“Mulan” Review: Take It, Or (Spoiler Alert), Leave It

On September 4, Walt Disney Studios released a live-action remake of its 1998 animated film “Mulan.” Based on the fifth-century Chinese folklore tale, “The Ballad of Mulan,” Disney’s adaptation follows Mulan’s journey as she disguises herself as a boy in order to fight in the military in her father’s place. Directed by Niki Caro, this adaptation features Liu Yifei as Mulan, Yoson An as Chen Hong, Donnie Yen as Commander of Imperial Army, and Jet Li as Emperor. While “Mulan” might capture the attention of younger audiences, with its inclusion of a mythical phoenix and meticulously choreographed, gravity-defying fight scenes, mature viewers will notice its glaring plot holes and inaccuracies. Caution: spoilers ahead. 

Beware, eager audiences, your expectations will likely descend into disappointment—right alongside the movie’s historical accuracy. The original “Ballad of Mulan” was set in the Northern Wei Dynasty around the fourth to the sixth century against a backdrop of class division, government reform, and military defence. Most lower and middle-class countryside civilians lived in poverty, in stark contrast with Mulan’s spacious and elaborate living quarters that were depicted in the movie. Tulou, Mulan’s round communal residence, is not representative of the architecture of the buildings at the time, as it did not exist until more than a millennium afterwards. Another prime example of the screenwriters’ carelessness for historical accuracy is the location of the story’s climax. The Northwestern region of China (now the Xinjiang province) was not unified under Chinese control until 1884. Perhaps there had been an idle DeLorean with a flux capacitor lying around to explain the 1,000-year time jump in the middle of the movie?

In addition, the movie portrayed cliché stereotypes while oversimplifying Chinese customs and creating a one-dimensional interpretation. One of the most blatant errors is Mulan’s Han ethnicity. During the Northern Wei Dynasty, the imperial power lay in the hands of the Touba clan, a nomadic group that held the titles of Khan instead of emperor. The original Ballad stated Mulan’s loyalty to her Khan, indicating her ethnicity as most likely of Touba descent. This alteration overlooks the identities within marginalized ethnic groups like the Toube that account for approximately a hundred million members of the current Chinese population. 

In its most basic form, the original “Mulan” is a feminist story. A woman takes the place of her father and fights for her homeland in the attempts to honor her family and ancestors. However, in this adaptation, Mulan’s fate is continuously controlled by the men around her, thus, the intended feminist message falls flat. For example, after she saves the Imperial Army from the wrath of the Roura warriors, Mulan begs for forgiveness from her male commanders and fellow soldiers. This particular moment epitomizes the reason why the new “Mulan” adaptation is not a story of female empowerment. Sure, Mulan can fight, as she is a warrior at heart, but she also has no voice. The story is narrated by her father; when facing execution, she is rescued by her fellow soldier, Chen Hong. Such instances merely take away Mulan’s independence and reinforce the patriarchal system that Mulan’s defiance of gender norms tries to break. 

Beyond on screen-issues, “Mulan” is plagued by many off-screen controversies. Recently trending, #BoycottMulan draws attention to a controversial choice of a filming location. Many scenes were filmed in Xinjiang, which is reportedly close to numerous Muslim internment camps with documented abuse of Uyghurs and other minorities. Liu Yifei has also sparked controversy with her public support of the Hong Kong police over protestors during pro-democracy protests that continue today. In conjunction with #BoycottMulan, Covid-19 restrictions, and blocking of advertisement in China, “Mulan” is struggling to make a profit. 

“Mulan” is a failed cultural experiment by Hollywood to create an action movie with a soupcon of  Chinese culture. It more closely resembled an “Avengers” movie with period dress and without Robert Downey Junior. The box office failure of this 200 million dollar adventure speaks for itself.