After its big-screen release being postponed countless times due to the pandemic, Disney's Mulan live-action film finally premiered last Friday. Aside from being shown in places where theatres are permitted to operate, the movie was also made available for streaming on Disney+ for an extra Premium Access worth USD30. As expected, the much-awaited feature caused a lot of buzz online. For one, #BoycottMulan topped the social media trends once more because of lead actress Liu Yifei's controversial statement in support of Hong Kong police amid the turmoil in the country. Other than that, regardless of her problematic sentiments, the internet was hit by a number of negative reviews from fans whose hopes were dashed in this production. Despite the effort and budget placed, Disney's Mulan live-action remake still left a lot to be desired and pales in contrast with the original 1998 animated film.
So, what could it have done better to at least not serve as a dishonour to our classic fave? Well, a lot. Let's get down to business and review some other directions they could've taken to make the story better.
When we first saw the trailers and found out about the film, we were hoping they'd give it a fantastic wuxia treatment. It made sense, especially since Liu Yifei rose to fame with her roles in wuxia productions. During the battle scenes, we were hoping we'd see fluidly graceful moves — the kind that, despite its obvious use of wires, would make you gape in amazement. But what greeted us instead were awkward wall-scaling and brief moments of sword fights. It seemed that all Mulan was able to do were air somersaults, kicking away incoming projectiles. Not much elaborate footwork and hand movements that would make you breathless in anticipation of the fight's outcome. We thought we'd see it for a wee bit with Jet Li as the emperor facing off against Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), but no — the scene becomes another opportunity lost.
A dive into realism
It was a bummer when we heard Mushu, Cri-Kee, and the songs would be cut off in this remake, but we believed anyway that the realistic, sombre tone of this would bring a fresh re-telling of the legend. So we were utterly confused when the whole qi was brought to the story. Used in traditional Chinese medicine and martial arts, according to the article in The Guardian, the concept was supposed to be a type of energy in all living beings. However, in Disney's Mulan live-action, it becomes a mystical force that literally empowers people. Mulan's powerful qi is why she has been physically skilled and talented since birth, and why the main antagonist, Xian Lang (played by Gong Li) is somehow able to turn into flocks of birds and possibly possess people.
Mulan having qi was basically a deus ex machina. Unlike the 1998 Mulan who found her true worth by working doubly hard and using her wits, the 2020 Mulan conquered her obstacles with virtually no issues at all. Her going up the mountains, carrying two buckets of water effortlessly because of her qi didn't really make us as proud of her as we were of the original when she climbed a pole with her wisdom and strength. If they utilised the concept of qi as it is in real life, or scrapped the idea altogether, it might have given us a stronger heroine to root for.
One of the most baffling things about this remake was their decision to remove Shang, only to replace and split him into two characters. His role as a military leader was given to Commander Tung (Donnie Yen), while the main love interest became a fellow soldier named Honghui (Yoson An). While Commander Tung at least served as a mentor to Mulan, the character of Honghui didn't really add anything to the story. And in fact, because there's no deep connection between her and any of these people, there's less angst later on when she reveals she's a girl. Her deception merely becomes a betrayal of duty, not of trust and faith she built with him — which, to be honest, sounds more compelling for us. There were no strings attached that we couldn't care less when they shun her. Perhaps it would've been better if Honghui was scrapped and the time was dedicated to building up Commander Tung as a second father figure to her.
Owning the destiny
Finally, this version of Mulan's other frustrating flaw is the main character being seemingly more soft-spoken compared to her original counterpart. The previous Mulan was outspoken and self-aware. She did what she thought was right to stay true to herself. Meanwhile, over the course of the film, the new Mulan continued to be told what to do. After fleeing to serve the army, she had to be advised by Commander Tung to embrace her qi before she fully does so. Later in the battle with the Rourins, she only decides to literally let her hair down and loose after being provoked by Xian Land to embrace her true self. Here, Mulan doesn't even fight for her worth. It had to be Honghui to point out Mulan's not any different from Jun (her male alter ego).
In the end, we see this passivity in her motivations. While OG Mulan fought to prove herself and to protect her loved ones, it appears that this one does not. When she declares herself as Hua Mulan, a soldier of the emperor — a person she hasn't even met and the very symbol of the patriarchy that has put her and other women at such a disadvantageous position — doesn't it discount all the struggles she experienced to finally uphold her identity and reclaim her agency as a woman?
Overall, Disney's Mulan live-action is a decent retelling of the legend and, at the very least, it still manages to impart an empowering story for women. However, its inability to delve deeper into the culture it represents and the characters it presents greatly affected its potential to create a gripping story. Very little of the risks they took paid off (a shout-out to precious scene-stealing Cricket), but most fail to bring something new to the plate. And, honestly, if it's nostalgia you're just aiming to feel, watching the 1998 feature would do you better.
(Cover photo from: @mulan)