Mulan (2020) is a Controversial Mess

by Hannah Gentry

Mulan (2020) is the most recent installment in Disney’s live-action remakes of their beloved animated films. Since it was announced, the film has been both highly anticipated and dreaded. Despite the expected changes to the plot that made fans of the original 1998 animation skeptical of the reboot, Mulan (2020) was still likely to be one of the biggest releases in theaters this year. However, things did not go as planned. The film was originally scheduled to be released back in March, but the COVID-19 pandemic caused several delays. Disney tried to push for a summer release in the hopes that the film could still be shown on the big screen, but with theaters remaining closed across the United States, the company finally decided that Mulan (2020) would find its resting place on Disney+. However, to watch the film, viewers would need to already have a subscription ($7/month) and pay an additional $30 for “premiere access” (roughly 3x the price of one adult ticket of admission). So, after several months of waiting and $37 later, audiences could finally answer one question: was it worth it?

Well, the answer is a resounding no. Mulan (2020) was supposed to be a great moment in cinema for Asian representation and introduce a wide audience to Chinese culture. The creators stated that their goal with the film was not to recreate the 1998 movie, but to be more culturally accurate to the folksong “Ballad of Mulan,” which is the first written record of Mulan’s story. If this actually were the case (and if done well) then this film would have been a great opportunity for Disney to fix the cultural inaccuracies that they helped to spread through the 1998 Mulan and be an honorable tribute to the original legend. Yet, Disney made several mistakes that left audiences confused.

For the remake, Disney hired a white director and four white screenwriters. In this core team, there was no one who could serve as a cultural consultant. Because of this, Mulan (2020) is just as culturally inaccurate, if not more so, than the version with a talking dragon voiced by Eddie Murphy. However, the 1998 Mulan had many endearing qualities which allowed audiences to overlook its flaws more easily because it at least captured the heart and spirit of the original legend. Mulan (2020) does not have the same appeal, and this has caused anger and confusion among Chinese fans who were told their culture would be represented correctly.

For starters, Mulan’s character seems to have drastically changed in the new adaptation. According to legend, Mulan was a young woman who took her father’s place in the conscription for the army by disguising herself as a male warrior. In the 1998 Mulan, she does not start out as a talented warrior because she was only trained to become a proper lady fit for marriage. Rather, it is her intelligence and determination that makes her strong. Mulan is an inspiring character because she was an underdog who had to work hard in order to become a great warrior. In the 2020 version, Mulan is a Mary Sue of a character, someone who is naturally gifted at a young age with the special power of “Chi.” Youtuber/Author Xiran Jay Zhao made a video titled “Everything Culturally Wrong With Mulan 2020” and she criticizes this plot point, stating “Chi is life energy. It flows through everyone.” In other words, this would not make Mulan special. Furthermore, Mulan apparently must hide her strong Chi abilities because her parents fear she will be demonized as a witch. One of the new villains is a powerful woman named Xianniang, who has been ostracized and rejected from society for being a witch, so Mulan’s parents have a reason to fear this outcome. There’s just one problem with this concept. Witches do not exist in Chinese Culture.

Xiran Jay Zhao states that the new Mulan “is filled with European fantasy stuff like witches, dark magic, and duels to the death, and it interprets traditional Chinese concepts in a way that only shows a surface level understanding.” This is especially transparent in their use of the term witch. If anything, women who practiced magic in Chinese culture were respected, not ostracized. So, the main concept behind Mulan’s abilities (Chi) and the main conflict for her having those abilities (being mistaken as a witch) might make sense for a European story, but not for a Chinese folktale.

It’s strange that the creators did not just focus on the original conflict of Mulan having to train and prove her worth as a warrior all while concealing her true identity. That was interesting already and got the same message across that women are equal to men. Having Mulan start off overpowered leaves little room for character development and she is very bland throughout the entire film. It actually would have been more accurate to have Mulan struggle in order to become strong. As Zhao explains, “the protagonists of Eastern stories work hard for their abilities.” It’s ironic that the creators wanted to remove the unrealistic elements from the 1998 film (like the songs and talking dragon) yet their version of the tale ended up abandoning the true spirit of Mulan’s character and creating a new plot conflict that would not exist in ancient China.

There are other cultural mistakes present throughout the new adaptation. Mulan’s sword is engraved with Chinese characters which translate to “loyal, brave, and true,” but if a sword were to be engraved, it would be a person’s name or a full phrase (Zhao). The architecture in the film is not always accurate for the Northern and Southern Dynasties that Mulan originates from. Mulan was also likely a part of the Touba clan (a group of nomads who are now a minority group in China), but Disney has erased her ethnic identity to make her seem more patriotic to the emperor. The clothes for the film were designed by a white costume designer and a lot of the outfits look like cheap imitations of traditional Chinese clothes. The list goes on, and honestly, it is baffling that so many mistakes can be made in this movie when the creators were heralding their attempts at cultural accuracy.

The controversy surrounding Mulan (2020) unfortunately does not stop at the lazy writing. Back in August of 2019, American-Chinese actress Liu Yifei who plays Mulan was met with backlash after supporting Hong Kong police brutality. The people of Hong Kong have been holding pro-democracy protests for over a year now to reject the Extradition Law Amendment Bill, which will undermine the independence of Hong Kong’s legal system and give mainland China the right to put Hong Kong citizens on trial. There have been almost 3,000 injuries and 10,000 reported arrests made since 2019 and footage of police brutality has been continuously leaked. The people are only fighting for their freedom, so Liu Yifei’s comment in support of the police became a PR nightmare for Disney and led to a boycott of the film. The controversy resurfaced this year when Mulan was released on September 4th. #BoycottMulan trended on Twitter worldwide. However, things only got worse for Disney when it was revealed that parts of the movie were filmed in Xinjiang.

This location is important because it is where U.S. National Security Adviser Robert C. O’Brien says, “if not a genocide, something close to it is going on in Xinjiang” (Brunnstrom). For years, China has been mistreating and imprisoning Uighur and other minority Muslims in the name of “anti-terrorism.” Yet, China denies violating human rights in Xinjiang even though “The United Nations estimates that more than a million Muslims have been detained in Xinjiang and activists say crimes against humanity and genocide are taking place there” (Brunnstrom). For decades, China has introduced policies in order to suppress the identity of the Uighur people, but in May 2014, China launched a campaign against terrorism which served as ethno-religion suppression. Since then, the Chinese government has forced the Uighur people into concentration camps and the children have been separated from their families and enrolled in rehabilitation schools. The Chinese government has destroyed 1/3 of all mosques in China and even dug up the graves of Uighur people to relocate them in an attempt to erase their history. Many of the Uighur people have died, and the government has reportedly tortured, brainwashed, and sterilized those who survive. O’Brien states that they are even “shaving the heads of Uighur women and making hair products and sending them to the United States” (Brunnstrom). The fact that Disney reportedly filmed parts of Mulan (2020) near a concentration camp in Xinjiang is despicable enough, but Disney’s complacency goes even further.

There is no denying that Mulan (2020) is Disney’s attempt at breaking into the Chinese market. In an attempt to satisfy the government and pave the way for more Disney feature films in China, there have been rumors circulating that Mulan’s pious loyalty to her country was purposefully highlighted in the script. Much more serious than that, however, is what is revealed at the end credits. Disney openly thanks a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) agency—one that administers the concentration camps in Xinjiang—for letting them film there. This thank you message is literally hidden in plain sight. Disney could have filmed anywhere else (there are hundreds of high-budget sets in China), but they decided to make an aesthetic out of a place marked by pain and suffering. In doing so, Disney is aiding in the illusion that nothing is wrong there. For all of the reasons stated above, a boycott of Mulan (2020) is more than justified. People are refusing to spend money supporting not just a film but also a company that is complacent to mass genocide and tries to satisfy the CCP for financial gain. It’s just a shame that the Mulan story, a story that is supposed to inspire women to fight for what’s right even if it goes against social convention, has been so badly tainted by a greedy company.

Overall, Mulan (2020) fails as a remake and also as a stand-alone film. The original message is lost amidst all of the changes, the cultural inaccuracies cannot be overlooked, and Disney’s ulterior motives with the film are very clear. Asian representation is still largely lacking in media and changing this is very important, but it is essential that representation is done properly. Even with its flaws, the 1998 Mulan portrays a much more endearing heroine, unlike the new Mulan who lacks a distinct personality. If you really want to spend $37 watching this mess of a film, go ahead, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Works Cited

Brunnstrom, David. “Something Close to Genocide in China’s Xinjiang, Say U.S. Security Adviser.” Reuters, 2020. Accessed 15 October 2020.

Zhao, Xiran Jay. “Everything Culturally Wrong With Mulan 2020 (And How They Could’ve Been Fixed).” Youtube, 2020. Accessed 10 October 2020.

Hannah is a Senior working towards a Writing Major and English Minor at HBU. When she is not busy tutoring or working, she enjoys plotting new stories and failing at art tutorials.

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