I'll Make a Mockery Out of You
Disney’s live-action Mulan mocks efforts towards Asian American RepresentationBy Haruna Tomono | Published 09/28/2020
On September 4th, Disney released yet another live-action remake of one of its well-known animated films. Following the successes of Cinderella, Aladdin, and The Lion King, the newest adaptation of Mulan is now available to those who have an active Disney-plus subscription for a one-time payment of $29.99. Despite this steep price tag, the void that the pandemic has left us with makes this a shiny new film to watch. But, is supporting this movie for its all-Asian cast and seemingly authentic portrayal really worth it?
As many know, the 1998 animated film tells the story of an empowered young woman, Fa Mulan, as she hides her identity to fight in the Imperial Army on behalf of her father. During her time training and battle, she undergoes a series of revelations and realizes the true power of being herself and being a woman. Thus, she reveals her truth — that she is a woman fighting equally with and against men — which expels her from the army. However, by a show of bravery, she is, in the end, recognized as a worthy warrior and commended for her efforts in battle. With a message of female empowerment and as the only East Asian “princess” in Disney’s franchise, Mulan served as an icon for females and Asian Americans alike.
The 2020 adaptation is no different. With just a slight name change, Hua Mulan (Liu Yifei) battles fearlessly in a series of beautifully choreographed scenes alongside the Hun Army to defeat Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and gain respect from the emperor. The addition of a powerful female witch — Xian Lang (Gong Li) — underlines the message of female empowerment that brought the original film great success. A quick glance at the cast list makes it evident that every member of the cast is of Asian descent. With a powerful feminist message and Disney’s first all-Asian cast, the new Mulan seems like the epitome of what we have sought: female, East Asian representation that does not culturally appropriate Chinese traditions. But, IMDb’s list of the full cast and crew tells a different story.
Below the cast list lies the names of the production, direction, storywriting, and design teams. And as you scroll through, you begin to notice something peculiar: there are no Chinese names. Searching through the hundreds of individuals credited for their contributions, it becomes evident that the story on screen that we believed to be an authentic rendition of the story of Mulan is actually the brainchild of mostly White writers and designers, recreating a narrative based on the ideas they have formed on what a Chinese battalion looks like. A simple Google search about the accuracy of Mulan’s set design and costumes brings thousands of articles up with historians voicing their concerns on the misleading nature of the film. Their critiques range from the inaccurate mix of eras depicted by the set and costume design to the lack of research conducted by designers and storywriters. A common point that irked historians in particular was a quote from costume designer Bina Daigeler:
“We did a lot of research for this movie. I went to Europe to all the museums that had a Chinese department and then I traveled to China for three weeks to really get deep into it and I just soaked up all the Chinese culture, as much as I [could].”
She continued to note that she had gone to the main museums in London that showcased Chinese history. The eurocentric nature of her research process made many question the true authenticity of such museums and visits. Furthermore, the historical accuracy of the story itself is widely skewed from the original anthology Ballad of Mulan — a flaw present since the 1998 classic’s release. Despite efforts to bring the story closer to the original such as excluding the beloved dragon Mushu, demoting the iconic original soundtrack to some meager background music, and changing the original love interest Li Shang into two different characters, Commander Tung (Donnie Yen) and Chen Honghui (Yoson An), the authenticity of the traditions and concepts presented throughout the narrative is far from true. Though the legend of Mulan has been adapted through the centuries, its stark contrast from the Disney-fied version is undeniable.
Behind the facade of an all-Asian cast and an empowering message to strong women lies the sad truth of 2020’s Mulan: a majority White crew that unauthentically told a story that is not theirs to tell. It is as if they were making a mockery of the public that wanted to believe that Hollywood was moving forward in Asian American representation. Instead, we were fooled by the facade they had cast.
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