Because Mulan is a Hollywood tentpole with an all-Asian cast, we are supposed to celebrate it as a landmark of diversity and progress. But as a cinephile born and raised in China, I need to point out how this adaptation is unfortunately problematic at best, and objectionable at worst, due to its enthusiastic willingness to re-write Chinese history and the story of Mulan, and to add some cultural revisionism on top of it all.
Last summer, when Yifei Liu, the lead actress of Mulan, supported the Hong Kong police’s violent suppression of pro-democracy protesters, people online started the #BoycottMulan movement. Of course, police brutality has become a much-discussed issue in America this year, triggered by the tragic of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. But Liu’s pro-police stand is actually just one of the many reasons why Disney’s Mulan is a troubling film.
Imagine a live-action film adaptation of Pocahontas, with Pocahontas played by a white actress, and the story reworked to be about European colonizers trying to survive against the assault of Native Americans.
I doubt that Disney would dare to greenlight such an adaptation. However, this is what this version of Mulan is.
In the 1998 animated version, Mulan and most the “good guys” depicted in the film were Han Chinese; the high ruler of the country is referred as “emperor;” the bad guys are depicted as Xiongnu, and the main villain is Shan-Yu. In the latest live-action adaptation, the villain is named Bori Khan and belongs to the Rouran tribe, while Mulan and the rest of the “good guys” are still depicted as Han Chinese.
In its source material, The Ballad of Mulan, Mulan belongs to the Tuoba realm (Northern Wei), an ancient nomadic clan of Xianbei outside of what was commonly known as “China Proper.” As nomads, Xianbei had a very different culture than the Han Chinese, the predominant ethnic group of present-day China. They did not rely as heavily on agriculture as the Han Chinese; and they spoke a different language. In The Ballad, the high ruler of the country is referred to as “khan” instead of “emperor,” a title later popularized by the Mongols and other Central Asian societies, but first used by the Xianbei.
Why are these details important? Well, the nomadic identity is essential for the story of Mulan. One of the reasons why Mulan is such a popular and extraordinary story is because it’s about a fearless female warrior, which is extremely rare in ancient history. However, female warriors were rather common in nomadic cultures, where women have a relatively high social status. This can be found in both historic records and archaeological discovery.
By making the good guys Han Chinese and the bad guys the northern nomads, Disney not only eliminated Mulan’s original identity, but appropriated it to the Chinese. This kind of revisionist narrative is especially alarming when the Han-dominated Chinese Communist Party regime is trying to commit cultural genocide to ethnic minorities such as Uyghurs and Mongols.
In recent years, Disney has made a lot of good changes in its live-action adaptations of classic animated films: In last year’s Aladdin, Disney cast Mena Massoud, an actor of Middle Eastern descent, to star the title role. For The Lion King, Disney chose an almost all African-American cast.
Yet somehow for Mulan, Disney has failed. For instance, we can see the iconic Fujian Tulou standing in as the home of Mulan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was built after 12th Century by Han Chinese in Fujian (the southeast part of China) and has absolutely nothing to do with Xianbei or any other nomadic nations. Not to mention that the cast are almost all Han Chinese.
So, the question is: Why would Disney not correct this? There is one very probable explanation: It doesn’t want to stir up any problems with the Chinese censors. This is not the first time the mouse house chooses kowtowing the CCP regime in exchange for access to the Chinese market. In another Disney film, Marvel’s Doctor Strange, the role of the Ancient One was whitewashed from a Tibetan man to a Celtic woman, played by Caucasian actress, Tilda Swinton, which sidestepped potential problems with Chinese censorship. Disney’s ex-CEO Michael Eisner once even apologized and calling it a “stupid mistake” to release Kundun, the biopic of Dalai Lama. Ironically, with all the effort Disney has been put out there, Mulan now has a 4.7/10 rating on Douban (the China equivalent of IMDb or Letterboxd).
The Chinese inscription “loyal, brave, true” is written on the poster for 2020 live- action adaptation of Mulan, but frankly, the effort of Disney is anything but. It is not loyal to the source material; it is not brave enough to stand against the Chinese censorship; and it is not true to its characters. With the sentiments of the leading actress and the revisionist narrative, I cannot in good conscience support this film.
Frank Yan is the co-director of programming for the New York City-based CineCina Film Festival, which aims to highlight the best of Chinese cinema. MovieMaker invited Disney to respond to this editorial, and has not yet received a response.