Watched: Mulan

Disney’s live-action Mulan is not as delightful as the animated movie and not engaging as a new version. Why did they bother with blah?

Mulan in full feminine regalia during a battle. Film still: Disney Enterprises

By Ray Zhang

Barely one minute and half into the new Disney film Mulan, I was irritated. The film’s story tellers (four credited scriptwriter were involved) had decided to set the titular character’s home in a tulou (土楼) in China’s southeastern province of Fujian (福建). As far as I am aware, the story of Hua Mulan (花木兰) was set in Northern China, in the Han region, during the Northern Wei Dynasty (北魏), also known as the era of the Tuoba Wei (拓跋魏), between 386 to 534 AD. The distinctive circular Fujian tulou—or earthen buildings—are much later vernacular homes of the Hakka people, believed to have first erected them in the 12th century. Although it has never been clearly established in ancient texts (such as the 12th century’s Ballad of Mulan or 木兰辞) where Mulan (played by China-born American Liu Yifei) was from, she was not known to be of Hakka or even Hokkien descent.

But, here in a lively compound of a tulou, is where we first encounter the girl Mulan chasing a chicken. The suggestion of rural life belied her acrobatic, pre-gongfu skills, never mind that she’s more agile than a domestic fowl. Also here, as a young woman of marriageable age, she was strangely sent to a matchmaker to learn to be, well, a woman of marriageable age, not to learn of a potential suitor. I have no idea why the matchmaker had such high standing in the community that she had to be, as Mulan and her chaperones—mother and sister—seemed, feared. What’s even more curious was how the Hua women had to be ridiculously decked out and made up, just to see the matchmaker, played by the revered Cheng Pei-Pei 郑佩佩, also in similar clown’s (小丑) makeup. It was beyond my comprehension how Ms Cheng could come this far as an actress, known for her breakthrough role as Golden Swallow (金燕子) in the 1966 King Hu (胡金铨) film Come Drink with Me (大醉侠) and the impressive Jade Fox (碧眼狐狸) in Lee An’s (李安) Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (卧虎藏龙), to be cast in such a small, silly part that our own Ang Hwee Fang (or Hong Huifang 洪慧芳) could have played with no loss to the latter’s credibility.

The Fujian tulou where Disney decided Mulan lived. Screen grab: Disney+

According to makeup designer, Denise Kum (Captain America), her research into Tang dynasty women’s “ideas of beauty” revealed that makeup was not only the unmissable hua dian (花点, decorative floral dots above the glabella), but also hideous colours such as green eyebrows. But Mulan’s conscription took place during the Northern Wei dynasty, which was some three decades before Tang. Defenders of Ms Kum’s work said that such makeup was popular among the Tang emperors’ concubines. In Disney’s telling, Mulan was the daughter of a crippled army veteran, whose family was installed in a village, where chickens were free to be chased by children. The Huas were nowhere near a royal court. How likely was it that, going to meet a matchmaker against her desire, Mulan would appear before the latter made up as a concubine? Did the meipo (媒婆), too, wished to look like a member of the Emperor’s harem?

Not only was the makeup an affront to ancient Chinese beauty traditions (so unnecessarily heavy-handed that it prompted Mulan to say “the fiercest winter storm could not destroy this makeup”, and that included green brows!), the costume design—by Bina Daigeler (recently, Hulu series Mrs America)—took ancient Chinese sartorial glamour to new heights. As a rural lass, Mulan wore clothes that could be those of the elite class: fancy. She even had an outfit set aside for matchmaking. And armour and helmut ready for battle! The rest of her village folks wore so much colour, only a Pantone chart could offer such coordinated chromatic variety. On the other end of the grandeur scale, the Emperor—unnamed, played by Jet Li—was attired in a strange mianfu (冕服 or ceremonial royal attire): dirty green cocoon shan (衫 or coat), under which the inner garment yi (衣) sported six(!) concentric crossed collars (交领) that appeared to be without the left-over-right youren (右衽) overlapping, making him look unmagestically puny, even when inexplicably bathed in a ray of golden light. Forgive the language, but WTF?

Mulan, dressed extravagantly, to meet the matchmaker. Film still: Disney Enterprises

Chinese Netizens have already pointed out that these are xifu (戏服 or costumes), not hanfu (汉服 or Han clothing). Ms Daigeler couldn’t tell the difference. Since the story largely took place in battlefields (or military camps), the cast wore battle-ready uniforms with plate armours. I am sure military historians would be able to fault what the soldiers wore, but for me, the civilian clothes were the ones that grated on my nerves. Although Ms Daigeler claimed she did “deep research” on Chinese clothing and culture, she also admitted that she did not consult any Chinese professional, relying instead on her Western “intuition”. Predictably, the costumes couldn’t escape the fantasy that a Caucasian is wont to imbue ancient Oriental garments with. There were improbabilities too. After “Hua Jun died”—in the first battle with the bird-witch Xian Lang—and “Mulan lived”, as the narration went, the protagonist shed her military armour to reveal a woman’s yi (top photo) and loosely curled hair worthy of a Dyson Airwrap ad, while riding a horse! And those wide sleeves! How were they practical to wielding swords in a battlefield? Did she, like Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, have gender-affirming, fighting clothes on all along as they went to battle? Mulan might be a Chinese folk hero, but Disney forgot she is not a DC Comics superhero.

Then, there was Gong Li, probably the biggest Chinese star the Americans ever knew. I do not know why there was the necessity of a “witch” with Mutant-like, shape-shifting ability in the plot. If the imperial army would not even allow a woman into their military grounds, why would their enemy, the barbaric Rourans (柔然), even with a feared warrior-leader Bori Khan, need the histrionic help of the campy Xian Lang? Ms Li, not dressed in a hanfu, but in what could pass off as neo-Victorian bandit-goth (Snow White’s Evil Queen won’t be envious), with makeup that The Green Hornet’s Kato might have rejected, was essentially reviving her 2016 role as White Bone Demon (白骨精) in Monkey God 2 (西游记之孙悟空三打白骨精), also as shape-shifting, but speaking as Memoir of a Geisha’s Hatsumomo! Her White Bone Demon costume and “I-am-hell-(我就是地狱)” performance were way more fierce, and infinitely better.

Gong Li as a witch knows how to dress glamorously and fight stunningly. Screen grab: Disney+

Mulan is largely a war movie, yet against a setting of violent struggle, the filmmakers saw it necessary to exoticise the telling. Apart from geographical, architectural, and costume irregularities, the film throughout—shot in both China and New Zealand—clearly did not want barren northern Chinese lands to dominate. In the first part of the film, when the witch Xian Lang and the kohled baddie Bori Khan attacked a walled city, I thought I was watching a scene from Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. This took place somewhere on “The Silk Route, Northeastern China”, according to the film. The Silk Route (丝绸之路) was more than 11,200 kilometres long—a network of roads, stretching from Xian to the Mediterranean Sea. Placing the above scene anywhere on this land trading route, even in the northeast, is artistically lazy. To heightened the Chineseness of the set located away from the war, production designer Grant Major (King Kong) succumbed to the typical angmo idea of Orientalism. When Mulan was about to leave her family to join the army, she was placed in a romantically styled room flanked by red lanterns. Remember, we were supposed to believe she lived in essentially communal quarters. Yet, in a sad and conflicted state, Mulan, we were to be convinced, had time and inclination to light and raise lanterns before sunrise just for her to depart discreetly!

Since this was not strictly a wuxia film (or, at least not in the Louis Cha tradition), the fighting scenes were less about balletic swordplay, fancy footwork, and gravity-defying flying than brute strength, killing in large numbers, and raining of arrows. In fact, the fighting was so uninspiring that a Jacky Chan street brawl would have more going for it. The final showdown took place in an alleyway and construction site! For a reported USD200-million Disney production, the “epic” military attacks in Mulan was not more spectacular than those on less costly Chinese TV series, such as 2017’s The Glory of Tang (唐朝荣耀) or this year’s hit Under the Power (锦衣之下). As for Donnie Yen’s part of the “commanding officer” Commander Tung Yong, the Chinese have a perfect description: 大才小用 (or, making small use of big talent). I couldn’t see how else to describe Commander Tung’s uncommanding presence. Or, sudden appearance to break up a scuffle in an enlistment line (did he not have other junior officers to do that?). Or, showing off gongfu moves as demonstrations, not instructions, to teach enlistees. He sure didn’t teach the wooden Mulan; he didn’t even fight in the battle scenes. He was definitely no 战神赵子龙, god of war Zhao Zilong.

Striking battle formation, but the fighting scenes were lacklustre. Screen grab: Disney+

I found it also hard to digest a beloved Chinese folk tale with dialogue spoken in largely (but uneven) American English. The Hua family of four all spoke with different accents. At her first meeting with Commander Tung, Mulan gave herself a presumably manlier name Hua Jun (花军. It was Ping in the cartoon), which she pronounced as if she was an American on her first day at a putonghua class. Heck, she couldn’t even pronounce the name of her father Hua Zhou (花州). And then, later, threatened with expulsion, she inexplicably said, “I would rather be air-cuted (executed)”, as if there was sng buay (酸梅, preserved plums) in her mouth. While all the dialogues were in English, even the military commands and battle calls, the background soldierly talk was curiously in Mandarin. And when Commander Tung finally had the chance to call Hua Mulan by her real name, he said it in Mandarin too. In fact, the spoken sound of the movie was so oddly inconsistent, and monotonous (especially among the soldiers) that I was beginning to suspect that the film was dubbed. And by Mediacorp!

This year’s Mulan is supposed to be based on the 1998 animation—loosely, as is everything about the film. With a cartoon, you can get away with the crass, the foolish, the inaccurate, the made-up. With actual actors, believability, both cultural and narrative, drives the story. Mulan, the live action, builds on a thin, unimaginative, straightforward plotline, with a Westerner’s definition of the East’s sense of loyalty, bravery, and truth (忠勇真 respectively), as inscribed on the sword of Mulan’s father that she took along with her to fight with. It was a lot of hogwash and it was especially unconvincing when expressed by American filmmakers operating in the shadow of a White House unmoved by the loyal, the brave, and, definitely, the truth. I don’t know if Disney intended Mulan to ingratiate the company with China, now reportedly a larger movie market than the United States. If so, the film’s association with Xinjiang, as seen in the end credits, could be the world-angering ratification.

Two strong women. Only one lives. Guess who? Screen grab: Disney+

Awash with 2020 wokefulness, Mulan also showed that ancient Chinese women (or, perhaps, women in general), even after a gruelling journey through plateaus and mountains, do not smell, but men “stink” (and they snore, for they are such slobs). And Mulan only began to “smell bad” after doing non-stop night guard duty and not bathing. Odoriferous problems aside, pity, too, was necessary as in Mulan’s first night guard duty (which she volunteered to do): it poured. To be sure, Kiwi director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) made it clear from the start of the film that this would be a feminist movie. Mulan, described by her father in the cringing cliche, “a young shoot, all green, unaware of the blade”, could only fight her best, life-saving fight as a woman, not as a man (which would have been disastrous, as her regiment mates and Commander proved so). Even the witch Xian Lang was not inherently evil—she was controlled by the one-dimensional master Bori Khan. A woman is only bad when she’s under the dominance of a man! And when Xian Lang told him of Mulan now leading an army, she was quick to correct him referring to her as a mere “girl”: “a woman”, the witch insisted. And there I was, hearing Christina Aguilera singing, “who is that girl I see/staring back straight at me…”

Hua Mulan is not the only female crossdresser in Chinese folk tales and historical narratives. Women in male drag are, in fact, common in Chinese story telling, especially in wuxia tales. The two China TV series I mentioned earlier, too, have them, and, additionally, women generals. And all of them are well-educated and gongfu-skilled (文武双全, wen wu shuang quan), without the need to depend on or strengthen their ‘chi’ (气)—that metaphysical, already-exploited-in-Kung-Fu-Panda, Force-like power that Mulan possessed and initially grappled with (oh, so did Rey Skywalker). As Commander Tung explained, “The chi pervades the universe and all living things… but only the true will connect deeply with his chi and become a great warrior.” To be true, Mulan had to go back to being female. Thankfully, without the lurid, man-repeller makeup.

Rating: 1 out of 5.