Oh boy. Oh brother. Where do I even begin with this… this nonsense? There will be spoilers, and I say that as if I give a shit.
Okay, usually I would do a bit of research, reading, and maybe even talk to some friends before I review something but fuck it, I am only going to put in about the same amount of effort that had apparently been invested into this movie (i.e. minimal). I am Chinese and I am also a fan of Disney films, and I am very easy to please. Do you know how easy it is to please me? I’ll tell you. I actually don’t hate most of Disney’s naked money-grabbing live action remakes that they’ve been pushing out in recent years. That’s the truth. I’ll pay money just to watch diluted versions of their classical animated canon because I am that kind of patsy who is in his 30’s and am utterly, shamelessly susceptible to nostalgia. And I would venture to say that Disney would have done a much better job by me if they had simply stuck to the same playbook they used for Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. Remake it shot by shot. Play us the same catchy songs. That way at least, they would just be revisiting the original gauche liberties they took with Chinese culture back in 1998. But nooo, they have elected instead to abandon their old mistakes in order to commit new hate crimes against the Chinese people. How is it that there are way more Chinese people involved in this new version of Mulan and we still end up with a less culturally-reverent movie?
Firstly, Mulan is no longer just an ordinary woman doing extraordinary things. She is now a superhero. Yeap, they just straight up gave her superpowers. The film summed up these special abilities Mulan displays as “qi” but it’s really just the ability to use wire-fu. But in Gong Li’s witch character’s case, qi allows her to literally turn into a freaking hawk. Or eagle. Or whatever bird of prey she is suppose to be (I’m not looking it up). That’s right, her qi allows her to be a goddamn animagus. And sometimes, she can turn into a whole flock of smaller birds too. And possess people. Like folding her whole ass body into the body of another person. How the fuck she does all that? “Qi”. I can’t believe I am saying this but the Kung Fu Panda films actually have a more accurate representation of what qi is.
And Disney is really flooring the pedal on the soulless corporate token feminism that they saddled nuBelle and nuJasmine with. The use of qi in Mulan is conflated with witchcraft. That’s Gong Li’s whole backstory. The reason she helps a bunch of nomadic Rouran invaders to conquer China in the movie is because she was exiled for being a qi-using witch (and not, as I initially surmised, for robbing Rita Repulsa’s wardrobe or wearing that breastplate that looks like a giant spiky clam eating her boobs). Witchcraft is apparently against ancient Chinese law or something. And Mulan is supposedly in danger of being shunned like Gong Li if she is discovered having these special qi powers. Now, we Chinese really didn’t have the same history with witches as countries with a Judeo-Christian background, and the use of sorcery in Chinese folklore and belief is not even gendered. So it is baffling to me why this whole misogyny-against-witches thing from Western culture got shoehorned into what is suppose to be historical fiction about a badass soldier woman. There is enough regular sexism in Chinese history without trying to invoke the Salem witch trials here.
They also replaced Mulan’s talking animal dragon sidekick with a mute and conspicuously CGI guardian phoenix. There is a lot of symbolism associated with the Chinese phoenix (what we call fenghuang) and one of the things it represents is femininity. That I approve of, actually, but a fenghuang is not a phoenix, which I suspect the filmmakers aren’t aware of when they also used the bloody bird to symbolise Mulan rising up after being brought low. Now, the western phoenix is all about that jazz—rebirth, renewal, reincarnation in flames—but that is NOT at all what the fenghuang symbolises. In fact, it represents the empress, so for most of the movie, I actually wondered if Mulan is going to marry Emperor Jet Li eventually, or kill him and take his place because he is the fucking patriarchy incarnate. The Rourans were certainly more egalitarian—they employ Gong Li after all, while Mulan has to crossdress to even join the Emperor’s army.
They tried to invoke a few of the gags from the original animated movie surrounding Mulan’s difficulties in pretending to be a man in an all-male army camp, but they fell flat because the tone of this new Mulan movie is far more sombre. All the gaiety that the original songs brought to the story are either missing in this movie or reduced to wispy wordless leitmotifs. I don’t know what they did to Donnie Yen, Jet Li and Gong Li but their line deliveries are so painfully wooden that they should be checked for termites. Perhaps it came from them being thanklessly saddled with fortune cookie dialogues that do not reflect how Chinese people communicate at all—that is when they aren’t forcing in lines from the animated Mulan inorganically to remind us over and over again how much we prefer the original. My wife and I burst out laughing multiple times while watching this film at moments that were totally meant to be heartfelt and serious. The worst (and thus, most hilarious) moment was after the
Huns Rourans were buried under an avalanche they stupidly triggered themselves, and Donnie Yen declared, “We won the battle!” as if they did anything when in fact, the bad guy army just basically committed suicide on a massive scale.
Speaking of suicide, why would the Emperor just walk right into an obvious trap with a tiny retinue? The head Rouran chieftain went like, “let’s settle this mano a mano in this construction site” and Emperor Jet Li just obliges him? Dude, your subjects died for you to keep you safe! What the fuck, man? Not cool.
None of the battle tactics employed by either side made sense either. There is a point when Donnie Yen moved his entire (outnumbered) army out of a defensible fort to meet the proto-Mongol Rouran army (consisting mostly of cavalry) on a flat plain. Students of Chinese history might recall what happened when Yang Guozhong ordered his troops to leave the almost impregnable Tong Pass to meet An Lushan on an open field (spoiler alert: it was a Bad Idea). And one striking thing about Chinese battles in history was the huge size of the armies fielded, and they usually number in the thousands or tens of thousands, but the armies in Mulan are comically small. They make the fights look like Ren Fair enactments in which the participants are practicing social distancing. Do you know how dumb a flanking manoeuvre looks with just half a dozen horsemen? I do now.
Now, I can forgive a lot if they actually gave us some competent martial arts choreography, and I’m not gonna lie, that was what I was banking on when they said that this Mulan is not going to be a musical—but if you are looking for a good kung fu flick, Mulan is not it either. The fights are disappointingly short and choppy, and for all the racket they raised around Mulan’s qi powers, she mostly uses it to execute scorpion kicks repeatedly to fling spears, arrows, whatnots at her opponents. Seems like she took Bruce Lee’s advice to heart and practiced that one kick 10,000 times. Presumably because it looks pretty.
You may notice I have not mentioned much about the guyliner-wearing Shan Yu knock off Bori Khan, or the love interest guy who replaced Li Shang. That’s because there is nothing about them worth mentioning. They can gobble each others’ butts for all I care. The only character I don’t hate is Cricket, because he is precious and must be protected at all cost.
This movie was written and directed by a bunch of white people and it really, really shows. Don’t go see it. Go rewatch the original animated Mulan film and enjoy it with my Chinese blessings. Heck, go watch Kung Fu Panda 1, 2 and 3. They are actually more respectful of Chinese lore and tropes than this fiery slab of shit. I don’t know how they did it, but I am super impressed that they somehow managed to perpetrate cultural appropriation with a cast full of Chinese people.