Director – Niki Caro
Cast – Yifei Liu, Donny Yen, Tzi Ma, Jason Scott Lee, Yoson An, Gong Li, Jet Li
Mulan finds a way to offend just about everyone. Are you a feminist? Prepare to be disappointed by the film’s simplistic idea of empowerment. Do you consider yourself to be a champion of human rights? Then you will no doubt be incensed at Disney’s wilful ignorance of mass atrocities. Or maybe you’re simply a fan of the movies? Good luck with director Niki Caro’s impersonal take on the material.
While the artistic merit of Disney’s live-action remakes has always been questionable — their existence can be attributed more to Hollywood’s condescension towards Chinese audiences than any creative reasons — these movies also appear to be getting consistently blander. In what should be seen as a slap on Disney’s face, Mulan was roundly rejected by China when it released theatrically over there, hopefully putting an end to the West’s incursions into that market.
Watch the Mulan trailer here
Both Hollywood and Bollywood have, for far too long, thought of China as an easy paycheque. They’re shoved subpar ‘products’ down the country’s throat, convinced of its less-demanding tastes. But Chinese audiences have caught on. And this time, it’s personal. Unlike Thugs of Hindostan, which was simply a bad movie that no one in China wanted to pay to watch, Mulan attempts to ‘honour’ Chinese culture by putting millions of American dollars on what has to be the most glaringly misguided Hollywood film of its kind since the Keanu Reeves-starrer 47 Ronin. It’s cultural appropriation on a massive scale.
In a classic attempt at misdirection, Disney put together a largely Asian cast, but neglected to retain this sensitivity while hiring the crew, which is predominantly white. At the helm, the studio stationed in-house talent, Niki Caro. Her presence might appease those who prefer stories about women to be told by women, but you see what I’m getting at? By having a woman at the helm, they’ve solved one problem, but what cultural insights could a New Zealand filmmaker possibly bring to a Chinese story? It’s like handing Zoya Akhtar the reins to a Rosa Parks biopic.
And in this crossfire of cynical decision-making, the audience suffers. Not only is the new Mulan a dreary slog, it’s wilfully ignorant of the spirit of the animated original. Caro has, as you might have heard, discarded the songs and affected a more serious tone, similar to the epic films of Jhang Yimou and Ang Lee, the latter of whom passed on directing Mulan. She has also, perhaps at Disney’s encouragement, changed the ethnicity of the main villain.
Mulan cannot be divorced from the cultural context that surrounds it, simply because these are decisions made by the filmmakers, and by making these decisions, they’ve invited discussions about them.
It would have helped had it been a better film, with an engaging story and empowering message, but it feels overwhelmingly uninspired — just an excuse to make more money. This is unforgivable, considering the sheer number of resources at Caro’s disposal.
Why, for instance, do the elaborate sets look like they were constructed three days before filming, when they should have looked more lived-in? Why does the CGI look so artificial, when multiple reports have pegged the film’s budget to be in the vicinity of $200 million? If you thought Henry Cavill’s computer-generated mouth in Justice League looked odd, wait till you see what they’ve done with Jet Li’s face in Mulan. Convince me that it is not poorly done Deepfake. The legendary Li is just one of the many casting coups that the filmmakers have pulled off. The ensemble also includes Gong Li, who plays a shape-shifting witch; Tzi Ma, who plays Mulan’s father; and the great Donnie Yen, whose skills as a martial artist are completely wasted in a film that would rather cut combat scenes haphazardly than let Yen get down to business.
Of all the live-action Disney remakes, Mulan is the one that deviates the most from its animated original. While most of these movies — Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King — have been rather respectful of the source material, Mulan constantly trips over itself by trying to reinvent the wheel. It is also too preoccupied with being politically correct, which, as far as preoccupations go, is noble, but also something that demands sincerity. There’s very little of that here.