Mulan (2020) movie review: girl (and film) at war with the world

part of my Directed by Women series
MaryAnn’s quick take: Acceptably inoffensive, if less than wholly engaging. At least Liu’s strong, stately Mulan is a wonderful role model for girls who aren’t much interested in conformity and adhering to expectations.
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for movies by and about women...
I’m “biast” (con): ...but not a fan of Disney’s live-action remakes
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
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I am very much a nonfan of Disney’s adventure in mounting live-action versions of its animated films. With the exception of 2016’s The Jungle Book, The Mouse has not yet found good creative reasons for any of these do-overs, and these movies have played like unintentional self-parody. They are the Hollywood equivalent of what we’ve seen in politics in recent years: those who’ve always had miserable motives for their words and actions no longer feel the need to pretend otherwise, and are saying what had previously been the unsaid quiet parts out loud. With these mostly tedious reboots, Disney is not even hiding the fact that its business these days is grabbing cash however it can.

Small wonder, then: its new version of Mulan does not, in fact, play like an unintentional parody. Alas, it doesn’t play as much of anything else, even as it diverges from the original cartoon in more substantial ways than its live-action-remake predecessors have. And yet this is not the distinguishing mark that it might have been. I felt that the silliness of the 1998 cartoon, and the insipid songs tacked on to force it into the Disney-musical category, undermined the serious side of the tale it was telling. The limp music and the goofy sidekicks are gone here… but they haven’t been replaced with something else. We’re left with a tale that is so solemn that it avoids almost all humor. And it doesn’t have much life, either.

Mulan Yifei Liu
This is also warpaint… but it is for a war that Mulan does not want to fight.

We still have young Mulan (Yifei Liu: The Forbidden Kingdom), chafing at the limitations placed upon her as a girl in imperial China, where the only way she can bring honor to her family is by becoming a silent, obedient wife to a man she won’t even get to choose for her husband. An active, lively young woman, seeking another path to honor that also honors her own desires, she disguises herself as a boy and sneaks off to take the place of her disabled father (Tzi Ma: Arrival, The Campaign) when the emperor (Jet Li [The Expendables 3, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor], briefly) calls up an army to repel invading Huns.

It’s all… fine (she said with a sigh of resignation and of low expectations just barely exceeded). Mulan may be a bit too simple for adults and a bit too violent for kids — this is like a martial-arts movie for grade-schoolers — but I guess that isn’t the worst thing in the world, if it gets Western kids excited about Asian cinema. It’s all… acceptably inoffensive, if less than wholly engaging.

The limp music and the goofy sidekicks of the 1998 cartoon are gone… but they haven’t been replaced with much else.

The big thing that Mulan does get right is director Niko Caro’s (McFarland USA, Whale Rider) visual take on the legendary Chinese figure: it is refreshingly free of the sort of fetishization we often get when male directors take on female action heroes. Caro eschews, too, the exoticization of Asian women that often afflicts Western filmmaking. (Three of the four screenwriters are also women: Amanda Silver [In the Heart of the Sea, Jurassic World], Elizabeth Martin, and Lauren Hynek; Rick Jaffa [Rise of the Planet of the Apes] is the fourth.) It’s a low bar, but one that too many movies cannot seem to get over. Combined with Liu’s stately central performance, in which she exudes pride, honor, and a strength both physical and psychological, it makes this Mulan a wonderful role model for girls who aren’t much interested in conformity and adhering to expectations, which is rare in children’s movies. I do wish, though, that the movie was craftier about the spiritual connection between Mulan and the witch Xianniang (an absolutely badass Li Gong: Hannibal Rising, Curse of the Golden Flower), who is allied with the Huns. The movie pops its head above the parapet just a tad for the idea of women having to hide all sorts of gifts if those gifts aren’t the ones women are “supposed” to have… and then it instantly pulls it back down again. But… fine.

Mulan Yifei Liu
I’m not sure that Mulan is fooling anyone into believing she is a boy…

If the gender dynamics here aren’t as problematic as those of some Disney movies, there are other worrying matters. Some fans are calling for the film to be boycotted because of star Liu’s public support for Hong Kong police and their violent crackdowns on pro-democracy protestors. That may be a matter of how well a movie lover wants to — or is able to — separate the art from the artist. Far less ambiguous is Disney’s own tacit support for Beijing’s genocide of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region of China, where some of the film was shot; the movie’s credits thank multiple propaganda departments in Xinjiang for their assistance in the production. That thing about saying the quiet part out loud? It looks as if Disney has decided that ensuring access to the newly lucrative Chinese moviegoing market, no matter what horrors Beijing is engaged in, is something it can openly court without damaging its business in the West. Can it?


Mulan is the Alliance of Women Film Journalists’ Movie of the Week for September 11th. Read the comments from AWFJ members — including me — on why the film deserves this honor.

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Bluejay
Bluejay
Sat, Sep 12, 2020 3:39am

So none of the filmmakers—not the director nor any of the four screenwriters (nor, apparently, the costume designer)—were Chinese? This feels like a huge missed opportunity to have an Asian story told by Asian storytellers through an Asian lens; I’ve read complaints about how the film mishandles Chinese culture*. This feels particularly inexcusable in an era where we’re pushing to have stories about POC told *by* POC, and several successful films have already done so (Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians, The Farewell, and many others). I wonder how much more authentic and fresh and surprising the film could have been if there’d been more Asian creatives onboard behind the camera, who could have helped to avoid Western blind spots, challenge tired Western tropes, and push the story in bold directions.

*for instance:

https://supchina.com/2020/09/11/why-chinese-viewers-hate-disneys-mulan/

https://international.thenewslens.com/article/140433

https://medium.com/@DawnXianaMoon/mulan-on-adapting-another-cultures-stories-and-missing-the-point-7bba4cbf3d85

(thread)
https://twitter.com/KatjeXia/status/1303233043776172033

Bluejay
Bluejay
reply to  Bluejay
Sat, Sep 12, 2020 2:49pm

Looked some more into this, and wow. They really DIDN’T have a single Chinese or East Asian person in any significant leadership role behind the scenes. The interview (below) with the costume designer—”I went to all the European museums with a China department, and then went to China and soaked up Chinese culture for three weeks”—is just cringeworthy.

How is this acceptable in this day and age? Can you imagine how much flak Black Panther would have gotten if it were made by an all-white team? How many justified complaints there would have been about ignoring all the Black creative talent that was right there waiting to be tapped? And, more to the point, how much shittier the film would have been as a result? And considering that Disney itself saw fit to have an Oceanic Story Trust to ensure authenticity in Moana, it’s really surprising that they made zero effort here.

…Particularly when they’re trying to win over, y’know, AUDIENCES IN CHINA. They didn’t stop to consider that Chinese people might be offended (or at least unimpressed) by foreigners trying to sell them THEIR OWN STORY that’s been in their bones for thousands of years? Sheesh.

https://twitter.com/offcolourinc/status/1237319054051983361?lang=en

amanohyo
amanohyo
reply to  Bluejay
Sat, Sep 12, 2020 6:09pm

I agree 100% – there should have been some Chinese American representation at high levels behind the camera. Imagine a Chinese studio made a movie about the Revolutionary War with an all white cast (forced to speak in accented Chinese, of course) and all Asian creative team, and then was like, “Why don’t you Americans all love this? It’s your story and the characters are white. There’s shooting and electric guitar solos and hamburgers and Budweiser and people yelling ‘freedom!’ – white people love that stuff!”

Walter Chaw wrote an excellent review as well, which summarized my emotions watching the marketing for this film better than I can:

“When I watch things like Niki Caro’s Mulan, I see in it the way white Americans see me: accented, mystical, bound, some would say hobbled, by notions of honour, drowned in centuries of arcane history and hipster appropriations of ancient concepts like “chi,” for instance, kung fu for another. I am seen, if I am seen, by white Americans as this collection of half-formed impressions and the vague notion of ineffable otherness. Mulan confirms that I am not like you and never will be, and the pain of it makes it difficult for me to watch.”

As MA wrote, Disney is now saying the quiet parts out loud by being open about its mercenary motives here and in China, and the problem with these remakes is that the quiet parts and the loud parts have all been smoothed over into a moderate hum. To appeal to as many people/countries as possible, Disney has become unable to say anything important or inspire any intense emotions, and when these characters can’t speak important truths or be authentically emotional, they start feeling like Asian puppets with all their strings being pulled by wealthy white people engaged in some light, trendy cultural tourism.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  amanohyo
Sun, Sep 13, 2020 4:48pm

“When I watch things like Niki Caro’s Mulan, I see in it the way white Americans see me: accented, mystical,

This is really fascinating to me, because where I saw an Asian protagonist who didn’t seem other-ized — at least compared to other Hollywood depictions — an Asian-American did still see that.

I would LOVE to see a movie that someone like Chaw felt was a fair representation of his reality.

Bluejay
Bluejay
reply to  Bluejay
Sat, Sep 12, 2020 8:07pm

Adding: Want to highly recommend this very thorough and nuanced piece by Jeannette Ng. Yes, representation and lack of “authenticity” is an issue here, but not the only one, nor (arguably) the most pressing.

https://medium.com/@nettlefish/beyond-authenticity-the-spectre-of-han-hegemony-c1e3b5fc1b98

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Bluejay
Sun, Sep 13, 2020 4:48pm

This is such a great essay, and it really speaks to why it is so important that we get a truly wide diversity of voices talking about film and pop culture (and everything!). Because no matter how woke a middle-aged white lady like me would like to think I am, it’s not truly possible for me to write from a perspective that isn’t my own, and not truly possible for me to appreciate how, in this instance, an ethnically Asian Westerner will see a movie like Mulan. (Needs to be said, too: We need *multiple* Western Asian, and Asian Asian, perspectives on this film, and all films, because there is no monolithic block of thinking anywhere, in any culture or subculture).

More voices, always. There cannot be too many voices.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Bluejay
Sun, Sep 13, 2020 4:48pm

Can you imagine how much flak Black Panther would have gotten if it were made by an all-white team?

And that right there may be the difference between why Black Panther succeeded and Mulan doesn’t.

CB
CB
reply to  Bluejay
Mon, Sep 14, 2020 5:20pm

Yeah I had heard (wrongly) that this movie was going to be helmed by a Chinese director and that was pretty much the only thing that raised my expectations above ground level.

zak1
zak1
Fri, Sep 25, 2020 6:34pm

Nice review – I agree this film was underwhelming and actually clumsy in many respects, but for me the central thread was strong enough to keep me quite engaged – this part with her awakening within – like a feminist version of The Matrix – no surprise that the director of Whale Rider would hit a home run on that front

Gong Li is one of our finest actors – her 80s/90s work with Zhang Yimou is like the Scorsese/DeNiro partnership –

Even apart from the legendary 5th Generation, East Asia has some of the world’s most prominent film industries – just look at Hong Kong’s recent impact on Hollywood – it’s astonishing that Disney would so completely and conspicuously exclude Hanzi filmmakers from this creative team – (though Wiki says they did initially approach Ang Lee to helm – which would have been a tantalizing prospect)

CB
CB
reply to  zak1
Mon, Sep 28, 2020 7:16pm

Not that making a movie with that central theme is a bad, but it just seems like a really bizarre (and bad) choice to do it with this movie. It’s a story that’s originally about a regular woman who just wants to keep her grandfather from being killed and manages to find the courage and gain the strength to succeed beyond anyone’s expectations even her own, and they turned it into yet another Chosen One narrative about someone born with super-powers.

And I think it undermines any feminism if the message is “don’t underestimate women — if they clearly have super-powers and you couldn’t stop them if you tried.”

zak1
zak1
reply to  CB
Thu, Oct 01, 2020 5:26am

I see what you mean

– I didn’t interpret this Mulan as a Chosen One (even though I did use Matrix as a comparison) – the way I read that was that so many women already have great power in waiting

– and many women already know this on some level, and the reason they keep themselves in check is because the culture gaslights them into it – similar to Captain Marvel’s point, where she knew she was powerful but she’d been conditioned to walk on eggshells, and her liberation involved her finally letting herself stomp on those eggs

– I actually thought Mulan did a better job of presenting this because of the way it dramatized those quiet moments where Mulan was alone with this quiet power waiting within her

– also because of Gong Li’s role in reinforcing this as a story about the universal power in women, as opposed to Mulan’s uniqueness – I understood Gong Li’s point being that women’s power was practically an open secret

– there was an implicit sense between them of “why do we all put up with this?” – and we see the real hurdle is their shared pain at being ostracized, which the film presents as a legitimate fear that must be overcome, perhaps the true antagonist here

– as a message to adolescent girls, which is more empowering:

– to say “Believe it or not, you’re actually powerful”,

– or to say “Are you kidding? Of COURSE you’re powerful!”

The first may actually be better in artistic terms, since doubt usually plays better dramatically – but the second strikes me as the more successful pep talk for a shy teenager – and for me this is where this Mulan film succeeds very well