You're Being Too Nice to Mulan (2020)

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Illustration: Autumn Collins

 You’re Being Too Nice to Mulan (2020)

By Kellie Toyama

Like many twenty-something-year-olds who were thrown back into their childhood home and old habits in the past few months, I’ve found myself clinging to the media I loved as a child to cope. With all the uncertainty and instability that never seems to ease up, I needed something to cling to for stability. Some texts I’ve been revisiting include, but are not limited to: Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Twilight Saga, Adventure Time and the Harry Potter series. For the most part, it’s been easy to re-consume these movies and TV shows I never really gave much thought to as a child and just appreciate the nostalgia. But there has been one story, in particular, I find myself struggling to enjoy. and that is the 2020 retelling of Mulan. 

I’m not going to pretend I had extremely high expectations for Disney’s live-action remake of the 1998 animated film, but a small part of me was secretly hoping it would at least be a fun watch. Mulan was the first fictional character I remember strongly identifying with as a young Chinese-American girl. My parents named me Kellie because it translates to “female warrior,” in English, so I felt a kinship with the strong-willed, expectation-defying character. I’ll probably never shake my childhood fondness for Ming-Na Wen’s iteration of Mulan, but that doesn’t mean I, or any other Asian person, should settle for the imperfect nature of Mulan as a character

Over 20 years have passed since the release of the animated film, and Mulan is still one of the only Chinese characters in American media that Asian/Pacific Islander (API) communities are supposed to claim. But green-lighting a reimagination of this family movie with a prominent pro-imperialist agenda in 2020 is extremely tone-deaf to Asian communities fighting against oppressive militaries. It’s harmful propaganda more than anything. Without the lightheartedness of the animated cartoon, the problematic political rhetoric of this story (that, admittedly, existed in the original) becomes impossible to overlook. The story’s central focus ultimately becomes less about family and femininity, and more about gender in war. It essentially argues that women can... be war criminals too? 

The actress who plays Mulan in the 2020 film, Liu Yifei, recently faced criticism for being “ashamed” of the people protesting for fair democracy in Hong Kong. This controversy is just the sour cherry on top of my disdain for this movie. Mulan is no longer a character I want to identify with, regardless of whether or not I look like her. When I say I want to see myself on screen, yesI want more Asian actors playing Asian characters. But I also want these characters to be well-written and relatable. I want the development of these characters to be identity conscious. I want writers to think about what it really means for a person of color to play the role of a war hero who is praised for unwavering loyalty to her country because a marginalized character’s political alignment has the power to shift the audience’s perception or biases of an entire group of people. I shouldn’t have to settle for a #GirlBoss war criminal Mulan, conceived by a team of white women, when I look for API representation. Simply putnot all representation is good representation, and we shouldn’t be thanking studios for simply hiring actors of color.  

Mulan (2020) still has a 75% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. That is the number studio execs will look to when asked if Mulan (2020) was a well-received movie, despite the overwhelming critiques from audiences and poor reception by Chinese box offices where the film scored a 4.9 out of 10 on DouBan, a Chinese film rating platform similar to Rotten Tomatoes. Can there ever be “too much” criticism from the people who these movies are supposed to be representing? Until we have Black Indigenous People of Color in the studio and behind the camera creating original characters with complex arcs, these poor retellings of old stories won’t stop. The little girls who look like Mulan now deserve to see themselves as more than stoic warriors and the girls who grew up being compared to her deserve complex characters that are reflective of themselves now.  

If you’re keeping watch for API representation in media and want to see more API creatives in the film industry, support organizations like the Center for Asian American Media, and A3

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