asian American culture and identity is damaging to the integrity of such representation.
Neither the “Mulan” remake nor “Crazy Rich Asians” went deep enough to create nuanced characters — they simply cast Asian actors and chose filming locations in Asia, as if that were enough. Niki Caro, the director of the “Mulan” remake, expressed, “It was incredibly important to us that the people in our film were authentically the ethnicities they needed to be for the storytelling.” However, these principles of authenticity were obviously dismissed behind the scenes, as the script was co-written by four white writers and no Chinese experts were consulted for its historical or cultural accuracy.
What does this mean? Must Asians be Westernized in order to enter mainstream American culture? I think the answer is no. I still remember my excitement and pride when I heard BTS, a K-pop group, play in my local department store in Toronto. I still think about when the Academy Award–winning movie “Parasite” was all people talked about; I would hear conversation about it while walking down State Street or while sitting in the East Quad dining hall or in the moments before class time. Both BTS and “Parasite” have reached huge cultural and commercial successes in the United States, yet neither creators compromised their art to cater to Americans: BTS stated that they will not produce English albums and Bong Joon-ho, the director of “Parasite,” didn’t cut out a single Korean cultural reference when the film premiered in the U.S. Through sheer genius and hard work, the two were able to overcome cultural barriers and accumulate global support, forcing diversity into America’s insular entertainment industry.
Disney’s failure with “Mulan” sends a clear message to Hollywood that the Asian American experience is not an easy tale to tell. It will require more than $200 million in budgets and four white screenwriters. It demands the stories to reflect our anxieties and fears, our disconnect from the mainstream and our linkage to our homeland. The failure of the Mulan remake shows that the Asian American experience can never be represented by those who don’t share our identity, and that true representation is not only reflected in the cast but also through Asian writers, directors and producers, and a deep understanding of how to honestly portray our past and stories. So perhaps one day, our reflection on the big screen will show who we are inside.