September 5th, 2020
This movie means a lot to me, and I explained my anxiety before watching it in the previous post.
Warning – spoilers below – if you haven’t yet watched yet and want to form your own opinions first, please wait to read.
Mulan came out yesterday, and I couldn’t wait any longer and just watched it with my husband. I smiled. I wept. I was nervous for Mulan as she journeyed through this unusual experience of pretending to be a soldier (males only in ancient China), and I breathed a sigh of relief when she returned to her father and they shared a heartfelt embrace with tears streaming down her face. There were many different thoughts and feelings that went through my mind, and I hope to unpack some of them here.
As a Chinese American girl (fun fact – I’m the same age as Yifei Liu, we’re one month apart) who grew up knowing the story of Mulan, not from a Disney animated film, but from her father who loved reading and learning about Chinese history, who passed down many traditional Chinese cultures and virtues to her Chinese American daughter, I feel deep ties to this character who I have known since I was a child. I had memorized the whole Ballad of Mulan since I was 5 years old and I still have it memorized. I can explain every stanza from this long poetic ballad to you in perfect Mandarin and English. Long story short, I’m happy and grateful for how this live-action remake of Mulan turned out, especially because it is truer to the story I knew growing up, compared to the more light-hearted and charming animated film most people knew about.
Notes on The Virtues –
The 3 virtues that kept making appearances on Mulan’s sword (from her father) were – Loyal, Brave, and True. In Chinese they are
忠 (zhong), short for 忠诚 (zhong cheng), means loyal
勇 (yong) ,short for 勇敢 (yong gan), means brave
真 (zhen) short for 真诚 (zhen cheng), meaning true
A 4th virtue appeared toward the beginning when Mulan’s father talked to her about the meaning of the phoenix, and again toward the end when the back of the emperor’s sword (present for Mulan) engraved the same character –
孝 (xiao), short for 孝敬 (xiao jing), means devotion to family, or more specifically filial piety.
These are some of the important virtues in the Chinese culture, and I love that the movie incorporated them in a way that wasn’t emphasized in the animated film.
Mulan as a Child –
I really liked the portrayal of Mulan as a child. She reminded me of Belle, but instead of being raised in a French village, she was raised in a Chinese village, with people pointing fingers at her because she didn’t quite fit in. She was not like the other girls, who quietly listened and obeyed, and never caused trouble. She was always true to herself, quirky and smart, and had a mind of her own.
Comparison of Disney’s Mulan to the history from the Chinese Ballad of Mulan –
The Ballad of Mulan ended with her describing two rabbits sprinting side by side, which never appeared in the animated film, nor known to most people who don’t have deep knowledge of Chinese history or poetry. But it was an important analogy to Mulan fighting in a war alongside only males. Toward the beginning of the movie when the grown-up version (played by Liu) of Mulan rode in on a horse on a prairie, there were two rabbits hopping alongside her horse. To me, this was an important detail that I appreciated Disney incorporating because it made the story more true and whole.
The journey of Mulan leaving home and going to her imperial army campsite was also more accurately portrayed in this live-action remake. As much as I enjoyed Mushu bringing Mulan a cute bowl of rice with eggs and bacon on top in the animated film, it was just far from the real story and actually made me wince the first time I saw it as a teenager. The popularly told version in China portrayed the story as her leaving her parents and going to the Yellow River first, then the Black Mountain. When she was giving her horse the last apple in the movie and saw the phoenix for the first time, I’m pretty sure she was in this Black Mountain mentioned in the Ballad.
After the war was over and Mulan was honored by the emperor, the emperor gave Mulan a prestigious position. But just like the Ballad had recorded, Mulan didn’t want it, but only asked to be sent back to her family. When she came back to her village, her mother, father and sister came to greet her, which was also more accurate to the story of Mulan compared to the animated version.
For these, I’m grateful. And for people who might think this film is boring and less fun than the animated version because it lacks the funny and charming Mushu or the musical numbers, I hope you know now that this is a more historically and culturally accurate story of Mulan. She is more than just a Disney Princess, she was based on a real Chinese person. I wouldn’t go as far as saying she was based on a true Chinese historical woman, because whether or not she was exactly the character described in Ballad is unknown, and the version of this story had evolved over time. But this movie is much more true to the version popular told in China.
Movie Soundtrack –
I love musicals! So knowing this wasn’t going to be a musical I was disappointed at first. But I have changed my mind since watching the movie. Songs were only played after the movie ended during credits. But the melodies from songs like Reflection and Honor to Us All were played in the background of a few scenes, and viewers could feel the intimate connection between the animated film and this live-action remake, which I thought was cleverly done. This movie was more serious and historical, and making it into a musical would actually be a bit inappropriate.
One of my favorite songs I’ll Make a Man Out of You was not played in the movie, but the phrase “Tranquil as a forest but on fire within” was said in the training camp, and I immediately started singing it in my head in that scene.
Favorite Quote –
When Mulan encouraged her fellow soldiers before the imminent war –
“There is no courage without fear!”
As someone who loves the teaching of Brene Brown, I immediately found wisdom in her saying this – because there is no courage without vulnerability, and fear is showing vulnerability! Brene Brown, you are so wise! So are you Mulan! Y’all know fear is not a weakness but a strong step to strength and courage.
New Characters –
There were some new characters in this live-action remake that didn’t exist in the animated film.
The Witch – 仙娘 (Xian Niang), which in Chinese translates to a Celestial Lady, and doesn’t quite convey the feeling of an evil witch. But the character was obviously on the dark side for most of the movie. I was so happy Mulan convinced her with “Yet here I stand, proof that there is a place for people like us.” I have seen enough to empathize with villains at my age, knowing they were more often than not misunderstood and mistreated to have become who they became, including this witch character of Xian Niang. She took the arrow for Mulan in the end, which showed the power of love and empathy, and I love this woman empowering and helping another woman moment in the story. I do wish the character of Xian Niang was developed more because her sudden change seemed abrupt.
The Phoenix – Dragon and Phoenix are powerful and commonly used symbols in China, representing the Emperor and Queen, or any male and female. You can see the dragons on the emperor’s throne, and the Phoenix was used in this movie as a symbol of Mulan rising to be true to herself, brave and loyal, a fighter and a girl. I wasn’t a fan of how they incorporated the kite looking phoenix in the movie, that could have been done better, but I understand and appreciate the meaning behind it. The phoenix immediately reminded me of the stingray in Moana, where the spirit of Moana’s grandmother guided her, just like the spirit of Mulan’s ancestors guided her in this movie.
The dark magic and witch in this live-action remake are as accurate in Chinese history as Mushu in the animated version. But hey what’s a Disney movie without some Disney magic, right?
Overall Review –
Knowing how anxious I was before the movie release because I care about Asian representation a lot, I’m relieved and I liked it. My husband still doesn’t care for Liu Yifei’s acting, but hey this is my review so he can’t do anything about it.
I can see some people writing negatively about this movie because they will compare it heavily to the animated film. But I really don’t think that would be fair. If they had known the real story of Mulan, they would appreciate this version over the fun and light-hearted cartoon version.
While I loved it overall, I do wish the new characters of Xian Niang and the Phoenix were developed and artistically portrayed better. Spoiler alert – Ming-Na Wen who was the voice of Mulan from the animated film appeared in the movie!
Finally, as for my opinion on whether or not to let my kids watch it yet, I would say no to the younger kids. I wouldn’t mind showing it to my oldest who is in 2nd grade, since she was fine with Maleficent and would be fine watching it with me explaining by her side. I feel like it should be more PG than PG-13.
That’s all, thanks for reading!