Sunday, September 13, 2020

My Extremely Controversial Take on Mulan (Extremely Expanded)

Director: Niki Caro (New Zealander, White, Woman)

This (lets face it, rant) was originally posted to facebook a few hours I had finished watching the movie. I have since added things to it that I feel are necessary to address now that it has been nearly a week. 

Why Did You Watch It? Don't you know about the boycott/paywall?

I felt kinda like I had to because frankly, I did the audition for that lead role. I worked my ass off on that monologue, in both english, and in mandarin. My friends did too. We all had to prove that we had martial arts backgrounds, because y'all this was MULAN, and she had to be a warrior. So even before the trailers even started coming out, I knew more about the movie than most. So I was going to watch it.

I don't agree with a paywall - for anything. Not for concerts, and not for movies. That's all I'm going to say about that, because I've got other things to focus on.

Liu Yifei and her comments

Liu Yifei plays Mulan beautifully. She did the vast majority of the stunt work, and she does so with grace that is fitting for the legend. Admittedly, a lot of people think that her performance was a little one-note, and I do tend to agree. I am not sure if that's entirely from her performance, or from the writing though.

Her comments about Hong Kong are totally unacceptable. Here's exactly what she said, which was a re-post from the government-run Beijing newpaper People's Daily (so not her own words) on the social media website Weibo. 

(in Chinese): "I also support Hong Kong police. You can beat me up now."

The post adds in English: "What a shame for Hong Kong."

The quote referred to are allegedly from a reporter for the state newspaper Global Times, who was supposedly attacked by protesters at Hong Kong's airport after being accused of being an undercover police agent. That being said, with my limited knowledge of Chinese news sources, I haven't actually found any reports about this particular incident. (They might be out there! I just can't find them.)

Ms Liu shared the post and echoed the comment by saying: "I also support Hong Kong police."

I do think that what she said is a clear and direct example of the level of influence of the mainland. If you want to work in China, this sort of sentiment is unfortunately common. 

Despite living in the US, Liu Yifei clearly wants to be working on the mainland. She moved to China at the age of 15 to pursue an acting career - and just like the rest of Chinese-Americans, knowing that pursing an acting career in the US as an Asian-American woman is an insanely difficult path. For a Chinese-American, the route couldn't be harder. Being an English-speaking, American educated Chinese actress in China? She might as well have a golden ticket. Her casting for this role could be seen from a mile away - she was even considered for the role of Mulan for the 2009 Hong Kong film Mulan: Rise of a Warrior. She's a huge Chinese star, and everything she has done has been pretty much playbook for someone whose entire career is dependent upon doing well in Beijing.

A Whitewashed Crew

The costume designer? White. The composer? White. The director? White. 

The costumes looked rather like someone had tossed a bag of skittles on screen - a hyper display of colors which frankly, was quite disney. It was very clear that they were drawing from many different dynasties for costume inspiration (don't worry, we'll be talking about authenticity soon), but if you keep that in mind the costumes were quite accurate - they just mixed together a vast amount of time periods. I would have loved to have seen a Chinese costume designer's take on this, but I did not find myself disliking the costuming. It was still very beautiful, despite everything.

I hated the soundtrack.

I guess I had my hopes raised from the other projects that are technically under the Disney title (Marvel, Star Wars, etc) that had wonderful, memorable soundtracks. But this soundtrack was just pandering to the original cartoon, and even when doing so, extremely basic and boring and forgettable. 

I heard the dizi in the very opening title sequence...but it was not the best. I think I heard a guzheng once. Give me more erhu and pipa, and a goddamn chinese orchestra for fucks sake. It was so clear to me that this composer had no fucking clue how Chinese instruments worked, and just tried to overlay a couple of soloists on top of his clearly standard basic studio orchestra. Barf. 

Do I think that these roles should have been given to Chinese artists? Absolutely. I wish I could have seen the Ang Lee version, who Disney had originally approached to direct the movie, but it wasn't to be since he had conflicts. Disney can do better than this, and I have to hope that they will because...

The Rest of the Cast

The casting for everyone else? Oh be still my beating heart. Donnie Yen, as usual, was absolutely magnificent. I could watch him do martial arts demos for hours and be completely entranced. Jun Yu as Cricket was an absolute treasure. Yoson An as Honghui? Swoonworthy. I hope to see more and more of these amazing actors in more films, and it's so great that they got to star in this totally asian cast.

Last but not least, GONG FUCKING LI as Xian Lang!!! SHE IS A GODDESS and I love her in every movie, but oh my god we got a witch in a mainstream movie about China and I can scream about this for days because my entire childhood featured Chinese witches and I was the only one around who knew they existed - and now EVERYONE DOES! CHINESE WITCHES ARE BEAUTIFUL AND POWERFUL AND COMPLICATED and Disney fucking NAILED IT which is so rare and I was just *screaming* the whole time.

(screeching in the distance about Gong Li)

If we can cast an all asian cast for a Chinese story, I hope we can eventually hire asian artists for the other aspects too. We're slowly crawling there. 

A Very Brief Yell About Choreography

Also, there's a fantastic scene where Mulan is sparring off with Honghui and it's just so so so good I was just giddy the whole time.

But where was Mushu? Did they sing "I'll Make a Man Out of You"?

There was no Mushu, no singing-musical moments. THANK GOODNESS. It felt like the legend was actually being treated with respect and care, unlike the original. For those of you who see this as a loss - welp, we are on too far sides of the spectrum my friend. 

That being said, there is a weird CGI pheonix that I cannot quite wrap my head around. Was it an animal companion? A metaphor for her spirit? It seemed like the movie wanted to not pick a side and do both, which effectively meant that they accomplished neither. They needed to pick a hard stance - either the phoenix is real, and design it to seem more real and in the environment, and have the character interact with the phoenix. OR the phoenix is a total metaphor and could be even more stylized, like seeing it briefly - but oh actually its a kite, or a paper cutout. They took the middle ground and it came up short.

The Authenticity Problem

Take a second for me and just picture in your mind what Snow White looks like. Now try Cinderella. If you knew the exact time period and country of origin of each of these characters, are they at all accurate? 

No. Of course not.

It's Disney. Disney has absolutely never been a great source for authenticity. Hell, just go look at Aladdin (or it's similarly weird remake) and you know exactly what I'm talking about.

But lets look at a really, really obvious example to talk about how inaccurate we're talking, and also why Disney did what they did.

At the very start of the movie, we see that Mulan lives in a Tulou - a feat of ancient architecture which is an incredible example of communal living and defensive structure. 

The Tianluokeng Tulou Cluster

These buildings were made at the earliest in the 12th Century CE. They're located in the southern region of China - mostly in the mountainous Fujian region. 

Mulan's story (in the original folklore) takes place in the 4th-6th century CE in the northern region of China - either Hubei, Henan, or Shaanxi. 

In other words, if this took place in Europe, the very beginning of the movie places Mulan in the wrong country, 600-800 years later than she would have lived. It's like going from the medieval to the renaissance. 

That's a HUGE difference from the source material. So why do it? 

Well, China had a lot to say about how Disney would approach this Mulan movie. Keep in mind that at this point, China's movie industry is an even bigger audience than the US. You can even read about how Hollywood is somehow getting even lighter in skin tone when casting  to try to appeal to Chinese audiences. Not only that, but the original Disney Mulan cartoon was an utter flop in China. It upheld the wrong values (personal journey over familial piety), it had a weird talking dragon, it didn't represent Chinese people well. So this time Disney was determined to listen to what China said.

China wanted to showcase the things about China that made it well, impressive. Why show a little hut village when you could show a Tulou? How many of you had seen a Tulou before you watched the Mulan movie? Putting it in the movie shows that Chinese architecture is impressive and beautiful and unique. They wanted to showcase things that made (mainland) China great. Sweeping sands, beautiful clothes (regardless of time period), wonderful wushu choreography. 

Additionally, the whole "qi" thing as a sort of magical factor is very much on the head with a lot of Chinese media and folklore. Think back to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the way those characters literally flew. They may not have called it "qi", but it is rather heavily implied. Add this magical element and not only do you have something thats very Disney-fied (it is the "magic kingdom" afterall), but you are also stating off the bat that you do not have to be historically accurate. And neither China nor Disney wanted that for this version of Mulan.

The Xingjiang Connection

Hoo boy. This is not my realm of expertise but I will try to do my best with the information I have gathered.

There is approximately 1 minute of footage which takes place in Xinjiang, which is towards the beginning of the film when talking about the silk-road. As a result, there is a section of the credits that states as follows:

Thanks to the 'Turpan Municipal Bureau of Public Security' and the 'Publicity Department of CPC Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Committee'

As of Friday, Sept 11, nineteen members of the United States congress have sent a letter to the Disney CEO to question Disney's cooperation with "security and propaganda authorities". It goes like this:

"The XUAR Publicity (or Propaganda) Department—which is an arm of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—has denied, distorted, and otherwise covered up these crimes against humanity that also include forced labor and a campaign of mass sterilization, forced abortions, and birth suppression against Uyghurs," the letter reads.

The letter asks that Disney explain its cooperation with XUAR authorities, including what contractual agreements were made, Disney executives' awareness of the political complexities of the region, what local labor was used and what Disney policies exist on prohibiting relationships with human rights abusers.

If you do not know what the heck they're talking about about the suppression of the Uyghurs - well, you are in for a depressing time. There are lots and lots of sources about this which you can check but I'd suggest maybe starting here.

This is a much larger human rights problem than I could possibly encompass in a movie review, and I suspect that it will continue to unravel in the next few weeks. I intend to keep an eye on the news in the meantime.


I liked it. A lot. So much so that I felt like I was gonna cry for 90% of the film. But I am a half-Chinese, born and raised in America, from a mainland Chinese mom, who always dreamed of seeing what I loved about Chinese martial arts films in more widespread media. I dreamed of that entirely Chinese cast and seeing a woman warrior take to the screen as the lead.

And yes, it is deeply, deeply problematic. There's a lot in this movie that is clearly "the glory of china against non-han peoples" - but then again, so is the original legend. There was going to be issues in that regard from the very get go. But I think that if we're going off of just the legend itself - the story of a woman who does everything for her father and for her emperor, and how well they brought that idea to life, it's the closest I've ever seen, and I'll take that as a win.

THAT BEING SAID, I do intend to find and watch the Hong Kong Mulan (2009) movie and review that as well. So we'll see who reigns supreme. 

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