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Mulan

Released 2020. Director: Niki Caro

TWENTY-TWO YEARS HAVE PASSED SINCE WE SAW the animation feature Mulan and according to the people at Disney it’s time for a remake. The story, for those who are unfamiliar, is based on a Chinese folklore dating back some 1,600 years concerning Hua Mulan, a peasant girl who disguises as a boy to fight in a war.

Under attack from invaders from the north, the emperor decrees that every family must send one male to be conscripted. Mulan’s father, who has no sons, has no choice even though he’s moved on in age. Knowing her father will surely not survive, Mulan risks her own life to take his place.

This version directed by Niki Caro assembles top-tier Chinese actors no stranger to Hollywood movies, including Gong Li, Tzi Ma, Jet Li, Donnie Yen and Rosalind Chao. To stop us asking pesky questions, it also attempts to explain how Mulan could fool everyone all the time. She doesn’t undress in front of the others and volunteers for night guard duty. Her odour keeps everyone at arm’s length because she doesn’t bathe for days and weeks; and when she does, it’s in the dead of night alone in a lake. We’ve seen earlier Mulan is physically active and adept at using a sword. We’ve also seen that she’s not averse to getting down and dirty and is certainly no shrinking violet.

In her male guise, among the other men in the camp who are all older, taller and larger, Liu Yifei looks like a pre-pubescent boy who won’t survive a day on the warfront. But that’s perhaps the point: that a girl can and will.

The production doesn’t skim on budget and this is amply evident in the lavish production and visual effects. Slick and shiny, the battle scenes are choreographed to maximize the magic of pixels. This over-reliance on CGI overwhelms the narrative and renders the movie more artificial than artistic. There’s a colourful phoenix flying around making repeated appearances in case we haven’t got the cumbersome metaphor the first time.

The bird that rises from its own ashes isn’t the only mythical element. There’s also a character they call a witch who flies, shape-shifts and wields sorcery powers. The witch, not found in the original story, serves as a contrast. She’s villainous; Mulan is virtuous. Two women with power in their hands fighting on opposite sides, a twisted yin-yang sisterhood surrounded by men who don’t get them. The witch is a tragic character, her allegiance with the enemy resulting from being rejected and shunned by the kingdom she wished to serve. Mulan’s ultimate victory, therefore, is a win for her gender in more ways than one.

This classic tale about filial piety, one of the major pillars of Confucianism, is now seen through the prism of gender politics. In the folklore, Mulan and her troops conquer the enemy and she returns home. Her comrades only find out her real identity when they come to visit her at home, expecting to see a young man. In this version, she reveals herself while in battle, riding headlong into enemy territory slinging arrows, her long hair flowing in the wind in dramatic slow motion like a shampoo ad.

The message used to be: a woman can do what a man can do. Now, a woman can do better what a man can do. Mulan’s courage and quick thinking spares her fellow recruits, kills the leader of the invading warriors and saves the emperor. Without Mulan, the kingdom will have fallen.

More importantly, she is accepted, with a whiff of surprise but without question, when in reality a woman caught in her position dressed as a man infiltrating the military and coming close to the emperor would most certainly have her head chopped off.

When Mulan reveals her true self in the heat of battle, she’s no longer wearing her protective armoured suit but a billowy red gown. Even her dirt-scrubbed face is now radiant with a hint of makeup. This show of female empowerment and acceptance is heavy-handed in accentuating her femininity. It eclipses, then overtakes the moral of the original story. A daughter’s bravery to save her father out of filial duty is supplanted by a woman’s battle to be taken seriously, accepted and celebrated.

Nothing wrong with that. This 2020 update is the latest entry on the list of movie alterations made to cherished tales many of us grew up reading, including Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Hansel & Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood and others. Times change and it’s a good thing to be able to read age-old stories from fresh angles, as long as we don’t get caught up with rewriting that we end up straying too far from the original aspects of these beloved classics.


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