The paean to tribalism is pleasing to China — and profitable. The girl-power plot is tired.
In the live-action Mulan, a remake of Disney’s 1998 animated feature, the studio’s kiddie-inspiration brand gets literalized. The young female Hua Mulan (played by Liu Yifei) no longer moves with a cartoon’s fantastic fluid quickness or magical buoyancy but is a gravity-defying rule-breaking figure from China’s sixth-century folklore. The voice-over narrator addresses “ancestors” impiously, favoring new social-justice ideas over their ancient moral codes.
A cartoon is not enough for Disney’s latest progressive scam. Mulan’s superheroine role model connects to Tangled and Brave, overusing wuxia– and parkour-style “real” fighting to promote female agency. Mulan’s first stunts crack statuary and crockery. (You can’t have progress without breaking a few rules.) This dull realism supersedes cartoon imagination to produce what activists call “radical imagination.” Disney’s blatantly political intent accords with the trade agreement of a $200 million international production shot in China and New Zealand that can also pass muster with the Chinese Communist Party.
In the insidious “girl power” plot, Mulan rejects domestic tradition and disguises herself as male to join the imperial army and fulfill her warrior spirit. The Yentl androgyny stuff is so tired (including perverse body-odor jokes) that it’s unentertaining — impure propaganda. Female director Niki Caro imitates the ideological hype that surrounded Wonder Woman. Her action scenes bear the smudges of an F/X’s crew digital fingerprints rather than the personally inspired, visionary slapstick of Stephen Chow’s Chinese pop spectacles. By now we’ve seen too many authentic, dynamic Chinese action movies, especially Zhang Yimou’s recent Shadow and The Great Wall, to accept this dross.
Caro goes through the motions that define Hollywood’s recent social-justice movement. She argues culturally constructed feminism when Mulan’s mother (Rosalind Chao) complains, “A daughter is not a son, a daughter brings honor through marriage.” This phony bromide contradicts modern pop sensibility as expressed almost 50 years ago in Joni Mitchell’s “Let the Wind Carry Me”:
Mama thinks she spoilt me
Papa knows somehow he set me free
Mama thinks she spoilt me rotten
She blames herself
But Papa he blesses me
It’s a tough road to travel
Mama let go now
It’s always called for me.
Today, it’s convenient — and marketable — to ignore such wisdom about conflicted male and female impulses, especially when it comes from an old cisgender, heterosexual white woman rather than one of the resentful genderless #MeToo avengers.
Disney kowtows to radical imagination and political correctness through Mulan’s shameless Orientalism — pilfering the wuxia genre, then casting art-film icon Gong Li as Xianniang, a vengeful sorceress whose succubus powers overtake an adversarial Arab soldier for a big battle scene. When a male villain insults her, Xianniang snaps, “Not witch, warrior!” But Eva Green’s dragon-lady act in 300: The Rise of an Empire had a richer mythological background. Here, we’re deprived even a Kill Bill catfight with Mulan for the witch’s weakly motivated sisterhood sacrifice. But this isn’t even feminism; it’s tomboy deception.
The film’s ultimate point is made when Mulan’s ruse is exposed yet she still rejects military service. “I must return to my family to be loyal, brave, and true.” She is commended: “Devotion to family is an essential virtue.” So tribalism — the new tool of radical imagination — is what Disney sponsors. It reacts to the separatism implicit in Millennial feminism, as in the fake Afrocentricity of Disney/Beyoncé’s Black Is King. Matching those athletes and politicians who claim allegiance to tribe first and country second, Disney employs examples from homogeneous cultures for consumption by heterogeneous Americans.
Cultural politics has changed so much that we can no longer accept Disney products as just entertainment but now must notice the flattering romanticization of China in nonsense such as Mulan, with its female “shadow warriors” who evoke the likes of Lisa Page, Sally Yates, and Susan Rice. It seems dedicated to Hillary Clinton’s manic proposition that to “fight” or “not concede under any circumstances” is honorable or justifiable.
Would Disney make a $200 million movie that proposed the U.S. military as a force for courage, valor, and patriotism? The remake mania of Mulan proves that Disney’s radical imagination works toward one purpose: indoctrination. Unfortunately, Mulan rhymes with Wuhan.