Oh, what twenty-two years—and the opening of the global marketplace—can do to our fables!
When Mulan came out in 1998—part of the vaunted Disney animation renascence—critics mainly noted its humor, a result of a chatty red dragon named Mushu, voiced by Eddie Murphy between Doolittle and Nutty Professor films, and cheeky if forgettable songs that referenced “passing” and “cross-dressing” in lyrics that often sounded like Paul Lynde punchlines from Hollywood Squares. The casual racism of the film—especially the marauding, handlebar-mustachioed Huns—was barely noted.
For a generation of transgender people watching the DVD in their childhood living rooms in the years after its theatrical release, what came off as winks and nods to their parents took on a more significant meaning. By telling the story of an awkward and conflicted young person who felt trapped within a body and by societal expectations that didn’t match how they felt about themselves, Mulan became a touchstone for transgender and gender-nonconforming youth. (Check out E. Oliver Whitney’s excellent ScreenCrush essay “Growing Up Trans When There Aren’t Any Trans Characters on Screen” on the topic.)
But this is not 2020’s Mulan. In keeping with a film made by a multinational company dependent on foreign dollars, the queerness has been exorcised. (Farewell, soldiers dressed like concubines; we hardly knew you.) Though this Mulan (deftly brought to life by the steely Liu Yifei) still chafes against society’s expectation for young women to be little more than some man’s wife, she lost her cumbersomeness; the sensation of being stuck in the wrong body and in the wrong time is no longer part of her.
Instead, this figure from Chinese folklore has been Skywalker-ed and Neo-ed. As explained in the opening scenes, Mulan is a possessor of “chi,” i.e. “the boundless energy of life.” It allows Mulan to redirect spears with a powerful kick and to flip though the air in slow motion. In this respect, she is like most characters that front big-budget studio spectacles: she is a super hero. She’s the Chosen One—basically an East-Asian Harry Potter but instead of the Boy Who Lived she’s the Girl Who Lived As A Boy For A Couple of Weeks.
But while the new movie feels safe and without a dollop of the subversiveness of the original version, it is not without its pleasures. This is chiefly the result of nuanced performances from an excellent cast (Jason Scott Lee in particular gives real depth to Böri Kahn, the leader of the invading army), the adroit manner in which New Zealand-born director Niki Caro (2002’s The Whale Rider) focuses the action around her lead character’s emotional journey, and the sometimes clever ways that film expands upon the story told in the 1998 version.
Tops among these changes is the addition of Xian Lang (Gong Li), a powerful sorceress who serves as Böri Kahn’s secret weapon against the imperial army. Echoing the story’s themes of transformation, she can morph into a falcon or materialize from a cloud of paint within the palace walls. She is the most powerful character in the story; with her bone-like headpiece and armor and talon fingers, she is also one of the most visually interesting in a film filled with intriguing visuals. (The costumes in particular stand out in a film that looks every bit as expensive as its $200 million budget.)
Having joined the Rouran army because the empire rejected her powerful femininity, Xian Lang is certainly the most complicated character in the story, embodying much of the internal conflict that has been smoothed over in the title character. When bad guy Böri Kahn offers to make her second-in-command once he does away with the emperor (a barely recognizable Jet Li, whose presence guarantees that the old-timer will get to kick some ass in the final act), he frames it as a way to finally overcome the patriarchal dismissal of her unmatched powers and ability. I couldn’t help but think, what’s so wrong with that?
Which leads us to the central issue that is all but trampled over in this candy-colored horse opera: what exactly is Mulan fighting for? In taking up her father’s sword and armor to fight for the imperial army, she is risking her life for the status quo, a warrior on behalf of her own oppression. Which is to say, this Mulan isn’t just not transgressive in the manner of its predecessor; it goes quite far in the opposite direction.
It is a visually enthralling, high-gloss commercial for state power and repressive constructs. This is a product precisely tooled to be what the global marketplace demands of entertainment that is this expensive to make—a win for capitalism that will leave many filmgoers who found a powerful reflection of themselves in the original film feeling like they’ve lost something important and essential.