Thoughts on the Upcoming “Mulan”

The Mulan live-action adaptation release date has been pushed back to July 24, after being delayed indefinitely and after the red carpet premiere took place earlier last month, before Hollywood was shut down. Mulan 2020 Poster 27x40 Original D/S Movie Poster ...

Will I watch it? Absolutely.
Am I excited to watch it? No. I’m really really skeptical of how much I will like this movie, even though I do really want to like it. Watching the first trailer planted many doubts in my mind that I’ve ranted about enough to friends that I figured it was worth it to write it all down to save everyone some time the next time I need to get this off my chest.

Chinese audiences did not like the 1998 animated feature. It clearly was not made with them in mind and it showed. Ultimately, a lot of my concerns with the remake boil down to Disney trying to pander to both moviegoers in China and fans of the original animated movie, which I think is likely to result in neither group being happy.

How did they approach casting? Specifically, I wasn’t thrilled about the casting of Liu Yifei 刘亦菲 as Mulan. I remembered when Disney announced several years ago they were doing a live-action remake of this beloved animated film, there was a lot of buzz about who they would cast for the titular role. I had assumed this was going to be the breakout moment for an Asian-American/Asian-European/Asian-Australian actor, preferably someone who was Chinese and had been speaking English long enough (if not her whole life). When Liu Yifei was cast, there was a lot of disappointment that Disney went with an established-in-China actor, because not only did it not give an up-and-coming actor their big moment but it felt like Disney was really trying hard to get audiences in China to come out to see the movie.

I’ve only seen one thing that Liu Yifei has been in — The Forbidden Kingdom, which was her Hollywood and feature film debut and was notable for being the first and only time Jackie Chan and Jet Li have co-starred in a movie — and I wasn’t impressed with her performance in that. However, given that English is her second language, I chalked it up to a common issue with actors who do roles in a new language, since the acting often suffers as a result of the active language work. (Her English was decent in that film.) I asked my mom, who is much more familiar with the Chinese film industry than I am, about how she does in domestic films and TV, but her opinion of Liu Yifei is similar to mine: that she simply is not a very dynamic or expressive actor. The trailer hasn’t changed our opinion.

(And that’s not touching on the Hong Kong controversy at all.)

Where’s the Chinese world-building crew? When the announcement about Mulan was initially made, the primary concern was with the casting. Would Disney be bold enough to cast a non-Asian actor as Mulan? How appropriate was it to cast a non-Chinese actor, or a mixed-race actor? When rumors swirled about a white male romantic lead, people were incensed. As production was pushed back because casting took longer than anticipated, we got to see Black Panther, a testament to the results that can be achieved when you put care and thought into the crew that is tasked with creating the world. I loved watching the director and costume designer and set designers in interviews talking about their inspiration to create an authentic fictional country steeped in Afrofuturism. Therefore, the decisions to not find more Chinese or even Asian people to work behind the camera was disappointing.

Who is this FOR? The live-action adaptation will not have Mushu or Li Shang (fictional characters that Disney owns but are, of course, inventions that are not part of the Hua Mulan legend), musical numbers (despite the intense popularity of the scarce few songs in the original movie), and even has new villains. I’ve seen more optimistic Disney fans (aka non-haters, unlike me, I can be honest) cite that this movie is more true to the source material and takes more inspiration from the Mulan legend’s country of origin. This is true. People who took issue with Gong Li’s witch character may not be familiar with this common trope in Chinese fantasy films, which I’ve often seen depicting heroes battling against warlocks and witches and demons. Based on the first trailer, it looks like folks at Disney did research on Chinese cinema, and the look is very evocative of some of the internationally successful films that have come out of China.

But you know who has absolutely nailed that cinematic style? China.
And you know who has produced an epic story based on the extremely popular ballad of Mulan? China.

Mulan: Rise of a Warrior (2009) - IMDb

I’m not sure why Disney is working so hard to create a Chinese epic film about an epic Chinese legend when… China has already done this and is more than capable of doing this themselves, and casting Chinese talent to do so. When I was watching the trailer, I felt so much cognitive dissonance because it is a film shot and edited in a Chinese style with Chinese actors… but everyone speaks English.

Is this movie for Chinese audiences? Who will have to watch this with subtitles or… dubbed over in Chinese? Even though the actors are Chinese and, in fact, many of them are mega-celebrities in China? (Liu Yifei, Donnie Yen, Jet Li, Gong Li…)
Is this movie for Western audiences? Without the beloved soundtrack and side characters?

I don’t know who this movie is for. In fact, it almost feels like it is for weirdos like me, who love Chinese cinema but are most comfortable with English. Which can’t be right and feels… not quite right

In any case, I’m still excited that a Hollywood-produced film with an all-Asian (and mostly-Chinese) cast at this scale and budget is happening and I will definitely be seeing it when it is released.

What are your thoughts on the upcoming Mulan release?
Am I being too much of a hater? 😅

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