Feature photo courtesy @disneyremake

The 2020 live-action adaptation of Mulan may be positioned to better explore both old and new crossroads of female empowerment and Chinese culture than its 1998 original. 



We all remember the original Mulan — the 1998 animated Disney movie, featuring the cute, yet brave Chinese girl, Mulan. Making history as one of the first big Blockbuster movies at the time with female Asian representation, Mulan became an immediate classic for many viewers. Yet the 1998 Mulan isn’t perfect. Many of the characters, including Mushu, Mulan’s sassy dragon sidekick, represent an Orientalist view of a complex culture and intricate traditions. Instead of staying true to the Ballad of Mulan, the poem from the Chinese Northern Wei Dynasty upon which the movie is based, Disney gave their American audience a light-hearted, whitewashed version of the story, one that undermined its own attempts to honor Chinese culture by instead creating simple caricatures of Chinese people. 

The live-action version of Mulan is set to be released in theaters on March 27, 2020. When news of the new film was initially released in 2017, audience members drafted an online petition that gained over 112,000 signatures, demanding that an Asian actress be cast as Mulan. Though the original voice actresses of Mulan were of Asian descent, contemporary Hollywood has, even recently, demonstrated loose judgment in casting decisions, such as when Scarlett Johansson was cast as a Japanese character in 2017 film Ghost in the Shell, igniting widespread suspicion that Mulan would be similarly whitewashed. The casting of Chinese actress Liu Yifei into the lead role as Mulan marked the beginning of the many improvements that would be made for the new Mulan, to ensure it would be authentic and representative of its Chinese origins, as it should’ve been 22 years ago.

Mulan is directed by New Zealander Niki Caro, who is the second woman director to direct a Disney film budgeted at over 100 million dollars. Although she isn’t of Asian heritage, Caro has proven her ability to contribute long-overdue nuance and critical thoughtfulness to the film. Instead of styling Mushu as a dragon, being that a dragon represents masculinity and power in the Chinese culture, Mushu has been replaced by a phoenix, which represents the power of women as guardians and protectors. In doing so, Caro subverts the message that women need a male counterpart; the phoenix helps enhance Mulan’s character as a woman with strength and empowerment, while showcasing the wisdom of women through its own symbolism. In the newly released trailer of Mulan, we see Mulan blur the previously binding divisions between femininity and masculinity, weakness and strength. While the original Mulan emphasizes her need to hide her female identity (by cutting her hair, for example) in order to access both opportunity and valiance, the live-action trailer meditates on a stunning scene of Mulan charging into battle, her long hair flowing behind her. In the original film, Mulan’s femininity is a source of conflict - though eventually accepted, the strength of her womanhood feels conditional upon military victory. In 2020, though, the message radiates in a new way: it is Mulan’s full self that will bring them all glory. 

The original Mulan opens with a scene in which Mulan is being tested on her ability to be a good wife and she is told she must be “poised”and “silent”. However, Mulan’s role as a daughter waiting to be married off seems to be changed in the new movie. When asked if he had any sons, Mulan’s father says that he has been “blessed with two daughters.” Rather than being ashamed, Mulan’s father is proud to showcase Mulan for who she is. Mulan reveals its desire to break through the patriarchal model of the past, not only for its American audience, but as a way to reclaim the narrative of the traditionally patriarchal Chinese society. Dating all the way back to Confucius, women were dictated as secondary to men, with their power limited as caretakers of the household. Even now, with many traditional Chinese families still prioritizing their sons over their daughters, Mulan serves as a symbol of change, reminding viewers that the value of daughters is one beyond marriage and the household. While Mulan is not necessarily trying to erase patriarchal Chinese culture - with Mulan still surrounded by male soldiers and referring to herself as a “son,” Mulan’s story uncovers the mistake in underestimating women. The power of the new Mulan lies in its ability to celebrate traditional culture at the same time as it amends the inequalities tied to that culture.

In addition to Liu Yifei being cast as the lead role, the rest of the main cast is all of Asian heritage. Featuring actors such as Donnie Yen, Jet Li, Gong Li, and Jason Scott Lee, Mulan manifests what was absurdly taboo in Hollywood: the casting of Asian actors to Asian roles. 

What’s more, this movie will showcase Asian men with strength and agility, rather than as the bumbling, ridiculed soldiers of the original cartoon. In the new Mulan, the soldiers are seen in organized formations, shouting and practicing with weapons as the very embodiments of ferocity, determination, and power.

The 2020 Mulan film presents a new tone and portrayal of Mulan’s familiar story. Instead of relying on humor to lighten the gravity of patriarchy, warfare, and oppressive tradition, the new Mulan uses energy, drama, and power to showcase Mulan as a warrior, one whose tactical strategy relies not on blending in, but standing out. The original “I’ll Make A Man Out of You” will forever be a classic song we can all sing along to, but here’s hoping that 2020’s reprisal summons forth a more infallible, lasting message - one that celebrates authentic Chinese culture and powerful women. 

Writer’s Note: Many Hong Kong protestors are calling on viewers to boycott the 2020 Mulan film after lead actress Liu YiFei posted a message on her Weibo that expressed her support for Hong Kong police over protestors. However, it’s important to separate Mulan from the personal opinions of its actors and actresses. Mulan should be appreciated as a creative work for its potent cultural and social messages, distinct from any political ideologies.