Mulan Will Bring Honor to Us All

You’ll have to forgive me as this isn’t my usual style of writing. I genuinely didn’t think I would be writing something like this… but given the comments I’ve received and read, I think this is the best place I can put my thoughts.

Yesterday, Disney released the teaser trailer for the live-action Mulan film starring Liu Yifei, Donnie Yen, Gong Li, and Jet Li, just to name a few of the amazing actors and actresses in this film. If you haven’t watched it yet, I’ll have the trailer at the very bottom of this post for you to (hopefully) enjoy.

 

FACTS ABOUT Hua Mulan:

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  • The Ballad of Hua Mulan” is a Chinese poem with the earliest extant text dating back to the 11th or 12th century. The story takes place between 386 AD and 536 AD.

  • In the original poem, she takes her father’s place because she doesn’t want her father (who is ill) to serve and her brother is too young. Mulan is already well trained in martial arts, sword fighting, and archery. Mulan eventually fights for 12 years and is offered an official post. 

  • In the “Sui Tang Romance” version, first released in 1695, she befriends the Emperor’s daughter, who is also a warrior. She’s so happy to learn Mulan is a woman and they become “laotong”—a type of relationship in Chinese culture that bonded two girls as sisters. In this version, the emperor is taken down and the two women surrender. When she returns home, she’s found out that her father has passed away and her mother has remarried. She’s ordered to become a concubine and she dies by suicide.

  • Fun fact: There is a crater on Venus named after Hua Mulan. 

  • Her name means “Magnolia.”

 

The Talent in the Live-Action Mulan:

  • Liu Yifei [aka Crystal Liu]: She’s considered one of the “Four Dan Actresses”—a term referring to the four most bankable actresses from Mainland China. She’s been in numerous period TV shows and movies, as well as some more modern movies. My suggestions to watch: The Return of the Condor Heroes, or if you’re not in the mood for a full TV series, give The Forbidden Kingdom a shot. 

  • Yen Tze-Dan [aka Donnie Yen]: Aside from his acting career, Donnie Yen has won multiple gold medals in Wushu competitions. For a period of time, he crossed paths with Jet Li at the same training facility. He is a 6th degree black belt in taekwando, a purple belt in BJJ, and a black belt in Judo. My suggestions if you want to see Donnie Yen in action: Ipman and Bodyguards and Assassins. And yes, he is in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. 

  • Gong Li: A Chinese-born Singaporean actress who gained international prominence through her many collaborations with director Zhang Yimou (director of films such as, House of Flying Daggers, Hero, and The Great Wall.) You may recognize her from Memoirs of a Geisha. She has been nominated for and won numerous awards for her work as an actress.

  • Li Lianjie [aka Jet Li]: I think most of us have seen Jet Li’s movies. If you haven’t, I suggest renting: Romeo Must Die, Kiss of the Dragon, and Forbidden Kingdom (also starting Jackie Chan and Liu Yifei). Beyond being a successful and talented actor, he is also a retired Wushu champion.

 

In My Honest Opinion…

Let me start out by saying that this live action means more to me than just a remake of the “original” animated feature. Sure, they’ve noted that there won’t be music and possibly no Mushu or Li Shang. But let’s dissect this for a second.

Disney received a lot of backlash when a script they were supposedly working on was leaked in 2016 (source)—you may think “Well that Great Wall movie starred Matt Damon! How hypocritical!” …Except that movie was directed by a Chinese director and Matt Damon starts out being detained, while on the quest for gun powder.

I don’t expect everyone to understand but I want to at least attempt to explain:

The legend of Hua Mulan isn’t just an animated movie to Chinese people. It’s a story that’s taught and continuously passed down. And dare I say, in a country that, I’ll admit, is backwards in many things, the fact that a story about a badass woman who goes to fight for her country is a story that has not been lost over time is something I’m incredibly proud of.

As a little Chinese girl growing up in America, my family watched many Chinese films and TV shows but I never saw myself on a big screen. Until Mulan. Seeing chopsticks, Chinese-style art and architecture, and almond-shaped eyes in a Disney animated feature-length film meant more than you can imagine. And looking back, I should have been proud to be told that I resemble Mulan. But as one of the only Asian children in the elementary school I was attending at the time, the last thing I wanted was to be told I looked different. I would compare this to the same feeling that I felt sitting in the theater watching “Crazy Rich Asians”—during the scene where they’re making dumplings, I was sobbing. I truly didn’t understand why this scene hit me the hardest until afterwards. This is the first time I’ve genuinely related to a movie on the big screen. My family sat around and made dumplings while shooting the breeze. I saw my family.

In the teaser trailer, after the mother announces that the Matchmaker has found an “auspicious match” and Mulan says “I will bring honor to us all,” we hear Cheng Pei-Pei (the Matchmaker) voice over: “Quiet. Composed. Graceful. Disciplined. These are the qualities we see in a good wife.” This really hit home for me. Growing up, my mom used to tell me, “You’re too loud. You’re too headstrong. You’re too opinionated. You can’t be this way if you want to get married.” These are also stereotypical attributes that people believe apply to all Asian women. I have never been the stereotypical Asian woman—I’m loud, opinionated, (appear to be) outgoing, and I refuse to let other people dictate how I live my life and my future. That’s not say I don’t hold onto some traditional Chinese values (for better or for worse): family and respecting the elderly (also see: Filial Piety) and saving face being the two that come to mind immediately.

 

Let’s dive in to Mushu, the music, and Li Shang:

Now, I’m a big fan of Mushu and Eddie Murphy, as well as the soundtrack of the animated feature. You can bet I (attempted to) belt out “Reflection” in my room when it came out. I will continue to leave the High E above Middle C to Christina Aguilera though—no one needs me shattering windows. Keeping that in mind, let’s hold hands and go on a journey together…

Li Shang: Let’s start with the least controversial piece. Shang is not going to be a part of the live-action movie. Mulan will have a love-interest of sorts but he isn’t the focus of the movie. And before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s take a second and think about all the times that we have complained about Disney Princesses always having love interests. We applauded Frozen for focusing on Elsa and Anna’s sibling relationship instead of a man. We loved that Merida shoots for her own hand. Disney is letting Mulan shine in the live-action and rightfully so—after all, she is the eponymous hero of this story.

 

The music: I hear hints of “Reflection” in the background as The Matchmaker is speaking. While Liu Yifei may not be belting “Whooooo is that girl I see,” it seems that we’ll continue to hear the iconic music that we’ve all grown to love throughout the film as instrumentals. I have no doubt we’ll also hear some kickass covers, given how they’ve treated some of the songs from the recent release of Aladdin. I personally am hoping Christian Aguilera will grace us with her voice on the original soundtrack for the live-action. Also, as much as I love Disney songs, I can’t help but to think of Patrick Dempsey’s character in “Enchanted” (the source of the GIF.)

Some of my favorite Disney/Pixar animated films that are not musicals (i.e. where the feature characters do not perform a musical number) : Lilo and Stitch, Big Hero 6, Wreck-it Ralph, Monsters Inc, Up, inside Out, Wall-E, Ratatouille.

 

Mushu: So this is where it seems that lots of folks are focusing their attention on: there appears that Mushu is apparently not in this movie. Mushu’s role is rumored to be filled by a Phoenix in this movie.

Again, I love Mushu and I love Eddie Murphy. But Mushu, in my opinion, was Disney’s way of introducing an important element of Chinese culture in an easily consumable way. Dragons play a significant role in Chinese culture and ancient Chinese history. For example, in the Yuan dynasty, the two-horned five-clawed dragon was for use by the Emperor only and the four-clawed dragon could be used by princes and other nobility (source) and sometimes Chinese people use the term “Descendants of Dragons” as a sign of identity. There’s even a song called “Descendants of Dragons”—give Wang Leehom’s cover a listen here [lyrics translation here.]

So with that in mind, it would make sense to keep Mushu around… right? Well, I see this from two ways (and these are obviously my opinions):

  1. After the backlash to the rumored script leak, I think Disney wanted to dial back the “Disney-ness” a bit, make it more serious (similar to the original text), and center the film around Mulan and her story. A CGI’d mini dragon that cracks jokes may not fit into the more serious tone of this film.

  2. This may be me overanalyzing BUT they may have chosen to make Mushu’s role a phoenix instead as a nod to the idea of Yin and Yang that dragons and phoenixes represent. In ancient China, while the Emperor identified with the dragon, the Empress identified with the phoenix and the two together are often used to symbolize a harmonious marriage between husband and wife. Sets of twins that are of one gender each are referred to as “龙凤胎” or “Dragon Phoenix Twins.” So there would be significance in shifting Mushu’s role to a phoenix.

If you made it this far, consider Mulan’s facial expression in the GIF an accurate representation of my face.

I’m under no illusion that I’ll be changing any minds here but I’m hoping this gives everyone who reads this a bit of insight into why even just the teaser trailer is bringing people to tears.

I’m very excited to see the amazing talent that Disney has brought into one one film, from the actors and actresses to the director, Niki Caro, and watching it all come together. I hope the movie does the story as much as justice as the teaser trailer is leading me to believe. Nevertheless, I thank Disney for not taking the easy way out and merely remaking the animated feature. I have no doubt Liu Yifei will be bringing honor to us all.