By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
At long last, the new live action version of Disney’s Mulan has been released, after multiple delays due to COVID-19, not in theaters in the United States, but on Disney Plus as of Sept. 4. The movie, which is the largest budget Hollywood film ever with an Asian cast and a female director, has answered well to the pressure to represent the Asian American community, the ancient Chinese legend, and the beloved 1998 animated film.
Loyal, brave, and true. These are the values celebrated in the film.
“Any work of art, especially in cinema, sticks true to certain ideals and principles that are positive,” Jason Scott Lee, who plays the villain, Böri Khan, told the Weekly. “It helps children who see it, and hopefully adults, too.” But the most important value is devotion to family, or “xiao” in Chinese. Mulan’s dedication to her family, when she takes up the sword so that her father does not have to, is unquestioned. By extension, she is loyal, brave, and true to her community and her country (or the figurehead of that country, the emperor, played by Jet Li).
Most likely, we all know the story, so there will be no spoilers here. The legend of Mulan has been a part of Chinese culture for over a thousand years, and part of culture in the United States as well. “The story, of course, is well known,” Tzi Ma, who plays Mulan’s father, Zhou, discussed with the Weekly. “Mulan holds a paramount importance in the Chinese culture…Another part that maybe people are not that familiar with is that Mulan…is very important to Asian American girls…that’s their patron saint.”
Indeed, Mulan is a story of female empowerment, and the first by Disney, in 1998, to feature a warrior heroine. Seattle native Jimmy Wong, who plays Ling in the film, commented on this in a Facebook interview hosted by Gold House.
“Mulan…broke precedent in so many ways. This is the first time a Disney movie, an animation, covered the topic of war and invaders. It was a much grittier backdrop. People just love the fact that this wasn’t a ‘damsel in distress’…she made the story happen, and that is such an empowering thing to see…it kind of started with Mulan.”
While no one wanted to compare the new live action version to the previous animated version, the cast was aware of the importance of the 1998 movie to a generation of girls.
“I have seen the animation, and I love it. I am jealous that they did it without me,” joked Ma to the Weekly. Director Niki Caro expressed to Gold House, “It’s no secret that the beloved animation is so important to so many. I think it really defined the childhood of a generation…maybe our movie, the live action, can be like a coming of age for Mulan.”
Some might disagree, yet I think the movie does a fitting tribute to the animated version without losing itself. Yes, we have to do without Mushu, yet characters voice lines reminiscent of the little dragon, and one of the boy soldiers is named after Mushu’s best bud, Cricket. Songs from the 1998 version play in the background as instrumentals and it makes the heart swell to hear that familiar theme song, “Reflection,” or to see Mulan gaze upon her reflection in her father’s sword—an iconic image—every time she reaches a soul-seeking moment in her journey.
There are differences, too. The movie still fills its role as a children’s film, yet it’s heavier. The villain has been altered and is now a Rouran warrior intent on revenge. Lee trained with a Maori haka master to prepare. Caro, he said, wanted Lee to “tap into” that warrior culture, “to be able to use it as a transformational tool to get into the mindset of what it was like to be a warrior during that time period, to have those tribal roots, to generate that primal energy.”
By Khan’s side is a new character, a female witch, played by long-time favorite Chinese-Singaporean actress, Gong Li. I was happy to see her after what seemed like a long hiatus and surprised at the turn her part of the story takes, aligning itself with the female empowerment theme. Her character’s decisions, and the conversations she has with Khan and Mulan, are some of the most engaging, alongside Mulan’s own struggle to embody her true self and release her qi.
“There are journeys in the film that I don’t think you would expect [such as] the woman’s story…the relationship with Mulan and the boys in the brigade…all of those things,” said Ma, whose favorite part is the reunion between Mulan and her father at the end. The father of two girls himself, Ma shared with the Weekly that, while playing the part, “I channeled all the Asian fathers who have never had the opportunity to show the world who they are.” Referring to the sublimated role of women in ancient China (and sometimes in the world today), Ma added, “I channeled all the special fathers who treat their girls like boys, and give them the opportunity to grow, to nurture, to not squelch their spirit.”
Will the movie be able to counter the political and racial tensions taking place in our country? The cast thinks so, and believes Mulan is another positive step towards greater representation for Asian Americans in Hollywood and in general.
“For the longest time growing up, ‘Asian’ just meant a very simple, basic thing,” Wong told Gold House. “There is so much representation out there that has yet to be had, and I’m really looking forward to expanding the definition of what it means to be Asian.”
Ma emphasized that, while the film is not in theaters, it is available in a digital format where families can watch it multiple times in the safety of their own homes and talk about the story. “There is no doubt in my mind this will help,” Ma responded when asked by the Weekly if Mulan can bridge the divisiveness threatening our families and communities. “In my heart of hearts, I believe that Mulan will give you the opportunity, if you’re willing to listen. If you don’t want to listen, there’s nothing I can do about it, but if you at least have an open mind, you will get an opportunity to see that our similarities are greater than our differences.”
Kai can be reached at email@example.com.