Mulan: Dishonour in Representation
Updated: Nov 18, 2020
Written by: Simren Sekhon & Jesie Randhawa
Editor: Anna Mohan
Illustrations by: Fatema Dhanani
Design by: Angelia Gan & Srashti Khandelwa
⚠️Spoiler Alert! ⚠️
It is no secret that Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan caused an uproar with its release, and not necessarily for the better either. Having been marketed aggressively as yet another win for Asian representation on the big screen, audiences have been issued cue cards to applaud Hollywood’s progressive growth. For one, Jennifer Newsom, CEO & Founder of The Representation Project, had said that Mulan (1998) was a big step for women of colour especially, enabling Asian women and girls to now be “protagonists in their own stories”.
Indeed, everyone, and especially Asia, was bursting with excitement to see a much-loved Disney character come to life. In 2016, news came of Mulan’s pre-production casting using a script featuring a white saviour, a “30-something European trader” who would get the “honour of defeating the primary enemy of China” instead of Mulan, whilst simultaneously charming his way into the role of her lover. Asian representation was never more insulted. Fans took to petitioning and tweeting in droves, demanding that the writers #MakeMulanRight. Surely, Disney learnt its lesson to not whitewash anymore?
Even so, after the long-anticipated release of the movie, it was truly disappointing to see what was delivered to all of us. The backlash came aplenty, full of anger and upset, questioning exactly what the Disney remake was actually trying to represent.
Explicitly put, we at Women Unbounded believe the movie to have (1) misinformed storytelling, (2) normalised human rights violations, (3) white-washed, and (4) shrouded accessibility to those it claims to represent.
An Uncomfortable Narrative
Most of us know the Disney animation story. China (illustrated as being an ethnically homogeneous Han Chinese population) faces invaders from the North (depicted as being culturally nomadic) and needs to build an army – one son from every family. Being a daughter, Mulan cannot take her father’s place who is old and injured from the previous war. In the small hours of the night, she tear-jerkingly takes his armour and rides off towards the army encampment to report as just another man. Throughout, she has to hide her identity since it is against the law as a woman to cross-dress and fake manhood. In the end, she prevails as the hero of China by engineering the defeat of the Invaders.
Except, this is historically inaccurate. The Ballad of Mulan, the folk song from which originated the legend, placed Mulan as a figure of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-535AD) – a period characterised by Turkic and Mongolic tribes of nomads. Sanping Chen, an independent scholar of China in the Early Middle Ages, notes the “respected status that women held in these nomadic societies”; the evolution of the narrative since has also seen Mulan’s femininity and romantic interest, of which there were none in the original ballad, evolve differently. Later incarnations of the character have since metamorphosed her into a more widely recognised Han Chinese iteration: “a Sinification that first entered the mythological canon during the Tang Dynasty (618-705 AD)”. The original narrative exists separately to the movies that have since emerged but yet, no doubt, remains embroiled in the pervasive politics of our world today.
Additionally, the movie’s demonisation of nomadic culture of darker-skinned, invading tribesmen makes it an uncomfortable story to invest in. Especially since there are clear implications made throughout the movie that the Khans, warlords of the Rouran Khaganate, are of a savage culture compared to the dignified and monarchical Han Chinese. This brings up another political crisis being waged in the shadows: that of Inner Mongolia’s identity. Language rules have been implemented in the region – for Mandarin Chinese to be an education requirement as stipulated by an ‘assimilation’ policy, which implies the erosion of ethnic minorities in the name of national and cultural homogeneity. This insensitivity is reminiscent of both the Uyghur disregard; furthermore, the timing of the movie release to the little heard about protests going on in Mongolia; and continued tensions around pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong could imply two things. One, that Disney is simply tone-deaf to real, on the ground struggles with life and death scales; or two, there could be a somewhat nefarious partnership between Disney and the Chinese Communist Party. A comment from Disney, which we have yet to hear, is warranted now more than ever.
If we focus our attention in front of the camera momentarily, then we are propelled to also interrogate the politics of the star of Mulan (2020): Liu Yifei. Pro-democracy groups in Hong Kong had pushed the hashtag #BoycottMulan ahead of the American release, drawing attention to the fact that Liu had supported the Hong Kong police on social media. Donnie Yen, the character who played Commander Tung, has also voiced his support of the Hong Kong police. The release of the movie on Disney+ coincides with the weekend that Hong Kong was supposed to have an election, which has since been delayed. The irony of this entire situation is great because Mulan, as the story of a fearless young heroine who fights for her country, has been used as a protest symbol by the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. This is in stark contrast to the reality wherein prominent organisations like Amnesty International, have condemned the Hong Kong police’s use of force during the protests. Amidst these tensions, another hashtag #milktealliance, named after a shared love of the drink across Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand, has emerged – to voice support for democratic movements. Thai and Taiwanese protestors, in cognition of such, have supported their peers in Hong Kong, in the movement to #BoycottMulan.
Human Rights Violations Won’t Bring Mulan Honour
What did the material reality of the movie showcase in terms of representation? As the Washington Post puts it, “the most devastating part of ‘Mulan'...isn’t the story. It’s the credits”. In the credits, Disney offers thanks to a number of Chinese institutions that helped with the film, including four Chinese Community Party propaganda departments in the region of Xinjiang as well as the Public Security Bureau of the city of Turpan, organisations that have been proven to be facilitating crimes against humanity. Specifically, more than a million Muslims in Xinjiang, mostly of the Uyghur community, have been imprisoned in concentration camps – though some have been released, vast numbers have died. Forced sterilisation of the community has seen birth rates of the region plummet to 24% in 2019; imposing measures to prevent births within a specified group, according to Foreign Policy, fits within the legally recognised definition of genocide.
Journalist Shawn Zhang, who claims to have mapped out a number of these camps in Xinjiang, has written that if the Mulan film crew landed at the Turpan airport, there is a great likelihood that they would have seen at least 7 of these camps, one of which is located a mere seven kilometres from where the Shanshan Desert scenes were shot. The truth is that there are plenty of other regions in China alone that offer beautiful mountain scenery that is seen in the film but in choosing to film in areas where these discriminatory actions are viciously in place, “Disney helps normalise a crime against humanity”. In other words, ignoring and desensitising ourselves to what the US government has described as the unlawful incarceration of over 1 million Muslims is a luxury none of us can afford – instead it is “not only ethically wrong, but it is completely historically inaccurate”. This is far from the romanticised, warm fuzzy feeling Disney movies of your childhood often given, don’t you think? Far from it.
The White-Washing Pandemic
Disney’s placement of Mulan in this period does not just undercut the ethnic diversity of Chinese history and current context but is in fact more reflective of the fact that none of the writers or directors of the film are of Chinese heritage, making this alleged ‘big win’ for Asian representation feel performative and superficial. Therefore, the movie smells of tokenism and subsequently, white-washing – there is definitely no ‘harnessing of chi’ when projecting surface representation.
Fundamentally, projecting China’s current borders to the 4th century in which this ballad was born “is a historical anachronism”. For example, in the movie, when the Emperor calls for his troops to defend the ‘Silk Road’ from the Rouran invaders, his character is laying claim to territory that was not in fact within Chinese state control until the 18th century. As has been enunciated, “by glossing over rich historical detail and ignoring an era of atypically empowered women, the film’s all-white producers and writers are never more apparent”.
This forces us to consider that representation behind the camera is just as, if not more important, in how diverse representation on screen manifests and impacts communities around the world.
At What Cost?
To actually watch the movie (if you choose to), in many countries, the only option would be to access the ‘premium content’ on Disney+. Financially, this costs consumers 29.99 US dollars to watch the film on top of the $6.99 they pay to access the platform in the first place. Simply put, Disney’s response to a global reduction in cinema-goers as a result of the pandemic was to instead put two paywalls on a digital platform. This is hugely disabling to a wide majority of communities, who may not have the financial capacity to then access the movie. Bear in mind that: a) 35.99 US dollars is numerous times the cost of a cinema ticket and b) this movie cannot be a win for representation if communities are placed in a position to not even be able to access the movie that seeks to represent them. Albeit that Disney spent a whopping 200 million on production alone, there seems to be great desensitisation to the economic effect of the pandemic for many to afford the luxury of seeing themselves on screen. A luxury true especially for communities of colour, who rarely see themselves as drivers of their own narrative in media.
All these details may seem menial if isolated, but taking everything into consideration, they add to a bigger pattern. BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) histories are constantly used, re-interpreted and disseminated for mass media consumption, and sadly, the remake of Mulan would fall in this category with its lack of representation behind the scenes. Similar to Disney’s Pocahontas, historical liberties were made on the backs of very rooted ethnic stories, for entertainment. Besides the blatant white-washing and the economic inaccessibility, it becomes clear that movies are no longer mediums of mindless consumption, but sites of representation, politics, identity and empowerment. After having watched the movie, we were forced to ask ourselves, at what cost will we put aside values for entertainment?
For one, we’d seek to better engage with the politics of movies we assume will be advancing in representation, before watching them.