Friday, October 2, 2020

Dishonour to Us All: Mulan

Liu Yifei in Mulan (2020).

It may look like a film and quack like a film, but something’s just not right with the new Mulan, based on the classic Chinese tale of a young woman who gets conscripted incognito in her disabled father’s place to fend off northern invaders, and gets exposed – yet saves the emperor anyway.

Niki Caro directs this live-action remake of the 1998 Disney animated film with a notable lack of vision. The placement of Mandy Walker’s camera is off and limiting, and we frequently wish for another angle, or a wider one. This is worsened by David Coulson’s slightly sluggish editing. Grant Major’s production design feels stagey: supposedly outdoor locations (excluding the battle scene) are obvious soundstages, and the phoenix that replaces Mushu, who was beloved even in China, looks like a kite. And American Humane wasn't able to say in the end credits that no animals were harmed. 

Caro could also have given more direction to the actors. Liu Yifei, who plays Mulan, is experienced in wuxia stuntwork, but complex emotions elude her. As Honghui, her love interest, Yoson An is distinguished by being the only soldier with a stick up his ass. Rosalind Chao turns in a strikingly compassionless performance as Mulan’s mother. Oh, and Jet Li’s only fight scene is all CGI.

The military tactics are atrocious, on both sides. The good guys deploy undertrained conscripts against veteran cavalry, choose a low-lying field for a staging ground, and fall for blatant traps. For their part, the bad guys, led by Jason Scott Lee’s Böri Khan, depend on the subterfuge, shapeshifting, and black magic of Xianniang (Gong Li, delivering the most complex performance of the film), and yet they constantly belittle her. I’m sure that’ll turn out fine.

It’s just as well that the fight choreography is credited to “Walker and her team,” as it’s pointlessly flashy and – worst of all – graceless. Unlike actual martial arts patterns, the moves on display during military training seem to have little real-world applications. Actual fight scenes are filled with busywork and few hits. And though Mulan’s swordplay is more beautiful, her actual signature move is, I kid you not, a bicycle kick rendered in slow motion. She does it thrice.

Then there’s the script by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Elizabeth Martin, and Lauren Hynek. I have no problem with the elevated language used to convey “classical” Chinese. But there’s just too much clunky exposition. Surely you can find a way into Mulan’s head without constantly having people explain things to other people who should already know them.

Liu Yifei and Yoson An in Mulan (2020).

The character motivations make no sense, either. Whereas in the animated original people are exposed or put in danger by mistake or out of neglect, here it happens by choice. When first reporting for duty, Mulan actively picks a fight. The bad guys start the avalanche themselves. Mulan reveals her true gender unprompted. Xianniang tells Böri Khan of her inevitable betrayal without being forced to. Emperor Jet Li gives up the protection of his imperial guards. The list just keeps going.

Even a remake should be judged on its own merits, but I think the implausible motivations are a byproduct of trying to preserve the same narrative structure as the original. Problem is, the first version was essentially a collection of songs, montage sequences, and fight scenes strung together with Eddie Murphy jokes. The only reason it worked so well is because of how much realism animation can discard – the background for about a fourth of the film was just colors.

2020’s goal of live-action realism means it has to find a way to navigate jarring scene transitions and behavior bound by physics. Sometimes it works: Mulan avoids showering by volunteering for night watch every single night. Other times, not so much: she pisses off the matchmaker (Pei-Pei Cheng) by misplacing the teapot to hide a very scary-looking spider, when using her words would have sufficed.

The most perplexing unforced errors have to do with the central message of the film. Like the other entries in Disney’s recent string of “princess” films, it’s about female empowerment. Central to this is the soldiers’ oath to be “loyal, brave, and true,” where “true” apparently means “authentic,” or something like “uncompromisingly honest.” Feminism (or any other discourse) of this tenor is, as a practical matter, isolating and unconducive to material progress. A better message for this non-children’s film would have been to be principled, yes, but also flexible. You should stay true to who you are, but you need not always flaunt it – especially during a war.

I should also note that there’s a “believe women” moment, jarring since the context is emphatically not sexual assault. Sexual assault is a rare exception to the general rule of “trust but verify” because it hinges on the non-physical issue of consent; physical evidence is secondary. But when a known liar and impostor barges in to tell you that your whole military strategy is wrong, you’d at least think to ask for some details. (Maybe this is why Xianniang’s deceptions are so successful.)

Xianniang tells Mulan as part of a psy-op that concealing her gender makes her weak. Unfortunately, she’s right: Mulan’s father (Tzi Ma) instructs her to hide her powerful qi because a girl needs obedience and grace rather than martial prowess. But she has to be true to herself and tap into the qi that flows through all things to become the powerful warrior she was always meant to be. This isn’t the only parallel with the third Star Wars trilogy. Just as Rey’s power is chalked up to her being Palpatine’s daughter, Mulan’s qi is inherited from her war-hero father. In both cases, this turns an egalitarian tale (1998’s Mulan was a nobody, as was the Rey of Star Wars: The Last Jedi) into an aristocratic affair.

This brings us to the cultural critique. Despite some historical inaccuracies, at least this Mulan doesn’t offer the vague Orientalism of 1998, so I credit the filmmakers for giving it the ol’ college try. Where it comes up short is in focusing too tightly on the hero’s journey of self-empowerment at the expense of everyone else, except Xianniang, who gets a character arc only because it’s basically the same arc as Mulan’s.

Liu Yifei and Gong Li in Mulan (2020)

To Western eyes, it might seem like the original was also about the hero’s journey, but it was careful to couch everything in accepted social logic. Mulan was not a natural warrior (Crystal Rao delivers a portrait of the warrior as a young girl in the remake). She was never confused about who she really was under that armor, and just wanted to be recognized for who she was. She believed in the value of traditional marriage, despite her lack of wifely skill. She thought it important to get along well with her brothers-in-arms.

2020 tosses all of that. When Mulan accomplishes the impossible training task, we don’t see her comrades cheering her on; instead, we get a shot that echoes the individualist Romantic painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. The training ends not when the unit can fight as one, but when Mulan accidentally reveals her skill with a javelin. Honghui expresses doubt that she’d come to her fellow soldiers’ aid, and it’s justified by her behavior up to that point in the story. Mulan ends up in a duel with Xianniang because she leads a small group of anonymous soldiers who charge into a trap. She defeats Böri Khan not with ingenuity and resourcefulness, but thanks to a qi-unlocking speech by the emperor. And she ends up with not a man but a sword; it’s her younger sister (Xana Tang) who gets matched. The film proffers the opposite of the self-censorship or Chinese jingoism some had feared.

Rigidity of thought leads to rigidity in style. The film feels monotonously gloomy and serious, and grace notes, such as a shot of Mulan emerging from mist, come few and far between. Liu Yifei is artful with the sword, but it’s Commander Tung (Donnie Yen) who actually fights with one in close-quarter fight scenes that obscure the swordplay. Canted angles during garrison sieges add flair but little excitement, unlike the similar shot in the climactic battle of Thor: Ragnarok – and Xianniang’s fighting style seems modeled after Cate Blanchett’s Hela.

The gray overtones are a pity, for the Confucian social logic that Mulan doesn’t really uphold in this film is a surprisingly flexible one. The Analects (yes, I’m bringing out the big guns) has Confucius saying, “A moral leader is not a specialized utensil” (君子不器) (2.12, translated by David R. Schiller). One shouldn’t adhere rigidly to a set of rituals but find a style of ritual that best fits the occasion and one’s own personality. The cross-dressing soldiers in 1998 reflected this. But though there’s self-expression in Confucian social logic, there’s no Confucian social logic in this film’s self-expression. It’s a valid yet regrettable artistic choice.

And the story of Mulan should be social and flexible – to be clear, I’m not faulting the film for being creative with the source material. The original Ballad of Mulan (here’s a translation) is actually the tale of a soldier who, like Cincinnatus, gives up her military rank and privileges as soon as she can. Only after she returns home and changes clothes do her comrades realize she’s a woman. The moral in the coda is that, when men and women do the same task with equivalent proficiency, there’s really no difference. But you’d never know that from seeing either of the film adaptations.

CJ Sheu is a PhD student of contemporary American fiction at National Taiwan Normal University, in Taipei. He also writes about films and film reviews on the side, and has been published in Bright Wall/Dark Room and Funscreen (Taiwan). Check out his blog, or hit him up on Twitter @cjthereviewer.

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