Disney’s Mulan was Respectful to Chinese Culture

The Mouse is drunk on live action remakes. I don’t know why people keep going to watch them myself but it is what it is. If glitzy wannabe Broadway is your preference to the excellent hand drawn animation of the Disney golden age then by all means check it out, I’ll be happy to stay home. But I was pretty upset to hear my third favorite Disney film was undergoing major story changes to become more “respectful” to its native culture. As you’ve already guessed from the title, I’m talking about the upcoming remake of Mulan.

Now, all we’ve got to go on so far is a trailer and that’s not much. Especially if you compare the original trailer for Mulan to the end product. So 2020’s Mulan is by no means a ship that’s sailed. But I’m still pretty upset to hear about some of the changes, like cutting Mushu. He was a fun, memorable and quotable character. He gave a bit of recognizable American flavor to a film lacking many cultural touchstones for its primary audience, much like Timon in The Lion King.

But the charge in general really grated at me.

At its heart Mulan is a story about the foundational Confucian values, filial piety, humaneness and ritual. The first is at the heart of the story, because it is Mulan’s unshakable loyalty to her family that drives her to the heights of her achievements. Her father will go and fight – and given his age and injuries, certainly die. So Mulan takes his place. Everything that happens after hinges on her familial devotion.

Humaneness is demonstrated in a particularly Disney fashion, by having Mulan anthropomorphize and sympathize with her animal friends. This is a common Disney trope but it is always used to show a kindness and gentleness in leading ladies and it happens to synchronize perfectly with this Confucian value. Of course, humaneness also applies to how we deal with other people and in this Mulan is also exemplary, showing an insight and compassion for her fellow soldiers that could probably only be matched by the Emperor himself.

Finally, ritual is something Mulan engages in many times, from painting her face and going to the Matchmaker, to the relentless drilling of her military training. You can’t really get away from ritual in Chinese society so perhaps the film has too little of it but that’s hardly disrespectful it’s just one of the realities of storytelling.

Significantly, while Mulan embodies each of the Confucian values it’s also important to note that they are mirrored back to her as well. Her father won’t reveal her and bring her home because it will put her in more danger than letting her go. His loyalty to family surpasses his duty to Empire. Humaneness is also echoed by Mulan’s father and mother at first, by (oddly enough) Shan Yu when he tries to send her home and spare her death in war (this isn’t how conscripts worked back then), and finally by the Emperor of all China. And many of the rituals Mulan takes part in aren’t things you can do alone, she has to do them with others. So it’s not like these things are confined to her – they’re part of the warp and weft of the story.

But that story is a universal one. That’s part of what makes films like Aladdin and Mulan so brilliant. They’re totally understandable and relatable stories steeped in unfamiliar cultures. Mulan is a misfit who tries to do something big for someone she loves. She starts out with the odds stacked against her but a good training montage brings her in to step with the comrades who didn’t trust her and teaches her the ropes. She immediately goes out and realizes how far she’s still short of the mark and has to make it up on the spot. The final setback leaves her alone – now she has to be the hero when it’s hard. And she gets justice – she’s exposed as a liar. But she’s also seen for the fullness of her dedication and talent.

It’s hard to judge based on one trailer, as I said, but what I do see worries me. The original Mulan was as solid as it gets. This new version shows… troubling changes (beyond no Mushu). Mulan appears to already be proficient in martial arts, she seems to have something to prove in the army, she seems to chafe at the bonds of her family. The filial piety and humaneness of the original are nowhere in evidence. Ritual seems more a restraint than the lubrication of social life it should be. It’s only 90 seconds of a feature length movie. Not all of it may make the final cut.

But I’m deeply concerned that, much like the unfortunate Alita film from this year, the very real cultural respect the original Mulan film had at its heart has been pushed aside for the sake of modern, trendy shibboleths. And that would be truly ironic, since there’s nothing more disrespectful than stealing a few names and some clothing from one culture, draping them over your own ideas then selling it as authentic. The jury’s still out on this one… but I’m not optimistic.

UPDATE – Inbetween writing and publishing this (and boy am I have this problem a lot lately) new drama erupted around Liu Yifei, the actress playing Mulan in the upcoming live action version. These aspects don’t have any direct bearing on my points here about either version of the story. While I feel her remarks on Hong Kong were foolish and stupid that’s no reason to boycott the Mulan remake. Just don’t go see it because it looks lame. That’s the end of my remarks on that.

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