When a live-action Mulan film was first announced, it faced a daunting task; satisfy lifelong fans while simultaneously delivering a more accurate representation of Chinese culture. As more details emerged, audiences felt conflicted. While the original animated flick has its issues, the music was admittingly catchy. Plus, Mushu acted as a strong comedic relief. Especially when paired with more serious concepts like an arranged marriage. All while serving a small semblance of Chinese culture (even if they were inaccurate).
The Original Mulan Film
Nonetheless, Mulan, flaws and all, still featured the first Asians I, and (I presume) many other Asian children, saw on screen. Even if it was animated. As an Asian-American woman today, I’ve learned more about Asian representation in film and TV over the years. But Mulan is the movie that started it all.
The original movie featured Ming-Na Wen (who comes back for a very short cameo) as Mulan. In it, she disguishes herself as a man to fight in the war in place of her ailing father. While the main concept of the story remains, the new film includes the concept of “chi” (or “qi”). Chi is a flow of energy that connects everything in the universe, used by soldiers (i.e. men).
The Villain of the Story
In addition, the villain of the story is more than just an opposing army. Rather, it’s a shapeshifting witch named Xianniang. While she’s on the other team, she and Mulan are similar. Specifically in the sense that they’ve both struggled in restraining their chi. However, Xianniang chooses to embrace her powers and has become an outcast as a result.
Mulan, previous to joining the fifth battalion, chose to hide her chi and natural desire to fight. But Xianniang informs her that her dishonesty weakens her chi. Soon after, Mulan realizes she’s right. To be a true warrior, she must be loyal, brave, and true. Pretending to be a man holds back her power. Xianniang then tries to get Mulan to join her and appeals to their similarities. However, Mulan refuses to betray her people. So, she strips off her armor (both figuratively and literally) and finally reveals to everyone that she’s a woman.
Despite the soldiers’ initial shock and disappointment, Mulan is later praised for embracing her chi. Xianniang, however, was forced to live a life of exile because of how society treated her. But after seeing Mulan, a woman, lead an army and be praised to do so inspires her. This then leads Xianniang to sacrifice herself to save Mulan from a flying arrow. In the end, the Emperor rewards Mulan by offering her a job in the imperial army. She initially turns it down but eventually accepts after reconciling with her family.
It’s hard not to compare Mulan to its original counterpart. There aren’t any musical numbers, talking dragons, or other notable characters (like Grandmother Fa and Shang). Instead, they’ve brought in some new ones like Mulan’s younger sister, Xiu, and new love interest, Honghui. However, we learn almost nothing about Xiu. All we know is that she’s younger and is afraid of spiders. Additionally, there didn’t seem to be much of a reason as to why they replaced Shang with Honghui. The additions of the new characters were unnecessary, as they didn’t really add much to the story. However, Xianniang was a nice change in pace. The Hans from the original didn’t really have a clear motive. Other than their thirst for power, which is obscure overall. Plus, we’re able to really sympathize with Xianniang, as she’s not as different as she seems.
The film really dove further into becoming a more accurate representation of Chinese culture. But because of that, it’s completely transformed into a different film tone-wise. The original movie is one that is more upbeat and easy to follow. The newer iteration has a much more serious tone. But more importantly, it pays homage to Chinese culture by incorporating aspects of Chinese film. Namely, slow-mo fight sequences and flips. But Mulan strays so far from its original, it’s almost an entirely different movie. But at the very least, I commend them for their effort to respect Chinese culture.