starring Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen, Jason Scott Lee, Jet Li
screenplay by Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver and Lauren Hynek & Elizabeth Martin
directed by Niki Caro
by Walter Chaw You can become an expert in the folk history of Mulan if you do a general Google search. Sufficed to say the story of Mulan is an important one for my people, and when I say "my people," I mean my parents' culture, to which I am connected despite a lifetime trying to disentangle myself from it. I read Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness decades ago and found in it the truest expression for me of...strangeness? Uncanniness? The alienation I've felt my entire life? I'm not accepted, I have come to accept, by the only culture (American) I have ever known, and my parents' culture despises me, and so here I am, an outcast caste without safe harbour. Being Asian-American for me has meant nursing an unquenchable yearning to be something else, and a wish never honoured to be mistaken for wholly acceptable. In my attempts to return to my heritage over the past decade, I've found myself discouraged by this chasm I've dug in my heart. I don't know if there's enough soil left in the world to make it whole again.
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. When the father (the great 馬泰) of Mulan (刘亦菲) screams at her over dinner one night that it is his duty this and family honour that, I felt the pity you feel for the backwards Chinee, dear friends, and also shame and trauma for that--and for how my father saved that look of disappointment for me when he realized I was rejecting family in favour of the country to which he and my mother had come hoping for a better life for me. What is it to gain the world for your son only to lose him to it? I am the cause of so much pain. There's a reconciliation at the end of Mulan, of course, where the father apologizes for letting his "foolish pride" get in the way of yadda yadda, you know this song, but that's the coward's way out. "You have brought honour to us all!" four or five people proclaim ecstatically at the end, one by one, like mockingbirds down a primrose lane.
This expository convention in this Disney film based on an earlier Disney film and directed by a white woman who has identified herself as a member of the "Culture of Disney," well, it hurts. And it's not for you to use it in this way because you know what, you don't have any idea what you're talking about when you do it. Go fuck yourself. Mulan is a willful young woman possessed of a surplus of Chi. Chi is a life force the Chinese believe moves through the body like breath. It means "air," essentially. When you get a massage, it's to release blockages of Chi in your body. In Mulan, Chi is The Force or pixie magic or whatever it is that allows people to turn into birds and shit to the tune of a wood flute and an erhu or guzheng, preferably. There's a scene straight out of Just One of the Guys where Mulan, pretending to be a man because otherwise her disabled father will be conscripted into the army, volunteers for guard duty so she won't have to shower with the boys. Were there showers in military barracks during this period in history? It doesn't matter. It's fun to imagine a pretty girl taking a shower with a bunch of men. Later, she's asked about her ideal woman, and when she lists "courageous" among her desired traits, all the men laugh because men are pigs. If you think this issue is complicated in the United States, you better believe it's complicated in China. But we read it as we are meant to read it: subtext as text. Misogyny is bad. I hope you're taking notes. Were there any Asians on the creative team? An editor? A screenwriter? The composer? Anyone? I think maybe the make-up designer, plus a couple of producers looking to cash in. Whatever. Did I mention how tired I am?
If you are taking notes, take down the part about how condescending it is to have someone not of your culture lecture you about the failures of your culture without perhaps fully understanding the completeness of the multifoliate failures of your culture. It gets pretty muddy pretty quickly, doesn't it? It's not a minefield so much as sitting on a powder keg and, Bonnie Tyler-like, giving off sparks. While it's wonderful to see these Chinese--and Chinese-American (hello, Jason Scott Lee!)--stars in a major Disney production, it's less wonderful to hear them speaking English and doing lines that are not entirely unlike the lyrics to that ugly Arab ditty that opens both versions of Aladdin. Forcing these guys to do this story in English feels cognitively, perceptually wrong to me. I don't want to say "repugnant," but, yeah, repugnant. You'll say this is progress, and I'll say it doesn't feel like progress, though I'm not the best person to ask because I've seen I think every 甄子丹 movie and this is the first one that makes me uncomfortable. This story isn't for you, you see. Neither is Journey to the West or Romance of the Three Kingdoms. These stories are for me because they're all I have of what my parents left behind: the only connection to them I have left. They are the inheritance I'm wrestling with every waking moment of my life in a way that I don't think you are. Are white people allowed to tell yellow tales? I mean, sure, I can't stop you. My ask for next time is that if you force them all to speak English, at least let them pronounce "Mulan" the way a Chinese person would pronounce it. (Mu with a glottal long.) I understand how doing that would damage the Disney "Mulan" brand, though, so... Hey, did you know Mulan is a Disney brand now? Anyway, the image I have in my head of a vocal coach teaching Chinese people how to pronounce "花木兰" like a white person is something I also find to be repugnant.
Mulan in this incarnation is a fable of otherness that gets mixed up with a fable of empowerment. Ostensibly, it's about an evil (Mongol?) warlord (Lee) and his witch (巩俐) who are rampaging through Northern China along the Silk Road and the conscripted army assembled to slow their advance, led by Commander Tung (甄). The first quarter is about Mulan being a terrible disappointment to her mother (Rosalind Chao), while the second quarter is an extended training montage in which Mulan's fighting skills blossom. More stuff happens in the third and fourth quarters; you already know the rest. Mulan brings honour to the family that the family did not suspect a daughter could bring through any pursuit other than marriage and motherhood. There's a nice moment where Tung says he'd like to introduce Mulan to his daughter and to see the look on Mulan's father's face when he tells him the news. It's a laugh line 甄 plays for the full pathos of being trapped in a culture where giving away his daughter to his best soldier is the highest honour he can bestow upon his best soldier. I'm not sure what you'll get out of it, but it made me cry from the trauma of disappointing my parents so completely--from divorcing myself from them so coldly--that this fictional betrayal of Tung's admiration laid me flat. But how did you take it? 甄 is an actor of extraordinary range and sensitivity. This is where I give a list of films in which he does this, but I'm tired, you guys, look it up. I mean, he's only been in sixty movies or so.
There are giant CGI battle sequences that look no better or worse than a stupid CGI spider employed in a gag to show how brave Mulan is in comparison to her silly and feminine sister. When the sister later tells Mulan about her new fiance, one of his defining attributes is that he is not afraid of spiders. Was it the intention to demean other women--the blinkered mother, stentorian crone matchmaker, hysterical sister, and a sexually dangerous succubus played by a woman painted as such in China for her rumoured affairs (don't worry, celestial Ladyhawke pays the ultimate price for her transgressions like Joseph Breen's still running the show)--to elevate Mulan? Was it to give weighted value to Mulan's masculine-coded attributes (courage, honour, strength, fighting ability), which, incidentally, is not something the animated version of this movie did? I feel like that wasn't the intention, but Christ, what do I know? Let me be clear that I think women are courageous, honourable, strong, and can kill people given the chance, and that is why I think it's a problem when being afraid of spiders is coded as feminine while being able to swing a stick is coded as masculine. I think it's interesting there are scenes cribbed from Dragonslayer, Krull, and, uh, Batman Begins, not to mention that Clive Owen King Arthur movie and the Kevin Costner Robin Hood movie. Kidding--it's not interesting at all. It is, on the other hand, familiar in a pre-packaged, easy-to-consume way that westernizes one of China's foundational stories for ease of foreign consumption. Some would say this is a good thing for Chinese culture. I'm torn. I mean, if you're interested in Chinese culture, it's not that difficult to find an authentic Chinese movie to watch.
But how is it as entertainment? I can hear you asking, to which I respond that I have no idea, since I was not entertained by it. Your mileage will most assuredly vary. The action sequences aren't particularly riveting and are never something you haven't seen done better in decades of Asian historical wuxia. The choice to go slo-mo when showing men loading a trebuchet in the middle of a battle is certainly a choice, no doubt about that, y'all. 安柚鑫 makes for a lovely leading man, although he's wasted, as is most of the cast for whom the film is supposedly some huge break. Like 陳港生 in that second Cannonball Run movie. Yeah, man, the biggest star in the world desperately needed that exposure as (checks notes) "Mitsubishi Engineer." (Wait, he's Japanese? What's the difference, amirite?) Near the end of Mulan, Commander Tung asks rhetorically how they can trust someone whose entire existence is a subterfuge, a lie. I thought about how that's a pretty pointed bit of auto-critique for this movie, this defense of empirical rule against a usurping army acted out by a young woman who came out stridently in defense of police brutality. "She had no choice!" people say--and I agree, yet she somehow took the wrong side anyway. You'll find it entertaining if you like Orientalism with real Orientals. I know that term was originally used to describe Middle Easterners, but fear not, there's a scene with a rug full of spices and stuff that I don't really understand, except it's exotic and therefore belongs in this movie defined by its exoticism.
What I'm saying is that everything about this Mulan is ironic accidentally. Whatever its intentions, its execution and the circumstances of its creation are in opposition to them. It's a feminist tract that enforces male notions of value; a call to arms that fights for the wrong side of our current history; and a proud statement of national identity that celebrates the Nation of Disney as opposed to China. It's majestically painful as a representation of how white people view Asians and, yes, it would be different had an Asian person been allowed to direct the film. The solution is not now and never was for white people to hire consultants to understand Asianness better--it is to place Asians in positions of real decision-making and creative power. While you can substitute the minority as circumstances dictate, the principle is consistent enough that it comes as no surprise it's never the decision made by the allies wanting to learn. Anyway, China makes extraordinary historical wuxia pictures of their own. 吳宇森's Red Cliff made me proud to be who I am for the first time in my life at the hale age of 36. Still, Chinese culture is not Asian-American culture, and all Mulan does is serve as a painful reminder of my otherness in this place I have loved my whole life that has never taken the time to know me.