‘Mulan’ Falters in China: What Possibly Went Wrong?

Source: Disney

Disney’s latest live-action adaptation certainly does not resonate that well with the Chinese audience. The reasons to why Mulan — being a film that centers around a Chinese heroine, and a live-action remake of Disney’s own 1998 animated hit- under-performed during its first weekend could be many, but demystifying them is not as intimidating as it appears to be.

Deadline reports that Mulan brought in a total of $23.2 million in China after a 3-day run, shattering earlier projections and impression that the Disney offering will make an astounding impact in its ‘homeland’. The Niki Caro-directed live-action adaptation was stripped bare from any musical elements, and even had Mushu -the comical dragon from the animation — removed. While all these look normal and match Mulan’s effort to project itself as a more grown-up film, it is widely known that those are in fact some ‘extra measures’ taken by Disney to better align the movie towards the Chinese audience, preventing any potential backlash.

Understandably, Disney does not want to step into any landmines that could potentially blow away their chances of landing a home-run in China, given how significant the box-office in China is for Hollywood films in the recent years. But by treading too carefully across the war-zone with profit figures taking up a significant level of their attention, the production crew had walked into yet another pitfall.

You may have heard that Mulan is a fest of colors and visual spectacle. You may have even heard that Liu Yifei radiates strength and dedication that befits the legendary character that she is portraying in Mulan. If you have been curious enough about Mulan, chances are the news of Disney coming under fire for filming at Xinjiang province, and backlash received by lead actress Liu Yifei over her stance supporting Hong Kong’s police against protesters have made it to your doorstep.

It remains to be seen how much the controversies have impacted ticket sales in China, but I doubt that they will have as much gravity as how the film is made. Enough of all the hoo-has over how Mulan lacked heart and vigor, or how shallow Mulan’s plot is; when it comes to Chinese moviegoers, Mulan might have just evolved beyond that. Let me find a more suitable word… got it. Gimmicky.

It starts with one small scene at the end of Mulan (Minor spoiler alert)

As Hua Mulan journeys back to her village after her triumphant battle, she is met with a familiar face — her tearful father. After much words of joy and reconciliation, he proceeds to hug her. I swear that I spewed out popcorn at that moment, but luckily, I remembered that I did not order for any. It would have made perfect sense for films of western culture, but generally, Asians are a little more conservative than that.

Then, came the social-media jab by Marvel’s upcoming star, Simu Liu, aimed at Mulan. Liu argued that it was certainly a movie that “your people has written about my people”, while cleverly leaving the title of the film unmentioned. A quick check on Mulan’s crew revealed that, except for the lengthy list of homegrown actors and actresses displayed on stage, there is virtually no Chinese individual working behind the curtains, capable of influencing how the story is told.

It would have been passable if the film is about some random fictional character from China, but Hua Mulan is anything but that. To Disney, it is a remake of something which they had successfully produced in the past; but to the audience of China, it is a conveyed message about their legendary figure.

To the Chinese audience, the results are inevitably paramount. If embodied correctly and retold with the appropriate cultural nuances, Mulan (the movie) brings honor to the legendary figure and hence, is worthy of thumbs-ups and recommendation within their social circles. However, with cultural misalignments as wide as the hugging scene, and potentially finding out that the key persons pulling all the strings behind the stage are made up of foreigners, Disney can’t blame them for going a step further to imagine what’s inside Mulan’s blueprint. Now, close your eyes, and we will visualize this together. Does it have dollar signs printed all over it?

Then, there is Chi… or Qi… or Shi?

For this, I am a little impressed. How can popular martial artists like Donnie Yen and Jet Li kept their faces straight when Caro told them, “Alright, let’s do this. We will show to the audience a little girl, and we will tell them that she’s born with Chi; a superpower to excel in kung-fu even if she sleeps 15 hours a day and loves junk food.”?

In other words, the movie is telling little girls, that, if you are not born with a special gift, you can’t compete with men. Now, I am not a Shaolin graduate, but at least I know that martial arts is about practice and determination. Hua Mulan might not be born with Conan’s brute strength, but it should be her determination and willpower that edges her over egoistic and sloppy men. Not some fancy ‘Chi’.

Jet Li and Donnie Yen’s participation in Mulan are the purest examples of wasted opportunities

Hollywood was exposed to Yen and Li as early as the 2000’s, but both of them were already a big deal for Chinese movie-goers since the 90’s, and they still are. While they are not exactly known to give Oscar-worthy performances , their humble-yet-decorated portfolios are overflowing with lightning quick sword-plays, strikes and kicks which are so synonymous with their on-screen presence. Of course, those zippy actions are painfully lacking in Caro’s Mulan, despite the conflict events along the story-line that frequently calls for the duo to spring into action.

It is such a shame that their characters were reduced to mere pawns in Disney’s chess-game to pave way for Liu Yifei’s Mulan to shine-through, which, is ultimately not much of a big deal anyway. Here is a clip (a little old, I admit) to showcase Yen and Li’s true potential in all its glory, had they not been suppressed by authoritative decisions by the Mouse.

Painting Yen as a commander that needs to hide under the shields of his young soldiers, and Li as a frail Emperor who has a special ability to catch flying arrows is not exactly something that the audience of China is used to seeing, or is something that they are enthusiastic to see, either. The duo is not a be-all and end-all of the overall Chinese culture by any means, but to pull them into a film that downplays their martial-arts capability means that the production company is not recognizing them as much as the audience has hoped for.

If they are not hired to perform in martial arts-heavy scenes, then why were they approached at the first place? Of course, with their faces and names plastered all over Mulan’s posters, it brings the Chinese audience back to that one same word — gimmick.

Originally published at https://www.thefilmaddict.com on September 16, 2020.

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