Minor spoilers ahead.
Of course a dude with a blog called Feminist Asian Dad would just have to write a review of the live-action Mulan movie, right?
After all, the famous Chinese legend centers on a father-daughter relationship and has often been interpreted as a girl power story, depicting a young woman who proves herself equal, if not superior, to the men around her. In fact, when I was considering potential names for this blog several years ago, one of the choices favored by friends and family was Raising Mulan. Of course, I ended up going in a different direction, partly because many more people liked Feminist Asian Dad, and also because I didn’t want to worry that the Disney Corporation might one day come after me for violating their trademark.
Not that I think Disney would have a good case, because the story itself belongs to the Chinese people, dating back to the fifth century C.E. during what’s called the Northern Wei period in China. (Disclaimer: I’m a Wei through my mom’s side of the family, which means that I’m descended from the emperor portrayed by Jet Li in the film. Just kidding, it doesn’t mean anything at all.) Much of the popular global conception of Mulan comes from the 1998 animated Disney feature, even though the legend has also been turned into several Chinese-language movies over the years. If you’re not familiar with the plot, it’s essentially about a daughter who disguises herself as a man to take her ailing father’s place in the army. And contrary to the Disney Princesses depiction of her, she’s not at all a princess in the Mulan legend; her family is notable for simply being normal.
So what do I think of the new movie itself? There’s a lot to like!
The first thing that struck me while watching Mulan is how visually spectacular it is. The natural landscapes are breathtaking. (It may have helped that I saw the film on a relatively large screen, set up outdoors in our friends’ driveway for several families to watch – all while social distancing, of course.) The costumes are intricate, colorful, and worthy of an Academy Award nomination, IMO.
I also appreciated the nods to the original “Ballad of Mulan,” like the early scene where Mulan, her mother, and her sister are weaving at a loom. The poem itself opens with exactly that activity. There’s also a scene in the film where a young Mulan is riding a horse through grasslands, chasing two rabbits, one male and one female, although she can’t tell which is which while they’re running. That’s an allusion to the final lines of the poem:
The he-hare’s feet go hop and skip,
The she-hare’s eyes are muddled and fuddled.
Two hares running side by side close to the ground,
How can they tell if I am he or she?
Of course, it’s a foreshadowing of Mulan’s disguise.
The heavily Asian cast is also wonderful to behold, especially working with an English-language script. That’s still such a rarity! There aren’t any subtitles in the movie, to my recollection; you do hear some Mandarin in the background, but the lines aren’t essential to the plot. In fact, among wide-release motion pictures in the U.S., Mulan probably has more Asians percentage-wise of any film since Crazy Rich Asians. I will never get tired of seeing so many people who look like me in a movie that’s geared mainly for a Western audience.
The familiar faces in the cast are a delight to see as well, especially because I’ve been able to follow their careers over the years:
- The ubiquitous Tzi Ma (whom I first saw in Rush Hour with Jackie Chan) plays Mulan’s dad, a hero of past wars with the crippling injuries to show the price he’s paid. Tzi conveys both a strength and a vulnerability as Hua Zhou that are powerfully tangible, lingering in my thoughts well after the movie’s conclusion.
- Rosalind Chao (whom I must admit to crushing on when she played Keiko O’Brien in Star Trek: The Next Generation ) portrays Mulan’s practical, voice-of-reason mom who had me at times agreeing with her! Rosalind’s version of Hua Li balances the character’s role as both a supporter and an antagonist for Mulan. Her voice, measured and respectful, carries the weight of her loving instinct to protect her child.
- Jason Scott Lee plays the main baddie Bori Khan, and he’s just as ripped as when he played Bruce Lee in Dragon! He’s a few years older than me, so I’d better get my act together or else I’ll never catch up! Nah, who am I kidding ….
- Gong Li (whom I first saw in the Chinese-language Raise the Red Lantern) brings an ethereal and melancholy air to Xianniang (pronounced with an initial “sh” sound, like in xiao long bao, the popular Chinese “soup” dumplings). Xianniang is a shape-shifting witch who pledges allegiance to Bori Khan in exchange for protection from the witch-hating (and -killing) populace. Gong imbues Xianniang’s voice and facial expressions with a sorrow that’s true to the character’s history.
And let’s talk about the movie’s many action scenes! Lead actress Yifei Liu, who is excellent in embodying Mulan’s vulnerability and determination in the more reflective parts of the film, is also marvelous in these smash-bang sequences. She’s a lot of fun to watch, regardless of whether she’s fighting with a sword or staff. Of course, the great Donnie Yen is just impossible to take your eyes from, particularly when he’s flashing his mesmerizing sword skills. Even Jet Li gets in on the action, though he plays the aging emperor. I really like how the live-action Mulan indeed has plenty of live action!
At its heart, though, Mulan is a feminist film. Yes, its core theme could broadly be described as an encouragement for people to embrace who they really are, instead of trying to please everyone else. But the gender dynamics make the movie truly a girl power story. In fact, it’s not just about the struggle of one woman (Mulan) to accept herself and come fully into her own power. It’s actually about two women – Mulan and Xianniang. The witch’s character arc is definitely shorter than, and a foil to, Mulan’s, but the interactions between the two are pivotal to Mulan’s hero’s journey. As a result, their encounters yield the most compelling portions of dialogue in the script.
I don’t want to give too much away, but both women are marginalized and shamed in their society. They defy traditional Chinese expectations of what a woman should be like – beautiful, genteel, subdued, domestic. Mulan’s parents, concerned that she’ll never find a husband if she continues in her free-spirited ways, try to steer her toward traditional womanhood (though her dad secretly feels pride at her non-traditional skills). As for Xianniang, wherever she goes, people respond to her magical powers with great fear; Bori Khan’s military allies (all men) even want to kill her. So both are boxed in, by family and community.
Xianniang’s way of dealing with her society’s rejection is to use her magic to help Bori Khan’s forces to destroy battalion after battalion, and garrison after garrison, of the emperor’s troops. Khan promises that she will have a place in his future kingdom where she can be herself. But this comes with conditions, the primary one being that he remains in charge, and she remains his loyal subject. Later in the story, these conditions morph into something she didn’t sign up for; Khan allays his allies’ fears of Xianniang by promising that she will serve not just him, but all of them.
It’s a scenario familiar to many modern women. They get a promotion and break into a male-dominated echelon of organizational leadership – be it a company, firm, university, church or other spiritual community, government agency, etc. They’re lauded by the men as being great at what they do (and as a sign that the organization is very 21st-century and really does value women).
But before long, the women find that they’re still not treated equally – not really. They bring up ideas for how the company can better support its female employees or how the preaching of a church can be more relevant to women’s needs, and male eyebrows around the boardroom start to go up. Often, the suggestions are tabled for further discussion, which never seems to arrive at any final decision. (I’ve heard many times that the culture of a male-dominated board doesn’t typically change until there are actually three women serving on it.)
It’s never spoken explicitly, but the lesson is unmistakable: you’re a woman, and we’re glad you’re here, but be a good little girl and don’t disrupt the patriarchy. In other words, we men are still firmly in charge; you didn’t really expect otherwise, did you?
As for Mulan, though she is truly doing something unselfish by going to war in her dad’s place, thus sparing his life from certain death in battle, she’s also using the opportunity to escape the cage that her family and community have constructed around her. Being a warrior is much more consistent with her skills and passions than traditional womanhood ever will be. But like Xianniang, she still has to play by the patriarchy’s rules. For Mulan, that means she can’t serve in the army openly as a woman; doing so risks execution.
One particularly potent symbol of how society has constricted her spirit: the long strip of fabric (or possibly leather) that she uses to bind her breasts closer to her body. We see her surreptitiously take it off and put it on a couple of times, wearing it over her undershirt; the first time she removes it, she lets out a big long exhale, because it’s crushing her. I couldn’t help but think of corsets in European- and American-based period pieces, which sometimes also symbolize the patriarchal oppression of female characters.
And so we have these two powerful women who don’t fit the traditional mold for their gender, trying to find their places in a man’s world, both kept from fully realizing themselves by the men in charge.
Ironically, the original “Ballad of Mulan” doesn’t have a strong feminist flavor. This is, in part, because the entire ten years that the poem version of Mulan is away from home and fighting in the army is barely described; only a handful of lines note that passage of time. It fits, then, with the zillions of Chinese folk stories that uphold the Confucian value of filial piety – tales of daughters and sons who sacrifice their own comfort and happiness for the good of their elders. (One of my college roommates gave me an example: a son who exposes himself to mosquitoes to draw them away from his parents.)
But the feminist interpretation of the story flows quite naturally, especially for modern audiences. Any visual adaptation simply must dramatize Mulan’s time in the military, where we see her struggles to hide her identity and to prove that she’s just as good as the next soldier. It would be far too jarring for 21st-century viewers to see her leaving home and then, thirty seconds later, show her returning home. There’s no way modern moviegoers would be okay with that.
But though the feminist framing of the story serves as the core of the current Mulan movie, it’s not like family relationships cease to be a vital part of it. Tzi Ma’s proud declaration as her dad, “I am blessed with two daughters,” will forever be a part of my internal movie quotes file, for me to whip out at random times, just like I do with lines from the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the original Star Wars film. And their family is front and center as the story nears its conclusion, as they deal with the aftermath of what Mulan did. That was the part of the movie where I cried the most.
There are other delightful aspects of Mulan that I won’t go into here, including a surprise cameo that connects the film to the 1998 animated version. Overall, I’d give the movie a thumbs up! If you’re a parent wondering about the PG-13 rating: it’s for violence, but it’s really less violent than the more recent Star Wars films or The Avengers movies, even though they’re also PG-13.
If there’s one thing that I wish the film had more of, it’s dialogue; several scenes feel rushed, not giving me as the viewer enough time to soak in the emotion of the moment. The cast does a good job of conveying the characters’ feelings, but I feel like some scenes could have more punch if a bit more were said. With the movie’s run time nearing two hours, and with a lot of younger viewers likely to see it, I wonder if the powers-that-be mandated that the film be edited down in length.
I do need to also acknowledge the important political issues external to Mulan that have impacted the film’s reception. Namely, I’m referring to Yifei Liu’s social media post last year supporting the Hong Kong authorities during the pro-democracy protests, and the filming partnership between Disney and one of the government agencies involved in the Uighur prison camps in northwestern China.
I understand the views of my friends who decided to boycott the film because of these two connections. I considered it as well, but I ultimately wanted to support the many Asians who worked on the film who had nothing to do with either, and to show that the story of a badass young Asian woman was worth the heavy investment of Hollywood studios. But I totally respect folks who choose to approach Mulan differently.
If you do see it, I hope you’re inspired! I’m certain that many an Asian American girl who watches this version of Mulan will feel exactly that. And this feminist Asian dad, blessed with two daughters, is thrilled for it!