Mulan was one of the films that helped make the 1990s the best decade for Disney. It was a feminist piece that gave a different message to young people than the typical “be pretty and boys will like you” of older, female-lead Disney animated features. It was also a female-lead action movie that came before studios realised they could make a guaranteed profit from that genre; So it felt genuine.
It’s for that reason that I’m concerned about the live action Mulan. During the last few days more details have been revealed in regards to the Disney “reimagining” — and with just these few pieces of information, I’m concerned that the strength of a woman overcoming and outsmarting a man’s world has been lost.
Let me start by praising Disney for opting to cast Chinese and Chinese-American actors. At one point, a few years back, they weren’t going to — and casting people as the correct race should really be base-level common sense in this decade.
So they can definitely have some points for doing the right thing as far as casting goes. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Scarlett Johansson auditioned for the role of Mulan, given her recent penchant to pursue roles meant for actors of different cultural backgrounds. Disclaimer: She probably didn’t — because she’s already crossed “Asian” off of her white-washing bucket-list.
The promotional photo of Liu Yifei as Mulan looks incredible, and I have no doubt that director Niki Caro will oversee a project that does the protagonist justice.
It was different news that made me feel uneasy, and that was the casting of the new antagonist. It will no longer be a Hun invader (a man), it’ll be a witch from somewhere else (a woman).
Part of the beauty of the original film is that wherever Mulan turns she sees men — men who’re trying to destroy things or destroy themselves. Her grandmother acts as a supportive, anarchic female figure, but the other women (her mother and the matchmaker) are as traditional as the men in the movie. If the villain of the piece is also a woman, I don’t know if the message will be as strong.
Not only that, but making the villain a witch just feels so stereotypically Disney. Very little emphasis is placed on Shan Yu in the animated feature — sure he’s the threat, but he represents more than who he is as an individual. I can’t see them creating a witch character and not featuring her more prominently, as they can’t just rely on history to get over the severity of the conflict, they need to show (and tell) us about the magical element.
Most Disney stories about an “evil witch” character are just a way for the female protagonist to work out her mommy issues, which would obviously be horrible for Mulan’s narrative. My hope is that she’s the antithesis to what Mulan stands for, in that she says women shouldn’t be going to war — but honestly, that would be pretty rich coming from a woman who chose to study and learn a complex craft such as the magical arts.
Also announced for the film is “Mulan’s sister”, a character who does feature in some of the early Chinese versions of the legend. I’m hoping that she slots into the role that the grandma held; Someone who encourages her in spirit but is too old (or too young in this case) to do anything herself.
In this version of the story, Mulan loses the war and is forced to become a concubine. Instead of submitting, she gives her sister a suicide note to send to her fiancé and subsequently kills herself. Her sister is then captured, raped and killed before she can deliver the note.
Something tells me that Disney will pick and choose which elements of this story are included.
If Mulan’s sister takes the ‘Mushu’ role of the film, and plays the sidekick who tags along, then this will be another way of moving the story away from one lone woman vs a world of men.
There’s a cynical part of me that’s wondering if they’ve had to change the entire plot of the film out of fear of it being transphobic. It’s not for me to say whether it is or not, but I can’t imagine that a woman dressing as a man in 5th century China would be considered as such. Especially as the character of Mulan herself isn’t trans — and more androgynous characters in film can only be a good thing, right?
But, in recent years, historical media texts have been criticised for men dressing as women, so for it not to play the other way has me wondering about the levels of sexism prevalent in trans issues. Which is a whole other, unrelated thing.
I’m still thinking and I just can’t come up with a logical reason for them shifting the plot so much that they need to incorporate such a majorly different antagonist. The Hun’s were people who did awful things and were eventually on the wrong side of history — like the Nazis or the alt-right — so surely they’re still fair game as villains?
I’m glad that Disney have found a way to cast more women in the film, but ironically, by casting more women — it pulls focus from the primary female protagonist, thus ruining a “reimagining” of our generation’s early exposure to a feminist text.
It’s far too early to tell, but my worry is that the live action Mulan will be praised for its casting choices as far as race and gender are concerned — but the story won’t have the impact of the animated version. I mean, can it be as swift as the coursing river? Or have all the force of a great typhoon? Surely it won’t be as strong as a raging fire? But as we know very little so far, I can say it’s mysterious as the dark side of the moon.
I’ll close by saying that if Disney would work on original warrior-woman stories that aren’t based off a movie, that’s based off a play, that’s based off a poem — then maybe we wouldn’t be having all of these issues.
Today is Wednesday, August 15th and I’m sorry I did that bit with the song at the end there.
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