Wearing Mulan’s Reflection

Character design by Chen-Yi Change (image found here).

I still remember hearing the news last year that Disney was planning on making yet another 3D live-action remake of one of their classics. At first, my eyes started rolling – here they are again, wanting to take a short-cut to making another hit – but, of course, all changed when I heard it was Mulan. Then, amidst all of the instances where Hollywood was whitewashing films, it was hard deciding a title for my piece on it – there are so many quotable lyrics from the original soundtrack to choose from: “Let’s get down to business and actually make a culturally sensitive movie with thoughtful casting please”, “My little baby, off to destroy the dominant discourses on Asian-American identities”, “Dishonour on you, dishonour on your cow if you choose to whitewash this film like the so many others we’re still angry about”. But Huffington Post’s pithy line hoping that Disney can “make a man monster smash out of this movie” rings closest to home.

However, before looking at the casting choice, as is often the most prominent issue, instead of considering this movie as a simple retelling of the legend, made in the spirit of all the other blockbuster 3D live-action adaptation hits, it is important to look at the original animated film through the lens provided by Leslie Bow in her analysis of betrayal and the forms of disloyalty Asian-American women are accused of as they negotiate boundaries between intersecting ethnic and national identities. How does an age-old Chinese legend become refitted to a universal (read: white) audience by a largely white production company when legends and fairy tales are vehicles of cultural reproduction? By understanding the complexities of Ming-na Wen’s role as the voice actress of Mulan in the Disney animation, as an audience, we would be better informed to interpret the ways in which the future Chinese actress (fingers crossed) playing the titular character could complicate the politics between cultural nationalism and feminism for Asian-American female viewers in a film that will in all likelihood still be largely produced by white creators. Perhaps only then we can fully envision and utilise for ourselves the inherent subversive strain in the Hua Mulan legend to resist the social roles we are assigned as Asian-Americans.

Mulan is often celebrated as the only Disney princess to not actually be a princess and for her role as a powerful, pro-active woman just trying to selflessly save all of China and its men. However, despite the extensive homework the filmmakers did (as elaborated in the Discovering Mulan documentary describing the making of the movie), the American flavouring is still undoubtedly apparent through the Broadway-esque songs and the styles of comic relief (i.e. Mushu). As such, the Hong Kong born Ming-na Wen’s voice behind this Americanised Mulan could be seen as a form of betrayal: the writers took the skeleton of the legend and ascribed their techniques of humanisation (the clumsiness with the matchmaker, the relatable self-doubts) and filmmaking style to create a story where this now essentially American Mulan saves both herself from the conservative efforts of the men and the men themselves from an unfashionable Confucian tradition that excludes women.

The emphasis placed on the dissimilarities between Mulan and traditional Chinese societal expectations, where women are destined to be slightly air-headed, obedient brides, further aligns this character to “corrupt[ing]” Western feminism, whose words become a stark contrast to the meticulously constructed backgrounds of long scrolls, roofs with upturned corners, and moon-gates (Bow, 11). In the sequence of scenes accompanying “Honour to Us All”, the slightly accented voices of her mother and the make-up artists who still subscribe to this traditional patriarchy is clearly identifiable in comparison to Mulan’s clear voice. The Taiwanese artist, Chen-Yi Chang, who was specifically called in as the voice of an expert for the animators paid specific attention to the “S-curve” – the “essence of Chinese art” – which was incorporated as a unifying marker into each of the female characters is not seen in the male ones (“The Making of Mulan – Part 3 of 6”, Youtube, 2:19). Also, not only aesthetically, but musically, “Honour to Us All” captures the tell-tale markers of Chinese music – the highlighting of erhu sound and the lack of noticeable beat versus the orchestral band used in other songs such as “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” where Mulan ascends to glory and empowerment with the background of a triumphant trumpet and a pounding drumbeat. This alliance of Mulan’s character and the Western society through which she was created is exemplified by the image of Mulan’s figure in line with all of the other classic Disney princesses.

Image accompanying Wikipedia’s article on “Disney Princess”.

How then, can we create a modern-day interpretation of Mulan that both accurately portrays modern aspirations of Chinese womanhood that is neither policed by post-colonial nationalisms and U.S. citizenship? The fact that the largely white and male filmmakers of Mulan married a Western feminist rhetoric with traditional Chinese folklore complicates Ming-na Wen’s form of betrayal and often obscures it with praises of successful cultural representation. However, it is not enough to only emphasise the need for a Chinese actress as Mulan if the story is still being wholly constructed through a white perspective. How hard would it be to get them to add a panel of Asian-American and Chinese directors, producers, and writers to this?


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