Careening off the international tightrope of ‘Mulan’

Images courtesy Walt Disney Motion Picture Studios.

2/10 $30. This ugly, fascy movie costs $30.

China has been on track for several decades to become the dominant economy in the world. This has affected the film industry like any other, as China’s burgeoning theatrical distribution system has made its cinematic industry almost comparable to Hollywood, and many large-scale, globally oriented Hollywood productions are focusing their efforts on appealing to Chinese viewers just as much as American ones.

Disney has been particularly eager to make this transition, and while many of its recent films have clearly had China in mind, the crown jewel of its effort has been the live-action adaptation of Mulan, which was made as a distinct tribute to Chinese cinema and delayed for several years so it could feature Chinese megastar Liu Yifei. Several Hollywood productions, particularly ones set in East Asia, had been accused of whitewashing while this movie was being developed, and since the original 1998 cartoon was met with apathy in the Middle Kingdom, it was both an opportunity and an imperative to make a Mulan that was more consistent with the Chinese folklore.

And so, after a five year production process and months of pandemic-related delay, Disney releases its celebration of Chinese folklore and send-up of its historic cinema while the Chinese government is actively suppressing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, which have been making international headlines for more than a year now, and on an entirely separate note, is engaged in a genocide against the Uyghurs, a religious and ethnic minority native to the deserts in the country’s northwest. These are in addition to the nation’s decades-long imperialist streak in Tibet and Taiwan.

5th Century China- garrisons on the north side of the Silk Road are falling to a confederacy of Rouran tribes led by Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), who is bent on personal revenge against the emperor. At the head of his army is Xian Lang (Gong Li), a witch with awesome chi powers.

In a rural Northern Wei prefecture lives another young woman with overwhelming chi – Hua Mulan (Yifei), eldest daughter of Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma), primed to be married and having spent her whole life hiding her gift. When the emperor commands that every family under Heaven send one man to join the Chinese army to repel the Rourans, rather than see her father return to war, Mulan steals his armor and enlists as a man, knowing she will be executed if she is discovered.

To be clear, no, I absolutely did not pay $30 for this movie and never would. Access was generously provided by a reader who had bought it anyway. As shocking as the $30 price tag is, it can afford to be. Reporters estimate that only 13.8% of Disney+ subscribers need to shell out in order for Mulan to break even.

Mulan positions chi as very similar to the Force in Star Wars, a divine universal power that all living beings have some degree of access to, but a handful can harness martially, in this case to power the magical kung fu characteristic of Hong Kong action cinema. We are told that chi can only be harnessed by men, and Xian fights on the promise that she will have a seat in Bori’s government after the conquest. Instead of a woman finding her way in the company of men as in 1998, Hua Mulan is essentially an X-Man, gifted at birth with power desired by many and pressured to hide it for the sake of social norms.

Mulan is a dramatic announcement of the a handoff of power from Hollywood to the Chinese film industry, so it’s nice that old-school Hong Kong action was deliberately made a such a big part of the film’s DNA. Chi and kung fu are such a major part of this movie’s world that, instead of being trained to behave as a phalanx or a cavalry, military training is focused on individual combat, meaning Mulan quickly becomes the Fifth Battalion’s ace fighter.

It feels bad docking a kung fu movie for not being realistic, as the genre is celebrated for its camp and exaggerated physics. It doesn’t have to look like the fighting is real, but could its consequences at least look real? There’s not a drop of blood in the movie. At one point, we’re told Mulan has died and come back to life, which is shocking not because that’s impossible but because she doesn’t even look like she’s been in a fight. The action is weakened further by Disney’s standard simulated chaos editing style, which is so severe that, in what’s supposedly a martial arts/war epic, there are only a couple of fights that aren’t cut away from and don’t feel like they were abbreviated in post-production, and even they are far too short to satisfy.

Mulan is horribly ugly, and you can look at it and count the corners that have been cut. Many shots are composited poorly and it’s uncomfortably clear that foreground and background do not exist in the same plane. The soldiers’ colorful armor, highly reminiscent of 2017’s The Great Wall leading me to assume they’re the fashion in Chinese cinema, stick out like sore thumbs when all the extras are wearing normal period costumes.

Its settings, meant to look expansive in large-scale aerial shots, are obviously barren and tiny – it keenly reminds me of Black Panther, another Disney project that was painfully lazy about selling its cramped, cheaply decorated soundstages as a full nation. The vast Imperial City is limited to only a handful of sets which look like they have never been touched by even a drop of rain, let alone an entire city’s worth of people. No effort is ever made to sell the illusion that its big exteriors and tiny, charmless interiors connect. The midpoint battle takes place in an ugly, patchy field, which apparently was right next to a mountain the whole time that they just didn’t bother to shoot, probably because it was obviously drawn in and they didn’t want to pay to have it drawn too many times.

This movie costs $30.

Even before the breakout of these new, acute human rights crises, Mulan was jumping over multiple hurdles relating to U.S. politics. The 1998 movie begins with a scene of the Great Wall of China being penetrated by the Huns, a nomadic group that dissipated about 1,000 years before construction began on the wall as we know it today. With President Donald Trump hard at work on his wall on the southern border, there’s no mention of the wall anywhere in Mulan – this is part of what leads me to estimate the fifth century as the film’s setting.

The trade war, on the other hand, is called out almost immediately – the villains in this new movie are raiding points on the Silk Road, causing “all trade to be disrupted.” With shooting running August-November 2018, just as Trump’s moronic trade war with the country was ramping up, this was certainly not a coincidence.

Even as it argues in favor of maintaining an authoritarian system, Mulan, and Xian in particular, seem acutely aware of how vulnerable such a system is. Her modus operandi that has allowed her to topple multiple garrisons almost effortlessly is to pose as a high-level official, order guards into a position that leaves the city vulnerable, and out-machismo anyone who questions her orders.

The ’98 film’s Huns are literally demonized. They have claws and fangs and black eyes, and at one point their leader roars and apparently calls his entire army back from the dead. The new film’s Rourans certainly don’t get the same treatment – only Xian, the “witch.”

With the addition of Xian as a parallel figure and erstwhile mentor to Mulan, the story of Mulan explicitly becomes one of nationalism over human rights. Xian, whose resentment after a lifetime of persecution is exploited by the Rourans, who continue to ostracize her even as she hands them victory after victory, is eager to ally with Mulan instead. When this is proposed, Mulan turns to the camera and says, “I know my place,” and that she would fight for the nation that will continue to oppress her before she will fight for a better world. Her reasoning, and this is the film’s thesis as a work, is that her ability to rise above her gender role outweighs the systemic pressure she faced, and therefore those systems may remain in place. It is a chilling message being echoed back to a country that is currently violently quelling pro-democracy protests.

$30. It doesn’t even hit two hours, and it costs $30.

That’s as much as I pay for a month of memberships with Cinemark and AMC, memberships that translate to about 13 free tickets per month and significant popcorn discounts. $30.

I wish it weren’t just sticker shock and I had a serious moral objection here, but I don’t. I’ve got my Amazon Prime and Disney+ accounts – which cost about $20 per month combined. I get it. I get that this is much cheaper than a night at the movies for a lot of families. I get the urge to push this model to the limit, especially as theaters are opening back up and this may never happen again.

$30.

The 1998 Mulan’s queerness is highlighted by overtly trans lines like “If I were truly to be myself, I would break my family’s heart… Why is my reflection someone I don’t know?” and “Ah, I see you have a sword. I have one, too.” Choice words can’t help but crop up in the 2020 film as well, with lines like, “To hide amongst [men], she knew she must become one of them.” Mulan is also shown binding her breasts in much the same manner that trans men do before they can be removed.

The most direct way China’s dominance has affected movies was driving an apparent lag in progress for queer representation. China, which still does not allow same-sex couples to marry or adopt, maintains tight control over media released in the country and regularly censors same-sex content. Since Disney made most of its renaissance villains very gay, these elements needed to change, even as they’ve been adding extremely half-hearted gay moments into American releases of the same movies. That’s the reason these moments are so half-hearted – Disney needs them to lift right out when necessary. The biggest change so far has been to the “live-action” Lion King remake, when Scar went from “practicing his curtsy” and “being seen for the wonder he is” to trying to rape his murdered brother’s wife. Much more child-friendly, that.

But it is impossible to remove the queerness from the Ballad of Hua Mulan. You could remove the specific queerness from the 1998 movie, but the myth in even its simplest form, “A woman joined the traditionally all-male army and did well,” is irrevocably, undeniably queer. This idea, that men and women actually aren’t all that different and maybe we shouldn’t build an entire society around them being different, is the fundamental essence of queerness. The mere fact that this story exists, perhaps as a true story but even moreso as celebrated folklore, completely shatters heteronormativity and chauvinism as concepts. The idea that men and women have distinct social roles, and all the professional, political, social, sexual, relational, medical, martial, sartorial, homosexist and transsexist dynamics that come with it, simply cannot exist in a society that celebrates the Mulan story.

The 1998 movie excoriates these ideas. It explicitly positions gender as a performance – “Can it be I’m not meant to play this part?” – and Mulan’s struggles to perform either femininity or masculinity are the principle conflict of the film. In “Bring Honor to us all,” Mulan graphically becomes an actress, stuffed into a restrictive costume and covered in makeup while trying to learn lines the matchmaker will want her to recite and then sent into a line of other young women all dressed up the same way. These other bachelorettes are behaving the same way as well, and we see Mulan literally copying her peers like a synchronized dancer who doesn’t know the steps, but even with four perfect models right next to her, her performance drags behind, and we see that she cannot become the woman her society demands that she be.

It’s important to note that Mulan seems to enjoy some aspects of performing both femininity and masculinity – the problem is not that gender is performative. The problem is Mulan will be executed if she fails that performance. That her gender is more important than her humanity. That her female life doesn’t matter, and her male life will stop mattering if it is revealed to be a ruse.

Another queer flashpoint in Mulan is the removal of 1998’s love interest, Capt. Li Shang. Li was removed for post #metoo concerns that having Mulan’s love interest be her direct military superior would be a bit out of touch, but this triggered brief outrage for another reason — Li is a bisexual icon, appearing to be attracted to Mulan as both a man and a woman. Li is replaced with an equally bisexual peer, Chen Honghui (Yoson An). The new captain does try to get Mulan to marry his daughter, though, so they didn’t really solve the #metoo problem.

Mulan became central to the international debate over Hong Kong when Yifei retweeted her support for police in the city, who have been filmed beating protestors and widely accused of torturing them while in custody. Calls to boycott Mulan began immediately, and the film has emerged as an avatar for China itself, being protested in Hong Kong, Tibet and Taiwan as a proxy for China’s growing global dominance. All three areas’ fights for democracy are ongoing.

This is the tangible danger of China becoming the dominant economic power in the world. Just as the U.S. enforces democratic values by refusing to do business with autocracies – ostensibly – there is a very reasonable fear that China will similarly require international business partners to meet its values, values most of the world finds horrific.

China is a one-party and one-union state, and its citizens are not allowed to join any other unions or political parties. It has five officially sanctioned religious groups, all of which are effectively controlled by the state, and others are severely suppressed. It regularly jails critics of its government and diligently censors information, going so far as having its own closed-off version of the internet, complete with its own government-controlled social media platforms.

We’ve already seen how these values affect the movies in a static sense, but with the acute human rights abuses mounting, Disney – and many other businesses – are going to be put in more and more positions to either speak out against injustices perpetrated by the Chinese government or remain conspicuously quiet. When pressed on the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests last October, Disney CEO Bob Iger refused to take a stance, saying in as many words that not harming his company is more important to him than democracy-

“What we learned in the last week — we’ve learned how complicated this is. The biggest learning from that is that caution is imperative. To take a position that could harm our company in some form would be a big mistake. I just don’t believe it’s something we should engage in in a public manner.”

It doesn’t seem very complicated to me.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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