Associate Professor of East Asian Languages and Literatures Zhuoyi Wang recently published an in-depth film review of Mulan (2020, dir. Niki Caro), titled “Does Disney Not Understand Chinese Culture?: On the Controversy of the Live-Action Mulan’s ‘distortions,’” in the popular Chinese magazine Phoenix Weekly.
A live-action adaptation of Disney's 1998 animated film of the same name, Mulan (2020) was expected to achieve a great commercial success in China, where the legend of Mulan originated. On the contrary, however, the film was poorly received by Chinese critics and audiences due to its alleged “distortions” of the Chinese tale and “Orientalist stereotypes” about China.
Many viewers also criticized 2020's Mulan removal of the 1998 version’s songs, the dragon character Mushu, and Mulan’s love interest Li Shang, for which they expressed a nostalgic fondness. Wang opposes this predominant view on the basis of his research on the millennium-long metamorphosis of Mulan’s legend, a review of director Caro’s filmmaking career, and a comparative close reading of Mulan (2020) and Mulan (1998).
Wang points out that Mulan’s legend has been in constant and dramatic flux in Chinese culture. The common criticism of Disney’s “distortions” of the tale ironically privileges them as extraordinary changes, yet most of them actually pale in comparison to the radical differences among the Chinese versions. The wrong assumption of the existence of a monolithic and “original” Chinese legend does not challenge, but reinforces the imagined dichotomy of the static East versus the progressive West, therefore perpetuating the Orientalist paradigm. To avoid this pitfall, Wang argues, one should focus on the effects of an adaptation of Mulan’s story, rather than list the ways in which it may differ from some non-existent “original.”
Wang appreciates Mulan (2020)’s adaptation of the legend for its feminist effects, which are consistently present in director Caro’s earlier works, such as Whale Rider (2002) and North Country (2005). His review analyzes how the crucial changes that Mulan (2020) makes to the legend, including the removal of the songs and the characters in Mulan (1998), address the cultural and sexist biases prevalent in the animation.