‘Mulan’: Here’s how Liu Yifei-starrer butchers simple yet powerful tale of Chinese legendary warrior Hua Mulan
“If they (women) can see how powerful they are and get a glimpse of themselves in her (Mulan), then I’ll be happy,” said Liu Yifei in an interview with EW before the release of her Disney film ‘Mulan’. She hoped that women everywhere would find strength and courage in seeing Hua Mulan’s journey. It is ironic really that the film has twisted everything about the much-loved legend of Hua Mulan. Here’s a look at how Disney, in ‘adapting’ an original story from Chinese literature, has ruined the portrayal of Hua Mulan, a brave warrior who managed to show that gender did not matter in the face of war.
This is the same woman who became the stuff of legends and her story was used to encourage women to become strong and brave. Now let’s take the Yifei-starrer that came out in Disney+ on September 4. The film started on a false note. The original ballad told the tale of a father who believed that his daughter must learn to fight, and ride horses, to keep herself and her loved ones safe. Yes, women did not usually learn sword fighting or take equestrian classes at the time that this story originated from — which is 386 BC-534 BC (Northern Wei Dynasty). This in itself is a powerful truth if portrayed with conviction on screen. However, what we got instead is a watered-down version. I was not surprised, considering Disney’s past record and how it has managed to serve its audience the watered-down version of different folk tales from across the world, whitewashing characters and appropriating different cultures. Yes, I am looking at you ‘Aladdin’!
However, the fact that they had gone as far as to claim that the live-action film would be a lot different from the animated film had raised hopes for a good wuxia film. ‘Mulan’, however, is anything but. For instance, we begin with Mulan practicing manifestation of her Chi in different ways including the art of sword fighting as a child. However, after she shows her skills off to the villagers, they begin to call her a witch.
This is an emotion the film portrays to reiterate how the village believes that martial arts and powerful Chi belong solely to men and male warriors. We are expected to believe that these villagers are mean. The villagers are portrayed as being prejudiced against a girl who can fight. They think that the only way a woman can show off skills like that of Mulan is if she were to be tapping in dark magic. So villagers begin murmuring about how Mulan could be a witch.
This narrative is further supported by Li Gong’s character Xianning in the film. She has talents similar to that of Mulan. She has powerful Chi which when trained can become a powerful source of offense and defense. While Mulan’s father in the film feared “what the world would say” and asked her to hide her Chi, Xianning doesn’t and as a result, she is vilified and left with no family, or community. She grows up wanting to belong somewhere, a place where she is not vilified, and the villain in the film, Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), uses her need for the same and gets her to carry out his orders. He is sexist, just like everyone else in the film. So while he promises Xianning a place that she can truly call her own, he considers her his slave. Now, this is contradictory to the narrative that the original ballad portrayed. In this, the father doesn’t vilify his daughter for wanting to take his place.
His only worry is for her safety, while Hua Zhou in the film bursts out in anger and says, “it’s a father’s responsibility to bring honor to the family on the battlefield.” As if that was not clear enough, he stresses, “You are a daughter, learn your place.” This sentiment is definitely not part of the actual story. Moving beyond how Disney has ruined a powerful story with a pale and dull film, they have also managed to paint the enemies as not just enemies but monsters. This narrative adds to the trope that anyone different from “us” can only be a monster. If one watches Chinese wuxia films or shows, the first thing one would learn is how well they portray both sides. The enemies are as human as the King, or his citizens that we are expected to root for. The flaws too are equally distributed.
However, maybe expecting a bit of consideration and fairness in treatment from the filmmaker is naive. Bori Khan was a son who lost his father. His father was killed and as a dutiful son, Bori Khan has taken on the mantel of Rouron and has promised his father revenge. Now, the film has not indicated in any way that Bori Khan’s father was evil, or a monster or a greedy king. In fact, if we go by the Rourons’ claims, their lands were taken away by Mulan’s King (Jet Li). So why paint the Rourons in such a monstrous light? The fear that anything that doesn’t look like us cannot be good for us trope is not something to be taken lightly, especially at this moment where a huge section of the population across the world is fighting for freedom and visibility.
And finally, in the ballad, Hua Mulan’s identity gets outed after she has fought many battles for the country and moves up the ladder. From a soldier, her success leads the little girl from a faraway village to become the general of an entire army. Her secret is outed only when soldiers contract a disease and Mulan too is affected by the same. It is when a doctor visits her that the truth comes out and her army, the same one that she had governed all this while, is divided over whether they should let her continue to serve as a general or not.
Half of them decide to go with her past record. Her history of wins in battles. The rest want to write her off solely because she is a woman. This is a true reflection of the society at that time. At this moment, when an invader attacks and Mulan hears of the same, she begins giving orders that soldiers reluctantly follow because even the ones who wanted to write her off understand that she is their best option at winning against the oncoming attack. It is her victory that pushes the country to welcome her and other women onto the battlefield in the future. However, the Disney film had none of the nuances that were present in the ballad.
The only moment in the film that seemed to be portrayed with any conviction was that between Mulan and her father Zhou. The apology that she received was well-deserved and what struck true really was Zhou telling his daughter that a warrior was always present within Mulan, but it was he who began seeing the warrior late.
What To Know About The Boycott Of Disney’s New Mulan Movie
Disney released its live-action remake of Mulan on its streaming platform Disney+ last Friday, but in the last year, the film has weathered a string of controversies relating to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement and China’s imprisonment of the Uighur people in concentration camps in the Xinjiang Province.
Here’s what’s going on.
Last year, star Liu Yifei expressed support for Hong Kong police.
In August 2019, the movie’s lead, Liu Yifei, posted in support of the Hong Kong police on social media app Weibo. She shred an image with text written in Chinese: “I support Hong Kong’s police, you can beat me up now. What a shame for Hong Kong.” She added the hashtag “IAlsoSupportTheHongKongPolice” with a heart emoji.
When The Hollywood Reporter asked Yifei about her comments in February, she responded: “I think it’s obviously a very complicated situation and I’m not an expert. I just really hope this gets resolved soon.” Later, she added, “I think it’s just a very sensitive situation.”
Yifei’s post came in the midst of escalating tensions between Hong Kong and mainland China, with police responding to pro-democracy protesters with tear gas, batons, rubber bullets, water cannons, and bean-bag rounds.
“This film is released today. But because Disney kowtows to Beijing, and because Liu Yifei openly and proudly endorses police brutality in Hong Kong, I urge everyone who believes in human rights to #BoycottMulan,” Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong tweeted on September 4.
Disney filmed Mulan in China’s Xinjiang Province, where an estimated one million Uighurs are being held in concentration camps.
When the film was released on Friday, viewers noticed its credits thanked eight government organizations in China’s Xinjiang Province, according to The Hollywood Reporter. The Chinese government has detained what the New York Times reports as “millions or more of largely Muslim minority groups in indoctrination camps” inside the province. One of those groups is the Uighurs, a mostly Muslim people whose majority live in Xinjiang. China says defines these camps as “re-education camps” that exist “to improve security,” according to the BCC, but reports of human rights abuses inside the camps include forced labor, forced sterilization and abortions, and indoctrination.
In Mulan‘s credits, Disney expresses gratitude to the public security bureau in Turpan, where the internment camps are believed to be located, and thanks the “publicity department of CPC Xinjiang Uighur Autonomy Region Committee,” an agency of the Chinese Communist Party.
“Mulan specifically [thanks] the publicity department of CPC Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region committee in the credits,” novelist Jeanette Ng wrote on Twitter. “You know, the place where the cultural genocide is happening.”
Mulan filmed some scenes inside Xinjiang Province, and the movie’s production team spent a lot of time there; according to Architectural Digest, production designer Grant Major, set decorator Anne Kulijan, and their team spent months there researching. And in September 2017, director Niki Caro posted a photo of a sand dune in Urumqi, the capital city of Xinjiang. If you visit the Instagram post now, you’ll see comments from supporters of the #BoycottMulan movement.
“Beautiful shot, but where are all the people? Oh, that’s right, they’ve been interned in concentration camps,” one commenter wrote. Another: “This is equivalent of shooting a movie in Germany and thanking the Nazis for their assistance.”
Should you boycott Mulan?
This tension in China has been going on for a few years, and the team behind this movie has yet to address its complicity in human rights abuses. Another controversial point: the film was directed by a New Zealander instead of a Chinese director. Your Disney+ purchases are your decision, but here’s another thought from Joshua Wong to keep in mind:
Media Blackout Adds to ‘Mulan’ Woes as Disney Readies China Theatrical Launch
Already tracking poorly in the Middle Kingdom, Disney’s “Mulan” is now the subject of a media blackout in mainland China, where it is set for a theatrical release on Friday. The move appears related to foreign reactions to the film having shot partially in Xinjiang.
Three sources told the Reuters news agency that mainland media outlets had received a notice asking them not to cover the film. Two of whom said it was sent by the Cyberspace Administration of China, while a fourth source at a major Chinese newspaper told Reuters that he received a text message with a similar order from a senior colleague.
The live action re-telling of the Mulan story, which is both a classic Chinese poem and a beloved 1998 Disney animation, was designed for a global audience, but with one eye firmly on the Chinese market. It stars American-Chinese performer Liu Yifei (aka Crystal Liu), Donnie Yen and Gong Li in prominent roles. It shot principally in New Zealand, director Niki Caro’s home country, and partially in China.
“Mulan” had been scheduled for a worldwide release in March this year. But that plan, and other attempts to find a planet-wide outing were all scuppered by the coronavirus pandemic and rolling cinema closures. In recent weeks Disney took the decision to favor its newly-launched direct-to-consumer streaming service Disney Plus and give the film a premium VOD launch in territories where it is operational. That left several markets in Asia including Thailand, Singapore, Taiwan and crucially Mainland China as theatrical release territories.
While box office numbers in Singapore and Thailand are far from shabby, the opening in China looks weak. As of 8pm Thursday, pre-bookings for the film’s opening day amount to $1.70 million (RMB11.6 million), according to ticket sales agency Maoyan. That would place it on top of the chart, but with a gross that is distinctly soft.
Despite China now being the only major film market to have returned to near normality, according to one analysis firm, the prospects for “Mulan” in the People’s Republic began to diminish quickly. Several factors may be at play.
Considered an import, rather than a co-production, “Mulan” received its official Sept. 11 release date only 10 days ago, giving it little chance to build a strong marketing campaign. That date put it squarely in competition with “Tenet” and China’s best performing film of the year “The Eight Hundred.”
It also put the “Mulan” theatrical outing in competition with pirated copies, that appear to have been ripped from Disney Plus streams in other countries. Within hours of the film’s Sept. 4 online premiere, “Mulan” was the top title on at least three torrent sites that Variety visited.
The film’s end credits, as seen in Disney Plus territories, reveal that the film shot partially in the Xinjiang region, as well as the filmmakers’ fulsome thanks to Xinjiang authorities, including the Turpan Public Security Bureau, and various publicity departments of the Communist Party of China.
Xinjiang is the large state in West China where the government is alleged to have incarcerated a million Muslims mainly of Uighur origin, and to have operated other assimilation programs. The Chinese authorities have frequently insisted that what Western governments have identified as prison camps are in fact vocational training facilities.
The recent furor over the film’s Xinjiang connection has caused a storm of bad publicity on social media, and a stiff letter from U.S. Senator Josh Hawley to Disney chief Bob Chapek.
Hawley claims that Disney ignored reports from U.S. government sources and from NGOs describing the human rights abuses in Xinjiang. “[These] did not stop Disney from going to Xinjiang to film ‘Mulan.’ Nor did it stop Disney from collaborating with the Chinese officials directly responsible for the atrocities at those camps,” Hawley said in a Wednesday letter.
On Wednesday, state-controlled tabloid newspaper The Global Times said the ‘Mulan’ backlash was “another manifestation of the extreme ideologies regarding China among U.S. public opinion.” Within China, the state media blackout suggests that the government wants to simply shut down the discussion.
By Patrick Frater
Liu Yifei (born 25 August 1987 in Wuhan), birth name An Feng (安风), legal name Liu Ximeizi (刘茜美子), also known as Crystal Liu, is a popular Chinese actress, model and singer. Said to be one of the most beautiful Chinese actresses, Liu is widely known as “Fairy Sister” in the entertainment industry for her sweet and delicate image. In 2009, she was named as one of the New Four Dan Actresses in China.
Her father is An Shaokang (安少康), a 1st Secretary in the Chinese Embassy in France and a French language university professor, while her mother is Liu Xiaoli (刘晓莉), a dancer and a stage performer. Her parents divorced when she was 10 years old and she was raised solely by her mother. That same year, she adopted her mother’s family name and changed her legal name to “Liu Ximeizi” and began modelling, along with training in singing, dancing and playing the piano. Her godfather is Chen Jinfei (陈金飞), the Chairman of Beijing Tongchan Investment Group (北京通产投资集团).
When she was 11 years old, Liu and her mother moved to New York City, where she attended Louis Pasteur Middle School 67. She returned to China in 2002 to pursue an acting career and adopted the stage name “Liu Yifei” (刘亦菲). Several weeks later, Liu was accepted into the Performance Institute of Beijing Film Academy at the age of 15, and graduated in 2006.
Immediately after her admittance into the Beijing Film Academy, Liu Yifei received offers to star in various television series. Her first television appearance was in The Story of a Noble Family, based on Zhang Henshui‘s novel of the same name. The series was broadcast on prime-time slots in 2003, and became the highest-rated show in CCTV.
After achieving success in television, Liu then ventured onto the big screen. In 2008, she starred in her first Hollywood production The Forbidden Kingdom, in which she played Golden Sparrow, an orphan seeking revenge against her parents’ killer.
In June 2015, to prepare for her role as a foreign student in the Chinese-French production Night Peacock, Liu started to learn the French language. The art film premiered at the Busan International Film Festival and was nominated in the Asian Film category. It was also nominated at the Montreal World Film Festival, where the film won the first prize at the Special Chinese Film Festival.
Edited by staff