Where Did It All Go Wrong?
Ah feminism. Some people are all for it, a kind of powerful effector pushing for women, in the name of equal rights for both genders. Some people don’t like it, because of the varying types of feminism that occurs in today’s society, branching from liberal feminism to outright socialist feminism. The point is that feminism claims that women are oppressed within a system that unfairly favours men. Different articles and professional debaters have varying opinions of this, and I definitely have my compliments and criticisms, although I am not going to involve myself in this topic of discussion so readily; the Internet is a scary place. From the likes of Hélène Cixous, talking about sexuality and language, to Malala Yousafzai, an advocator of girl schools and the youngest winner of the Nobel peace prize in 2014. Different eras are met by different women who strive to make the so-called “equal society” a reality. Mulan, does not.
Just to be clear, I am referring to the 2020’s Mulan, not the animated original back in 1998. Like all remakes in all film genres, the live-action remake of such a beloved film has the tall task of bringing back the magic of the 1998’s, while also adding its own unique 2020’s flavour. Recent questionable remakes from Disney and the alleged controversies surrounding the film production make the newer Mulan the latest boycott subject. Despite that, Mulan is also an achievement for Asian representation in Hollywood. A cast list of some of the best actors that Asia has to offer, including Gong Li, Jet Li, Donnie Yen and the titular character, played by Liu Yifei. Where racial diversity is, Mulan certainly checks off the boxes. So where did it all go wrong for a film dedicated to transcending the barriers of racial and gender division, when the same original film more or less succeeded?
Amidst the third wave of feminism back in 1998, Mulan feels like another feminist film promoting the individual empowerment of women. Sure, it sets a positive tone for young girls to aspire to achieve greater things in life, but the animated film itself does not break any barriers in terms of traditional gender stereotypes. There’s a girl wielding a sword and not needing a man to save her, but there’s more to just this surface-level feminism. What is a stereotype? All Jews are greedy. All Asians like to eat rice and drive slow. All Arabs and Muslims are terrorists. Making a judgement about a group of people without knowing them, is stereotyping. With talks today about the “broken system”, Mulan uses gender stereotypes to show exactly how men are “privileged” in society. We see the men given specific roles, such as being the breadwinner of a family and also the only gender allowed in the army. Women are meant to dress up pretty, pour tea expertly, and uphold all the misogynistic jokes about them. To top it all off, the resilient stereotypes are often reinforced by social oppressions. Now more than ever, we hear vocabulary like “patriarchy” and “capitalism” being thrown around, flat-out prejudicing women and minority groups. This is what 1998’s Mulan exemplifies.
As a Disney film, Mulan is not short of its own musical renditions, with a wonderfully crafted soundtrack to compliment its themes. The song “I’ll Make A Man Out of You” is a prime candidate to demonstrate the stereotypical view of what makes someone a man. Besides having the appropriate genitalia, other prerequisites include brawn and strength. General Shang demands sons instead of daughters, which affirms the belief that only men are allowed in war situations. The army that the general leads is no-nonsense, and that applies to his stringent adherence to the no-girls rule. It is a place meant to transform sons into men, so there is absolutely no room for any opposing feminine traits. Ergo, this systemic cleansing of womanly stuff is seen as the best way to win wars.
You’ll bring honour to us all.
There is particular emphasis on bringing honour to one’s family in the film, extending to Chinese traditions. Where the stereotype of having to achieve perfect grades is more or less a reality for Chinese households, honour back then came in two distinct forms. For men, it was army duty. For women, it was to be married off to a wealthy family and bear children. Femininity doesn’t go well with masculinity according to Mulan. Any girl watching the initial scenes of the film would be dissuaded from pursuing a career, because the setting in Mulan is a one-way-trip to marriage and wifehood, enough to make Simone de Beauvoir roll in her grave. Unlike men, women are portrayed in negative ways, as feeble, vulnerable and downright insignificant side characters as part of the main character’s storyline. A male character. This is where Disney thrives, since almost all their material centres around a female lead.
At the end, the climax is what makes the film an overall success in female empowerment. It is easy to simply make Mulan save the emperor, but it is the way in which she performs this deed that leaves a strong impression. Mulan learns there is no point in hiding who she really is, a woman infiltrator and imposter, yet equally devoted to her country. Despite the army and society’s bias against her, Mulan is the one to do what the other men have been incapable of. Where muscles fail, intelligence and (dare I say) feminine traits have gotten the job done. Think back to the scene when no man succeeds at climbing a pole and Mulan has the ingenious idea of hoisting herself up. The premise makes sense; if you want to win a war, shouldn’t you enlist the more pragmatic soldiers, instead of just the big tough guys? Perhaps that’s why women live longer than men.
However, the greatest thing that the climax entails is actually the feminine traits. The same group of men who fail at pole-climbing, are able to do even harder tasks by donning makeup and otherwise, feminine features. Of course, it is a hyperbolic compliment of feminine traits, but the climax and the ending are also what removes the stereotypes given by the beginning of the film. Womanhood should be celebrated, not rejected. Both men and women have their intrinsic and biological advantages, so why promote one and dampen the other? I myself don’t agree with blaming social and economical constructs for the downfall of women today, though it feels indubitable that femininity is not given enough credit. After all, we need each other to survive in this cruel world.
Fast-forward to a year riddled with turmoil, the new version of Mulan, offered by Disney+, probably makes matters worse. Remakes come and go without leaving a lasting impression. Remember Psycho’s 1998 remake? Ben-Hur re-released in 2016? The absolute trainwreck that is Charlie’s Angels? An interesting thing to note about the 2019 remake, is that while it tries to achieve the same thing that the original 1976 Charlie’s Angels does, the theme of female empowerment seems to have gone downhill because of cringey virtue-signalling. This year’s Mulan feels mundane, just like any failed remake out there. After repeated viewings, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is meant to be an experiment from Disney to see if their streaming service can become its own fresh cinema. First and foremost, the film does not satisfy the expectations from the audiences and critics, secondly, it does more wrong than right.
In terms of lacking creativity, the film takes no prisoners whatsoever. There is almost no plot difference between the newer release and the original, so the latter version flounders at defining itself, which is a common problem plaguing remakes. What is supposed to set the film apart from its predecessor, is the more “grounded feel” to it; flush out the musicals, since it is a live-action edit after all. It is hard to imagine grown men (and women) breaking into dance routines like they do in The Wizard of Oz. In its absence, Mulan is blessed with Chi, subsequently the reason behind her incredible spear-kicking and gravity-defying wall-running. It also somehow explains her tomboyish behaviour.
Mulan’s army routine is as awkward as the film is, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Quite the contrary. To hide her identity, Mulan has to wake up earlier than the boys, and probably train even harder. This act is symbolic of what women have to endure in society; wake up earlier to put on makeup, dress appropriately, and pay more attention to their physique. Men, on the other hand, don’t really have to undergo as much.
However, the nail in the coffin has to be the way the climax is handled. Mulan defeats the bad guy, yes, but there is a missing feeling to this sequence. Because of her Chi and goodness (not to mention cringey phoenix wings), Mulan overpowers the evil warlord Bori Khan, and saves the emperor. Again, Mulan fails to understand why the original was empowering to women. It succumbs to the same lazy writing, where the character with the biggest stick wins the battle, promoting muscles and brawn all over again. Can women be strong? Sure, but the point is to showcase other feminine traits, in the form of virtues. I’m making an assumption here, but it’s like the director just wanted a woman to do a man’s job, rather than recognize the other good qualities of women. Charlie’s Angels falls flat due to the same issue too. Worst of all, when she is given the honour of joining the Emperor’s gang, the audience can instantly recall all the hoops she had to jump through to get her recognition. Do men have to save a whole entire kingdom to gain this popularity? The film fights inequality, with inequality, in the name of inequality, which is not only contradictory, but also resuming the dichotomy of men and women.
Mulan’s story comes from an old Chinese poem. Upon discovery of her gender, her male army compatriots are stupefied to learn that they’ve been trolled for twelve years. Mulan’s response?
The Mulan of 2020 says the same line at the beginning of the film, when let’s face it, the audience has no idea what she’s talking about. With man and woman, side by side as equals, it is hard to distinguish them from each other. Asian audiences are undoubtedly offended, because this Mulan makes no effort to comprehend the poem. Quite literally, all the film has done is cram a bunch of Chinese-related stuff and call it a day. Tea, wuxia swordplay, Kung Fu, Chi, a witch, the list goes on. No wonder Asians are misunderstood in the Western world. The film fights inequality, with inequality, in the name of inequality. Sound familiar? All this needless virtue-signalling, is why most “diverse” films today, don’t work.
Aside from the bashing and cheesy dialogue, Mulan is an admittedly beautiful film to look at. Whether it is CGI, or stunts, or colours, this remake certainly leaves the 1998 version in its dust on the level of visuals. There is enough vibrance to be on par with the likes of Moulin Rouge, so kudos to the people working in the technical room.
What’s the verdict of this? Mulan is a hollow excuse for a remake, slightly reminiscent of the “let me copy your homework” meme. No matter how much it tries to imitate its target, the important themes remain absent. The result of riding on the 1998’s coattails, is a forgettable attempt at fuelling a social movement. Even though they are both served on the same plate, 2020 tastes worse than 1998. For a film with intentions of helping a cause, Mulan needs to do its homework better.