Disney’s live-action Mulan: Why We Need BIPOC Representation Behind Camera

Disney’s live-action Mulan (2020) remake is addled yet simultaneously addling, seeing that it’s an amalgamation of the Ballad of Mulan being forcefully instilled with rudimentary Chinese values and Westernized narrative elements. Even though the film has an all-Asian cast, it remains w-worded.

Even within the artistic, cinematic vacuum with no regard of any politics or offscreen discourse, it’s worse than I could ever imagine and this is coming from someone who watched Cats (2019). 

What really got me cringing is the blatant whitewashing, the “dumbing down” of nuanced Chinese culture and Confucian values with Western storytelling cliches and banal Chinese elements you see in the five Chinese Hollywood blockbusters you’ve watched. You know the ones: “filial piety”, “submit, don’t defy”, etc..

Does the director know that mentioning “qi” 50 times in the span of 2 hours does not explain anything, nor does it make them an expert in martial arts? Growing up on all kinds of Chinese films, “qi” has never been male-exclusive, yet the movie portrays it as so. The consensus is that everyone has qi flowing through them – it means “life force” and “energy flow” after all. To have Mulan (Liu Yifei) going full-on “conceal, don’t feel” needing to hide her “qi” tells me the writers do not have a clue of how “qi” works. Or maybe they just thought having two Chinese Elsas going at each other would bring them some clout.

I say two because there’s a witch now in a Mulan film! I don’t know why either. Spoiler alert: she, Xian Lang (Gong Li) is a woman who has “powerful qi” according to the film’s logic and has been ostracized for it. However, “witch” has never been something used to demonize women in China; any fan of the Wuxia genre could tell you mythological creatures like 狐狸精 (the Fox spirit) would be a more fitting depiction of a malevolent woman with mystic powers.

Xian Long (Gong Li), the antagonistic witch with supernatural, shapeshifting powers in Mulan (2020). Image: Disney

Not to mention the sword leitmotif with the engraving “忠勇真“… Just pure shudders. Who on earth thought going to Google Translate and directly translating “loyal, brave and true” to modern, vernacular Chinese was a good idea? This is a period film, not your Chinese tattoo you think look exotic. What about “精忠報國“ (the proverb “serve your country with the utmost loyalty” from the legend of military general 岳飛 (Yue Fei)) or ”禮義廉恥“ (the four cardinal values – propriety, righteousness, integrity and a sense of shame)?

Mulan’s sword with the engravings “忠勇真” (“Loyal, brave and true”). Image: Disney

It’s not just lousy research; it’s also bad storytelling. So much has been done to undermine the heroine. Mulan is now a Mary-Sue prodigy who has had strong “qi” gifted to her, no longer the ordinary village girl who was diligent, resourceful and courageous enough to scrape through all sorts of hardships to save her country. Now, half of Liu’s screentime is spent fighting a witch. Congratulations, Disney. You have cheapened a legendary heroine who sacrificed twelve years of her life in war into some martial arts prodigy engaging in a magical throwdown. A dramatic instrumental sequence of the protagonist’s inner turmoil of choosing to stay home vs sacrificing herself to save her father and serve her country has been reduced to 20 seconds of Liu staring at that dreadful sword and then riding off with zero theatrical escalation. 

The director and screenwriters added nothing substantial or particularly good to the story of Mulan. Knowing the original by heart, I watched the film knowing what’s going to happen next with no emotional connection to the characters at all. 

Disney claimed it cut the musical numbers and comic relief characters to strive for realism and authenticity and I can respect that. Director Niki Caro specifically said “we don’t tend to break into song when we go to war.”. Then riddle me this: where did the shapeshifting “witch” come from? Last time I checked, the Ballad of Mulan never mentioned any supernatural entities. And for the last time, no, “qi” is not your “mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell” that you whip out any time to fill your plot holes! Why did Mulan strip off her armour and let her hair down in the middle of a battle? As photogenic as a heroine riding into war with flowy locks and only a red tunic on might look for a poster, it doesn’t really work for war, does it?

I am not going into the nitty-gritty of the research that went into making this film, because I am no Chinese history scholar. But when inaccuracies like a sword that has the Chinese version of “live, laugh, love” etched on appears as an eyesore to an ordinary Chinese audience member, something is seriously wrong behind the scenes.

With director Caro as the person who has the most sway onset, it is no surprise that the production team including Caro herself, the screenwriters and the costume designer are all white. I have to laugh knowing costume designer Bina Daigeler’s research involved going to European “museums that had a Chinese department” and travelling to China for three weeks, yet it is such a telling symptom of this Hollywood epidemic. No wonder the film seems so white, because it is!

The original animation (1998) might not be perfect. It was whitewashed, it was inauthentic. But at least they were honest about it. It was a brave albeit poor attempt to bring Asian representation on screen for little girls of colour, which delighted me as a kid. It was a silly kids’ movie featuring musical numbers and men dressing in drag to fight Huns. But to remove so many loveable elements due to “realism reasons” and then injecting orientalist stereotypes and incongruous elements into a film depicting a Chinese legend? Then marketing it as some hyperrealistic homage to The Ballad of Mulan? In 2020? It is pure hypocrisy and performative activism. 

Let BIPOC talents tell BIPOC narratives. What is the point of onscreen representation when the actors are merely cardboard-cutout pawns for a white production team? Disney has packaged its lazy, colonialist attempt at getting money from the Asian diaspora with “representation” and “integrity”. A piece of advice to Walt Disney Pictures: if you want to produce a quality Chinese film, hire Chinese talents, give them the funds and let them make it.

As for the acting, the sets and the CGI, they were… decent. I think Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma) and the villains, which would be Gong Li and Jason Scott Lee who plays Bori Khan, gave the most outstanding performances. The famed “Ip Man” Donnie Yen also makes a very convincing Commander. On the other hand, Jet Li seems to me a very bored, emotionally constipated Emperor and Chen Honghui (Yoson An) is such a step-down from Li Shang as the most irrelevant, bland love interest. Liu Yifei’s interpretation is alright. Still, the film direction and characterisation of her role makes it too distracting for me to enjoy. Disney products are always beautiful, with unlimited budgets and top-notch special effects artists. But that’s it. Mulan (2020) is a visually pleasing yet hollow film with a mediocre narrative about taking a stand against misogyny. 

On top of that, does anyone actually want these live-action remakes? Call me when Disney comes up with original storylines and allows BIPOC narratives to be produced by the right people!

Featured image via Disney