Exotic Women Warriors and Human Rights Violations: Why I’m Not Watching Mulan

When Disney announced its plans for a live-action remake of its 1998 animated film Mulan, I had my doubts about it. Don’t get me wrong, I love Mulan and it has a special place in my heart. Not only is the movie star someone who looks like me, but it also is a movie that I thoroughly enjoyed watching from beginning to end as a kid. I laughed my head off at all the jokes and gaped at the screen when Mulan scaled the palace walls to save the emperor. I sang along to “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” and “Reflection” at the top of my lungs. Even though it was not the most authentic movie about the Chinese heroine, I appreciated the film’s aim to make Mulan a relatable character as she goes through multiple trials and tribulations throughout the film.

But most importantly, Mulan is not just some Chinese warrior who wields swords and smashes patriarchal standards. She is a cultural icon in Chinese-speaking countries, so much so that many people from these countries can recite her entire story from memory. It’s great that Disney acknowledges the cultural origins of the story by hiring an all-Asian cast and casting a Chinese actress for the part of Mulan. Their efforts to avoid whitewashing, however, are overshadowed by numerous political issues and their decision to hire a nearly all-white film production team. Many have taken to social media to protest the release of the film, using #BoycottMulan on Twitter and encouraging others to not watch the film. But why is all of this so important? Isn’t it just a movie?

india china on map Photo by James Coleman from Unsplash

To better understand the situation, let’s first take a look into who Mulan actually is. The original Mulan story comes from a folktale believed to have come from the Northern Wei Dynasty in the fourth or fifth century and was first recorded in the poem "The Ballad of Mulan." In the original tale, Mulan is an ordinary woman who chooses to go to war in place of her father as her family has no sons that can be enlisted into the army. For 12 years, she disguises herself as a man and fights in the army. It is not until she and the rest of the army return to their hometown that her fellow soldiers realize that she was a woman. The poem is famous for its last four lines where it states:

"Most people tell the gender of a rabbit by its movement:

The male runs quickly, while the female often keeps her eyes shut.

But when the two rabbits run side by side,

Can you really discern whether I am a he or a she?"

To put it simply, the story as a whole focuses more on Mulan’s love for and commitment to her family than her gender and femininity. This isn’t to say that her identity as a woman doesn’t matter—rather, the main focus here is how gender does not determine how brave someone is and how anyone can be as brave as Mulan. While there have been multiple renditions of the story that have added things here and there, they have mostly stuck to the main storyline and chose to portray her as a woman with a strong sense of willpower and love for her family. One look at Disney’s version of the tale is already telling of the media giant’s willingness to gloss over the details in the original tale so that they can put a more marketable story on the big screen.

Mountains Clouds Historical Great Wall Of China Manuel Joseph / Pexels

The live-action film focuses more on her ability to be “special” and powerful as she slices through enemy soldiers and goes head-to-head with an evil witch. This over-glorification of Mulan puts the female heroine in a position that makes her seem “exotic” and distant. This ruins the whole purpose of Mulan’s story, which is to show that anyone—regardless of their ability—can be as strong and brave as Mulan was. The point here is not so much how far off the film is from the source material; rather, people need to realize that the film is a glaring appropriation of Chinese culture as a whole and portrays Mulan as an unapproachable figure. And it doesn’t help that practically the entire team behind the script for this version of the Chinese tale are not from the East Asian country.

Red Chinese lantern decor Burst

Mulan’s director, Niki Caro, has acknowledged her identity as a white female in several interviews but argues that she shouldn’t not be allowed to direct the film because of her racial identity. She has called criticism towards her “a little bit like censorship to me” in an interview with Film School Rejects. She and other production team members have also mentioned researching extensively on the story and ancient Chinese history, as well as taking several trips to China to prepare for the film. But this isn’t a matter of historical accuracy—this is a matter of who is telling the story. No amount of trips to China or readings of the original story can amount to having a personal connection with the culture the story belongs to. It is unavoidable for them to unconsciously tell a white narrative version of the story because it is how they see the story. Their version of the Chinese tale relies so heavily on European elements to the point that it twists the tale into one that is steeped in cultural appropriation. For instance, there are no witches in Chinese culture, but there are many powerful and mythical beings from ancient China that they could have used to give the film some more integrity and cultural edge. Some of the lines in the film—like "the fiercest winter storm cannot destroy this makeup"—were clearly written in poorly made efforts to mirror ancient Chinese poetry, which like Shakespearean English was never spoken in person in ancient China. Consequently, they create a sense of otherness and fetishize a culture that is not theirs. Had they had at least one Chinese writer, they would have been able to tell a version of Mulan that was more cognizant of the tale’s cultural origins.

Another key thing to note in this rendition of the Chinese folktale is the costume design. In any given film, visuals play a key role in creating a film’s impression on the audience. In turn, costume design sets the tone of the film and adds to the storytelling in the film. Like the rest of the production team, the costume designer Bina Daigeler states that she had done a lot of research, citing European museums and trips to China as her sources of inspiration. However, her research doesn’t seem to really translate onto the big screen as the costume designs have barely any Chinese elements, particularly the dress Mulan wears to her matchmaking appointment.

Not only is the dress culturally inaccurate, but it also pales in comparison to the costumes Chinese costume designers have made for films and shows that take place in ancient China. In a sense, her dress shows a lack of understanding towards the Chinese culture as it only reflects Deiga’s limited vision of Mulan’s story. Consequently, Deiga unintentionally creates an image of Mulan that amplifies the Western interpretation of the story and puts the cultural origins of the story in the shadows.

Not only does the movie appropriate the story of Mulan, but the movie also has multiple ties to human rights issues. The movie’s star, Liu Yifei, has criticized the protests in Hong Kong for human rights and expressed support for the Hong Kong police force that protestors have accused of committing acts of brutality. To make matters worse, the film was filmed in Xinjiang, where over a million Muslim minorities are being detained in internment camps and deprived of even the most basic of human rights. These issues only further highlight Disney’s blatant disregard for a story that holds so much cultural significance in favor of creating a story that reflects the dominant culture’s wants and needs. Rather than collaborating with those who have strong cultural and personal ties with the story of the Chinese heroine and truly honoring Mulan, Disney chose to further develop the white narrative.

Disney’s live-action film Mulan may seem appealing with its ties to a film filled with childhood nostalgia, but it is yet another film about a person of color that culturally appropriates and disrespects cultures outside of the United States.

There are plenty of other adaptations of the female warrior’s tale that honor the source material and truly brings honor to all.

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