Xianniang

The witch Xianniang, played by Gong Li, in the midst of a battle with imperial soldiers.

The 2020 version of “Mulan” differs from the original in many ways, adding new characters and villains, as well as trying to rectify the animated version’s shortcomings.

The new “Mulan” starts with our protagonist as a child, immediately showing that unlike other live-action remakes, this one will not be sticking entirely to the plot of the animated version. Director Niki Caro based this film on the 6th-century poem “The Ballad of Mulan.” However, the poem only devotes a few lines to Mulan’s time at war, which is where most of the movie takes place. Most of the lines are describing before and after Mulan goes to war, focusing on her worry about her father before she leaves and her parents’ relief when she comes home after 12 years. Her comrades actually didn’t discover she was a woman until they visited her at her home.

If you want to see “Mulan” before December 4, it will cost you a pretty penny. It’s $30 on top of the monthly $6.99 Disney Plus subscription. After that, it will become available with the base subscription. Personally, I don’t think the price worth it for college students. It’s more reasonable for families with children. Granted, we’re in a pandemic, so it’s not in theaters, but Disney is a big enough corporation that charging so much is a bit ridiculous.

If you’re a die-hard fan of the animated “Mulan,” you may not like this version. Disney tried to make this retelling a new experience rather than sticking to the canon of the animated version. There is no singing in this movie and the only callback to the original soundtrack is an instrumental version of “Reflection” at some key moments. They have also changed the names of several characters or replaced them with new characters. At first, I was disappointed that they did away with Li Shang, replacing him with a romantic interest of the same rank as Mulan. However, the lack of a relationship in the movie further serves the theme of female independence, as well as eliminating the potentially unbalanced relationship between Mulan and her commanding officer.

There were other changes made to make the story more feminist. The character of Mulan’s grandmother and her dismissive comments were cut from this version. There is also no portrayal of the ancestors, removing the scenes of their disapproval at her decision to become a soldier.

A change that I enjoyed was the addition of a villainess. Shan-Yu and his hawk were replaced with Böri Khan and Xianniang. In this version, Mulan has always been athletically skilled due to a power called “chi,” which women aren’t supposed to have. This decision has been criticized because the use of chi in the film isn’t how it actually works in Chinese culture. Chi is considered a life force that flows through everyone regardless of gender and it doesn’t magically make you athletic. In the film, women who do harness this power, like Mulan, are called witches and ostracized from society. The concept of witches in this film is another example of Disney’s awkward combination of western fantasy and Chinese culture. Xianniang is a witch who has had more time to come into her power and serves under Khan. She can also turn into a hawk or flock of birds, which is fairly common in Chinese myths. I found her to be the most interesting character in this film, but we aren’t really given any information about her backstory.

The 1998 version was also criticized for its inaccurate depiction of Chinese culture. There was a mish-mash of Chinese and Japanese cultures despite the story being set in China. The dresses more closely resembled Japanese kimonos than dresses from the setting and time period. Imagery heavily relied on cherry blossoms, which are the national flower of Japan. The most egregious instances seem to be fixed in the live-action version, considering Jet Li, who played the emperor, has spoken about how well he feels the film represents Chinese culture in an interview with HelloBeautiful. Some Chinese people are criticizing the movie for its depictions for different reasons, like those mentioned in the earlier paragraph.

The film received criticism before its release because Mulan’s actress Yifei Liu spoke in support of Hong Kong police last year amidst protests against police brutality. #BoycottMulan trended on Twitter again the day of release when it was discovered parts of the film were shot in Xinjiang, where Uighur Muslims are being held in internment camps. Personally, I think these are perfectly good reasons to boycott the film and it definitely impacted my enjoyment. This movie isn’t anything groundbreaking as far as storytelling goes and the negative aspects in and surrounding the film far outweigh the positives.

Aside from the political controversies surrounding the movie, there are a lot of instances where this movie could have dug deeper into its characters and themes, but didn’t. Disney played it pretty safe with this new iteration of “Mulan,” presumably to please both American and Chinese audiences. However, the lack of depth leaves much to be desired.

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