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After 22 years, Mulan, the classic 1998 Disney animated movie, has finally been remade into an energetic live-action movie. Available to stream on Disney+, this Mulan movie joins the ranks of other successful adaptations including The Lion King, Aladdin, and Beauty and the Beast. Its original release date was set for March of this year but, like everything else in 2020, that was pushed back due to the coronavirus. One silver lining: The delay has possibly worked in the film’s favor, as the slowing trickle of new releases has only stoked our anticipation of fresh content. In short, the comeback of Disney’s only Asian warrior princess is more necessary than ever.
The animated Mulan movie was a revelation for me two decades ago when I was a rebellious Asian American kid. In the story, Mulan impersonates a male soldier to fight in the imperial army in place of her disabled father. Like Mulan, I was sick of being held to the expectations of obedient Asian femininity. I identified with the film so much that I knew the lyrics of every song by heart, while my sister dressed up as her for Halloween. Mulan was our Disney princess.
But parents of young kids, be warned: This new PG-13 adaptation is far from the sanguine animation you watched back then. Friendly sidekicks Mushu and Cri-Kee are gone, and the musical numbers have been cast aside in favor of gritty battle sequences. The reboot is swifter and darker and even features a new foe for Mulan, a witch with a tortured backstory played by Li Gong of Memoirs of a Geisha. The film also has an international all-star Asian cast, much like the strong representation seen in Crazy Rich Asians. Ming-Na Wen, who voiced the animated Mulan, even makes a surprise cameo as an announcer in the imperial court.
But the heart of the film—the story of a woman rebelling against a traditional society–remains. The movie successfully establishes Mulan’s contrarian spirit right from in the opening sequence, when she jumps off a high building in her village to catch a chicken. Still, it’s hard not to compare this remake to the original, especially when you are, like me, a long-time fan.
One improvement in the live-action version are the rich costumes and set design, the matchmaking scene in particular. The film captures the playful mood of the original through a surreal blur of bright hues, the swirl of fabrics and powders, and the outrageous matchmaker who is hilariously portrayed by Pei-Pei Cheng (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). The original’s scene was set to the soaring “Honor To Us All,” but the music was missing here—something that’s felt throughout the film.
As a kid, I loved the emotional score that became the soundtrack to my life. “Reflection,” recorded by Lea Salonga, expressed what I was going through at the time. (“Somehow I cannot hide who I am though I’ve tried / When will my reflection show who I am inside?”) In this version, I kept waiting for a rousing anthem or even a nod to the original songs, but I only heard instrumental whispers. They were missed.
As in the animation, we watch as Mulan, brilliantly played by Yifei Liu, passes herself off as a soldier by binding her breasts, avoiding showers, and proving herself during training to be the best fighter. The dialogue between characters about a woman’s place, ideal femininity, and honor is truly cringe-worthy, especially since I’ve dealt with these values before. While I’m always disgusted by on-screen misogyny, the point of this film is to show how Mulan transcends such circumstances. And through director Niki Caro’s thoughtful filmmaking, the movie adeptly demonstrates how she not only overcomes but slays these sexist expectations.
While I know this is a story about a warrior, I didn’t expect it to be such an action film, especially since the original was done with such levity and humor. While the fight scenes went on for what seemed like a long time in the second half of the movie, the impressive battle move when Mulan causes an avalanche is expertly recreated. In the end, Mulan saves the emperor and the kingdom and returns home to be reunited with her father Zhou, who is beautifully brought to life by legendary Asian American actor Tzi Ma.
Watching the live-action Mulan was like going back in time. I remembered what it was like to be that misunderstood little girl, and I felt all the feels. Overall, the remake is a proud moment—while the movie didn’t exactly hit all of my high expectations, seeing Asian people act out a story of an Asian woman’s resistance was emotional. The casting was skillfully done with respect, which is crucial for a story about people of color produced in Hollywood. It felt like an affirmation for me and every non-traditional Asian American.
In a time when hate crimes against Asians have spiked due to coronavirus accusations, Mulan is a small victory we need. For Mulan purists, the remake might not be what they expected—but as an Asian American rebel, I felt seen.
Minhae Shim Roth is a writer and reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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