This October, Disney announced that it would soon be making a live-action remake of its 1998 movie Mulan, thus continuing 2016 as the Year of the Remake. Like most remakes, this one was immediately engulfed in controversy. There were rumors, later confirmed, that Disney was planning on inserting a white male love interest for Mulan who falls in love with her and saves China for her, thus proving that everything Hollywood touches turns to the opposite of gold. Fortunately, Disney has now said that everyone of note in the movie will be Chinese, but given Hollywood’s past missteps with this and other movies, I’m not entirely convinced of their sincerity. Yet it’s frustrating to me that Disney is already failing at basic representation when there are so many other ways they could mess up this remake that they haven’t yet addressed. So let’s take a look back at the original Disney movie and try and figure out what kind of story the remake might be.
Most of you know the story of Mulan by now, and Disney tells it in the cutesy aesthetic to which we’ve become accustomed: Fa Mulan, a young Chinese girl in the Han dynasty, spends her time daydreaming and riding horses rather than preparing to meet her matchmaker, who is supposed to guarantee her a good husband and thus further the honor of her family. However, Mulan doesn’t perform well in front of the matchmaker, and later on, her father is conscripted into service to help China fight the Huns. Rather than let her elderly father go to serve the Emperor, Mulan runs off to take his place. Along with her animal companions—a lucky cricket, her horse, and the dragon Mushu— she saves her regiment and all of China from the Hun invasion.
Right away, the Disney version is very different from the original poem upon which the myth is based. (The legend of Hua Mulan is based on a sixth century poem, but other mythologizers have added their own versions to it throughout the ages.) In the poem, Mulan is a very feminine girl who is already prim and proper and everything her traditional parents would want. She’s not an only child; she also has a younger brother and sometimes an older sister, and when she runs away to join the army, she does it to protect her elderly father and her young brother from being drafted and possibly dying. This shows Mulan’s filial piety, which is possibly the most important value in Chinese society. She doesn’t go to fight because she’s a tomboy or because she’s dreamed of being more than a wife and mother, and in the poem, she doesn’t get married at the end of her journey and instead returns home to take care of her parents and assume the gender role she used to fulfill.
Of course, this kind of story wouldn’t fly well in the face of Western audiences, and Disney took great liberties in its 1998 version by making Mulan a tomboy and by making the narrative one in which she went to seek adventure and was rewarded by gifts from the Emperor and a strapping love interest. It’s not a particularly Asian story, and there are numerous liberties taken with its cultural representation throughout. However, as this great article from MTV lays out, it is, overall, a good Asian-American story. Asian-Americans who are raised in the States by first-generation parents often feel confined by their parents’ more traditionalist values, and when I watched Mulan as a young Asian kid growing up in the U.S., it really resonated with me. I felt like I wanted to do things that my parents didn’t understand or approve of and was reaching across a great cultural divide in order to understand them and be understood by them. That Mulan could leave her family and succeed at something that her parents clearly didn’t want her to do meant a lot to me. (Also, the music was great.)
However, Mulan was a typical hero’s journey in which the protagonist goes on an adventure, succeeds, and comes home transformed (and covered in glory). Despite the fact that Disney does a pretty good job capturing the filial piety of Mulan’s choice to go to war, it couldn’t help Americanizing the value in one key scene when Mulan’s gender is revealed and she’s abandoned by her comrades. She says to herself, “Maybe I didn’t go for my father. Maybe what I really wanted was to prove I could do things right, so when I looked in the mirror, I’d see someone worthwhile.” The Chinese cultural value of filial piety is thus discarded for a more individualistic, American feminist value of proving one’s self-worth (particularly as a woman in a male-dominated field). It makes the fact that I and many other Asian-Americans found meaning in it seem incidental (after all, everyone universally has probably felt misunderstood by their parents at some point).
So aside from the casting of the remake, I wonder if Disney is going to attempt to make its remake about Chinese characters rather than only starring them (if they can even manage that bit). Will the new movie have values and beliefs that can speak to Asian experiences, and if so, which experiences? A HuffPo source says that the remake “will draw from [original poem] ‘The Ballad of Mulan’ as well as the 1998 animated film”, but as seen above, the traditionalist protagonist of the first story and the second-wave feminist protagonist of the second seem incompatible with each other. A war story set in sixth century China, historically speaking, would encapsulate some values that may not be palatable to the modern American or Asian-American viewer. However, if the characters were completely Americanized and had American values, it would also ignore the Asian-American experience of trying to fit into both cultures but being an outsider in both (and it would likely not do well at the Chinese box office of which Hollywood is so fond). There’s no easy answer here, but the truth of the remake is that it has far more pitfalls to consider than just its visual representation.
The new Mulan is currently being written by two white writers (who wrote Jurassic World together, so there’s that) and it doesn’t yet have a director, though Disney says it is looking for an Asian director. Without an Asian voice at the helm, I’m skeptical of Hollywood’s ability to accomplish what is definitely a hard task—but if they mess it up, at least we’ll always have the 1998 Mulan to look back on.