Disney’s Approach to ‘Mulan’ Highlights the Difference Between China and the Asian Diaspora

I’ll admit I didn’t know much of the original Ballad of Mulan when I set foot on the set of Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan two years ago. Like many others, I had grown up watching Disney’s animated Mulan thinking of the heroine as a feminist icon. (Though one typical of the ’90s version of the concept): She was a tomboy. She was an outsider. And she was too rambunctious, too independent. But most importantly, Mulan was the lone Disney princess who looked a little like me. Though I didn’t share her cultural identity. It meant something to a 6-year-old Asian American. And thousands of other Asian-Americans — who had never seen herself represented on the big screen.

But on the other side of the world, Mulan meant even more to the Chinese audiences who watched the Disney version of their beloved Ballad with disdain. A legendary folk warrior, Hua Mulan is perhaps one of the best-known mythic heroes in China. But in total opposition to her Disney depiction as a perennial outsider. Mulan is upheld as a symbol of Confucian virtue. Driven to disguise herself as a male soldier out of a sense of duty to her family and the emperor.

“The traditional Disney audience and the diaspora Asian audience viewed the movie in one way. And the traditional Chinese in China audience viewed a slightly different way.” Mulan producer Jason Reed acknowledged to a group of journalists on the set of Disney’s upcoming live-action remake.

To the western perspective, it’s about an independent girl who finally finds her true self by breaking free of society’s expectations. To Chinese audiences who had known the mythic hero through the ancient poem, it was about fulfilling one’s duty to society — a common tenet in Confucianism. This is consistent through the many versions of the Ballad of Mulan dating back to the first written version of the poem around the 6th century.

“In poem after poem, that loyalty to family and empire is Mulan’s only reason for leaving home and dressing as a male soldier,” Tor.com’s Mari Ness writes of the long cultural tradition surrounding Mulan. “Poems feature her dreaming of home, of putting on makeup again. And praise her for temporarily sacrificing that life for her family and emperor.

Confucianism, which — among many things — emphasizes social harmony, is in line with the East Asian values of the valuing community over the individual. It’s in almost direct contrast to the themes of 1998 animated Mulan, whose protagonist was much more familiar to American audiences primed for a spunky, individual-minded heroine. “How about a girl who’s got a brain, who always speaks her mind?” Mulan even sings at one point in Mulan, speaking about herself.

This left the filmmaking team, which included Reed and director Niki Caro. With the difficult task of reconciling the two very different expectations of Mulan: The Disney icon and the Chinese legend. Not to mention Mulan’s importance to the Asian diaspora community. Who arguably have even more stake in the character’s arc of self-actualization than the regular Disney audience. How thrilling was it, how cathartic that we got to see an Asian heroine break free of society’s expectations in the way that many of us would like to escape our own cultural traditions or strict parental pressures?

As rare as it was to have an Asian heroine on the big screen. It was rarer still for her journey to speak so intimately to many first or second-generation Asian-Americans. And better yet, the cast voicing the characters were Asian-American idols: Ming-Na Wen of The Joy Luck Club, B.D. Wong, Pat Morita. It’s the Asian diaspora community that Reed says the team kept in mind while trying to bring together the “two completely different ways of reading the story.”

“Traditionally the story of Mulan is a story about a young girl finding a way to do her duty. And it’s all about duty and kind about the devotion to the Confucian order. And for what we found in our research that was for the Diaspora community. They read it as a story about a young girl finding her way against her parents. That despite the rules and despite the traditions she found her own way forward. So those are two completely different ways of reading the story.”

A few major elements that made the film such a hit among western audiences and Asian diaspora audiences (aka those descended from immigrants of Asian countries) specifically rankled Chinese audiences. The dragon, a symbol of power and strength in China, was reduced to a silly comic relief character. The scene where Mulan cuts her hair short — long seen as an empowering scene to western audiences, for whom short hair equals more masculine — in order to better disguise herself as a man was roundly mocked by Chinese audiences, who knew that long hair was commonly worn by both men and women in ancient China.

“Historically, there had been some resistance to the animated movie in the Chinese market,” Reed said. “We wanted to make sure that we’re fully aware of those concerns and that we address them where we could. And that we understood them even in places where we didn’t feel like we could address it. And that we really find that balance.”

The zany sidekicks — including the beloved Mushu made iconic by Eddie Murphy’s off-the-wall performance — are gone. Mulan doesn’t cut her hair. The show musical songs are out. These are major changes to the remake that, rather than simply help to set it apart from other shot-for-shot Disney remakes, are designed to specifically appeal to the Chinese audience. If it seems like Disney is taking special care to attract the Chinese market, they are.

In recent years, the Chinese movie industry has become a major player in Hollywood. China has the largest overseas box office (with its moviegoers on track to overtake American audiences). And major Chinese production companies have begun investing, co-producing. And even releasing Hollywood films. You’ve seen it in the headlines before. How major Hollywood studios like Marvel will insert a Chinese celebrity or whole China-centric storylines into their films to more greatly appeal to Chinese audiences. Or how a film will be a massive bomb because it underperformed at the Chinese box office. Or how a film will be dramatically changed to yield to Chinese censors. With Disney getting their second chance at bringing a legendary Chinese figure to the big screen. They don’t want to mess it up again, especially with the box office stakes so high.

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So how did the filmmaking team behind Mulan balance the near-opposing expectations of their American audiences and Chinese audiences? Very, very carefully. “We really dug in to try and make sure we that we were addressing both of those audiences in a thoughtful way,” Reed said. “I think we found a way to tie both of the way[s] they look at the movie together.” Reed said that they ultimately were able to bring together the Confucian tenets of the story with the animated Mulan’s independent attitude.

“What we realized as we’re looking through it is that while it’s a story of an individual finding their true self and finding their inner truth. But ultimately she’s doing that in service of the Confucian ideal. So she is finding a way to do her duty. But she can’t do it in the way that young girls were normally expected to. So she finds her own way against the norms of society but ultimately fulfills her destiny.”

As a heroine, as a symbol, as a legend. Mulan means so many different things to so many people. Disney’s focus on appealing to Chinese audiences doesn’t necessarily negate the meaning that the 1998 Disney animated film held for Asian-American audiences. But it does highlight the widening gap between the Chinese mainland. And the diasporic Asians who are still hungering for more representation on the big screen. They may not necessarily get it with Mulan. Whose story is so deeply embedded in Chinese culture that it would feel disingenuous to try to make it more “Asian-American,” anyway. But with Disney acknowledging the impact of the Asian diasporic audience on the Mulan remake. Perhaps it’s a matter of time.

Mulan hits theaters on March 27, 2020

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