Apart from the Wuxia-inspired action, it was weird, almost corny, watching most parts of Mulan (2020) as a Chinese.
Mulan (2020) Synopsis
The live-action remake of the 1998 Disney animated feature film, Mulan tells the story of a devoted daughter who masquerades as a dude to replace her crippled father after the latter is conscripted for war. Though she manages to fool all, she quickly learns that it takes more than courage, and pugilistic skill, to be a true warrior. For a start, honesty to herself is a hurdle she must cross.
Mulan, as in the 1998 version, is one of the rare Disney animated films that I’ve never watched. In fact, it’s the only Disney cinematic animation from the 80s and 90s that I skipped.
There’s just one reason for this. As a Chinese living in Asia, I’ve never been comfortable with western media depictions of Chinese culture or history. Not that there’s always an abundance of derogatory themes or depictions, but western moviemakers tend to over-emphasize stereotypes and orientalism. For a start, they usually opt for direct translation of Chinese idioms, proverbs, and phrases into English, without a care for how comical these end up sounding. It’s like the overall intention is to stress “uniqueness,” or should I say, oddness.
And so I skipped Mulan (1998). I only watched the current live-action remake because, well, I like Liu Yifei. Her, ahem, political viewpoints aside, I think she’s gorgeous and great in medieval roles, especially Wuxia one. I consider her 2006 depiction of Xiao Long Nu as one of the best ever.
Coming back to this live-action remake, well, it’s everything that I feared it would be. While the fight and battle sequences are superb, while the essence of the original tale is retained, it’s again one of those western shows full of cringe-worthy, stilted “oriental talk” and tropes. And an obsession with lamenting one of the worst inequalities in historical China.
On the latter, it’s not historically wrong; I’m well-aware of that. I’ll highlight too at this point that such gender inequalities lasted centuries after Mulan’s fictitious existence.
But still, it felt so antiquated to watch, especially for a Chinese person! To give you an idea, we have a dozen free-spirited, kick-ass medieval heroines on Chinese television every night. The current story trend for imperial Chinese dramas is also the “sagas” behind influential queens and consorts. Incidentally, none of these women say things like, “a daughter’s role is to bring honour to her …”
What I’m saying is, disrespectful as it might be to the original story, I expected some sort of story and character update in this remake. With all the accusations about western filmmakers pandering to the PRC market, I thought the overall story would have a more modern flavour too. Modern, if historically imaginative.
Also, there’s a mistranslation at the end of the show. One that was unbelievably appalling to me.
“孝” was overtly translated as “devotion,” but the character actually means filial piety i.e. the virtue at the heart of the original The Ballad of Mulan. I’m amazed that the Chinese cast didn’t protest about this wrong interpretation. I’m also stunned that in the zest to translate Chinese archaic speech as it is, this mistranslation was deliberately included.