This post contains SPOILERS for the Disney live-action version of Mulan. Don’t scroll past Mushu if you don’t want to be spoiled.
In 1978, Edward Said wrote the book on Orientalism, which is the racist, simplistic, and inaccurate view of Eastern cultures in the West, especially in Western pop culture. My go-to example of Orientalism is the 1958 John Wayne film The Conquerer, where the Duke himself plays Ghengis Khan. Yes, you read that right. That might seem like an extreme outlier, but it wasn’t, and it still isn’t. Western films continue to portray Asians and Asian culture in stereotypical ways. The original cartoon version of Mulan has a few issues with this as well, and while Disney could have fixed those problems and made a beautiful, powerful film, they decided to double-down on their ignorance and make a film that hasn’t come very far from The Conquerer over sixty years ago.
But the Orientalism isn’t the only problem with this film. It’s just a bad film! In the very first scene, an eight-year-old Mulan uses Wuxia-type martial arts to scale her family’s Hakka roundhouse. She falls, but uses her “chi” to activate her Wuxia abilities to stop herself. There is so much wrong here! Director Niki Caro doesn’t show an ounce of interest in or understanding of Chinese history and culture throughout the film. Mulan is not Hakka. Wuxia is not innate. Chi is not a magical, masculine energy.
It only gets worse from there. I could really go scene by scene ripping this up, but I am trying to stick to the highlights.
Throughout the film, Mulan’s abilities are not defined. She is at once a Wuxia prodigy and a clutz. Her father tells her to “hide” her chi, but that isn’t why she’s clumsy. It’s not like she thinks, “oh I need to hide who I am and fall down,” she’s just clumsy. She’s a poor soldier because she hides her chi, not because she hasn’t been trained. In fact, she doesn’t need training when she shows up at the army camp. She’s apparently they best fighter of them all just because she’s Mulan. When she decides to stop hiding her chi, she’s just naturally great, which is stupid. Mulan isn’t a great character because she’s a “special chosen one.” She’s amazing because she’s just a girl who risked her life to save her father.
And this is a recurring problem throughout the film. It’s not moving. It’s not stirring. It doesn’t tug your heartstrings. We don’t even get a transformation scene. Mulan holds her father’s sword, then she’s in his armor, then her father tells her mother that he’s gone. There’s no STORY here about her making the decision to leave, stealing the armor, taking a long look at her family, and then riding off into the rain set to an epic film score. It’s just boring.
In the next scene, Mulan is “saved”, I guess, by a phoenix. This would make me less angry if the director hadn’t said in every. single. interview. that Mushu had been eliminated because a talking dragon wasn’t “realistic.” Seriously, I hate this director so much, I just can’t with her. But more than that, this is only about twenty minutes into the film. Mulan, as a character, hasn’t earned divine intervention yet, but here we are.
The character development for everyone is extremely poor. When she arrives at the camp, she has a negative and aggressive interaction with the love interest. Two scenes later, he wants to be her friend and offers her friendly advice. The general wants her to marry his daughter for some reason. And the Big Bad Guy also has Wuxia and he and all his men can walk up walls.
There’s also a shape-shifting witch, because that’s realistic, who’s only saving grace is that she is Gong Li, one of the most beautiful and talented actresses in the world. She actually seems to be the most well-rounded character in the film, and her affinity for Mulan makes some sense. But Mulan’s rejection of the witch and the witch’s willingness to sacrifice her life for Mulan are, again, not well developed and, thus, not very moving.
I have had reservations about this film for a year. The trailers and interviews with the director worried me greatly. But I had hoped that my fears were unfounded and that Disney–being no stranger to creating beautiful and moving films–would be better than the promotions made it seem. I wanted to love this film. Instead, all my fears came true and it was just as bad as I feared. It’s a white lady’s attempt at a Wuxia film–and that’s not a good thing