Yifei Liu stars in Disney’s 2020 live-action ‘Mulan’ remake. (Photo courtsey of Disney.)
Film / Disney

Chinese Nationalism on the Big Screen: Comparing Disney’s ‘Mulan’ (1998) to ‘Mulan’ (2020)

China has always appealed to U.S. businesses through its sheer size, but with the country’s increasing wealth, U.S. industries work to find new ways to appeal to their markets’ eager consumers. China is aiming to surpass the U.S. as the world’s wealthiest box office, and Hollywood has shifted its attention accordingly. In August of 2020, PEN America, a free-speech advocacy group, released a report on Hollywood’s self-censoring for Chinese audiences indicating that the American film industry is increasingly aware of this largely underappreciated market. Recent movies like Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell aimed to appeal to China through an all-Asian cast with plots set primarily in Asia. However, these films—though successful in the U.S.—were seen as too Western by Chinese audiences and were poorly received. Still, Hollywood continues its quest for China’s heart with costlier international blockbusters.

Disney’s 2020 release of the highly anticipated live-action Mulan marks a turning point in Hollywood’s approach towards appealing to China. Not only was the film set in China, co-produced by a Chinese production company, and featuring an all-Asian cast, the creators were intentional about shaping a film that seemed more “authentically” Chinese. However, 2020 Mulan satisfied neither Chinese nor American audiences. Chinese audiences claimed it was too Westernized while Americans couldn’t help but feel disappointed as they compared it to Disney’s original 1998 Mulan. Disney’s failure to balance Western and Eastern values effectively in the 2020 Mulan ultimately alienated both Chinese and American audiences and made the film palpably worse.

2020 Mulan’s director, Niki Caro, who described the new Mulan movie as “a love letter to China,” seems not to have received a letter in return. Mulan’s production team spent five years and $200 million, hired actors popular in China as well as Chinese consultants, cut scenes unpopular amongst Chinese test audiences, and submitted to script reviews by Chinese authorities only to have the film flop in China. In comparison to Chinese box office results of other Disney remakes, like Beauty and the Beast grossing $85 million and The Jungle Book grossing $55 million, Mulan only hit $23 million. Part of this loss was due to increased piracy in China (since the film already existed online); those pirating the film spread negative reviews, thus discouraging Chinese audiences from watching Mulan in theaters. However, the majority of the buzz had to do with yet another American lens on Chinese culture and history. As the Chinese film critic, Luo Jin, points out through a post on Weibo, 2020 Mulan was comparable to “General Tso’s Chicken—an Americanized take on Chinese culture.” Despite Hollywood’s genuine effort to appeal to Chinese audiences and the Chinese government, the film still did poorly.

Although Chinese audiences claimed Mulan was too Western, the film still didn’t satisfy American audiences either. As Ying Zhu, cinema studies professor at the City University of New York and faculty member at the Film Academy of Hong Kong Baptist University, puts it, Mulan 2020 is “a half-baked story that caters neither to the West nor to the East… It’s the inbetweenness that ruins an otherwise fascinating tale.” Additionally, the credits at the end of the film revealed that parts of Mulan were filmed in Xinjiang—an area where the Chinese government has been accused of human rights violations towards the Uighur Muslim minority—and went so far as to thank government officials in control of that area. This sparked controversy and some boycotts on the American end. Disney declined to publicly comment or apologize, reluctant to call China out on human rights violations and threaten the future release of films. (It also isn’t likely that many within Chinese audiences are aware of this human rights issue, due to government censorship). Although Disney+ made a profit from Mulan as a result of increased subscribers and premiere access purchases, the box office results are among the most disappointing of Disney live-action remakes. 

Yuan Ren and Jingan Young, current columnists at The Guardian who have grown up in China and the U.S., agree that the 1998 Mulan was much more inspiring for young women, especially Chinese-American women. 2020 Mulan failed to meet this Western-feminist mark in several ways. Yuan Ren argues that while 1998 Mulan encouraged young women to “dream big and be brave and strong,” 2020 Mulan’s slender frame tied too closely to Chinese beauty ideals of thinness and frailness. She makes the point that Disney could have used this live-action warrior as an opportunity to showcase a more muscular female or demonstrate that muscular build and female beauty are not mutually exclusive, which would have been more in line with American feminism and appealing more to American audiences.

Jingan Young points out that no other Disney live-action musical remake—such as Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King—decided to cut the musical component, which supplied much of the original charm. The musical element, along with characters like Mushu, Cricket, and the grandmother—all cut in the 2020 Mulan—are what bring the “heart and joy of Disney.” All these pieces lighten not only the film but also the character of Mulan. She is joyous and lively and real as she transforms into the woman she wants to be. However, as Young indicates, the 2020 Mulan is “solemn and resolute: Mulan is now a robotic warrior,” and, as Young implies, this robotic Mulan seems to be a product of Disney pandering to “nationalistic values espoused by the mainland Chinese government—especially as it looks exactly like the kind of ‘imperial dramas’ that the state media are currently taking aim at.” Young gets at the idea that the 2020 Mulan is closer in line with the values of the Chinese government than it is with Disney’s more American values, suggesting at least some degree of influence on behalf of the Chinese government in pursuit of commercial and cultural victory in China.   

There are many decisions made by Disney that reflect this shift towards Chinese nationalism, but the most significant are the choices and changes that make the film “less American” by altering the feminist narrative. The 1998 Mulan presents a triumphant breakthrough in feminism. This was during a time when Disney was shifting from the original Disney princesses, criticized as being more helpless and in need of saving by men, such as Snow White and Aurora, to a more progressive approach, such as was the case with Pocahontas (1995). However, this feminist hurrah seems to be toned down and, at times, muted in the live-action Mulan.

To this effect, the inclusion of chi in the 2020 live-action film manages to dull both the triumphal story arch and the feminist hurrah. Chi is a Chinese belief in the force of natural energy, yin and yang. There are only two figures in the 2020 film who naturally possess chi, and they happen to be the only two female warriors: Mulan and the witch aiding the villain. In the 1998 film, Mulan enters the training camp ill-prepared for the physical demands. She has to build her own strength, representing a woman’s perseverance to succeed in a male-dominated field.  By contrast, 2020 Mulan, born with chi, possesses supernatural abilities from a young age, which complicates her achievements as the female protagonist for the Western audience.

A memorable moment from early on in the film is when Mulan flawlessly lands from a multistory building at what looks to be the ripe age of ten. When she arrives at the training camp, she is already as strong, and in most cases stronger, than her male counterparts because of this chi. In reference to Ren’s critiques on the missed opportunity of a muscular female warrior, the inclusion of chi becomes an implicit justification for Mulan’s slender frame and visual fragility. Not only does the chi possessed by Mulan and the witch (the only two characters with chi) inaccurately represent the original Chinese concept of chi being that it is essentially war-magic, the fact that Mulan requires exceptional chi/“magic” while her comrades don’t, insinuates that for a woman to stand alongside her male counterparts she must possess something nearly supernatural to do so, rather than just being her human self.  

In the context of feminist breakthroughs, it is important to mention both Mulans’ “gender reveals,” so to speak, and their placement within each of the films. The 1998 film’s final battle takes place during a crowded festival to celebrate China’s alleged victory. As Mulan approaches individuals in the crowd, claiming the emperor is still in danger, the individuals shake her off with a look of disgust and walk away. She asks Mushu, “why won’t anyone listen to me?” to which Mushu responds “oh, I’m sorry what was that?” Mulan gives him a glare and he shouts, “well you’re a girl again!” When 1998 Mulan enters her final battle, it’s in the presence of thousands, in the presence of the prejudiced populace. 2020 Mulan unveils her gender during the midst of an earlier battle scene.  She is alone when she does so, and acts alone on the battlefield while her male counterparts are on the defense. 2020 Mulan’s final battle scene is witnessed by her comrades in the first half and witnessed only by the emperor in the second half, when she defeats the villain. There is no greater populace to play spectator. The presence of the crowd is an active component in the final battle scene as they yell, gasp, and cheer. The feminist breakthrough in 2020 Mulan is solely within the army, whereas the feminist breakthrough in 1998 Mulan is within the army as well as the prejudiced society as a whole. 

The feminist breakthrough comparison does not stop with the placement of the gender reveals and witnesses. In the 1998 film, as a symbolic means to more publicly support the female warrior, Mulan’s male comrades crossdress as part of their plan to save the emperor. The song in the background is the instrumental track “I’ll make a man out of you,” which was played earlier in the film when Mulan was still disguised as a man. However, with her male friends dressed as women, and Mulan on the battlefield and, for the first time, not concealing her gender, the lyrics can be reimagined as “I’ll make a woman out of you.” Additionally, at the end of the battle when Mulan and her comrades are being thanked and acknowledged by the emperor, her friends are still dressed as women with thousands of people as their witnesses. There’s no removal of the garb or make up. There is no shame. This action takes the feminist breakthrough of female warriors one step further.  

Finally, the differences in the scenes where Mulan is acknowledged for her accomplishments by the emperor becomes a clear nod at Chinese nationalism in the 2020 film. As the emperor in the 1998 Mulan remarks, Mulan has destroyed parts of the palace throughout her battle. He pretends to be angry, and then breaks into a smile saying, “yet, you have saved all of us.” The emperor’s acceptance of the destruction of the palace through the actions of a female warrior symbolizes the crumbling of a prejudiced system. In comparison, the palace still remains intact throughout the 2020 Mulan and Mulan’s major battle against the villain is fought well-removed from the palace. The leading institution and power is protected and unharmed, signifying a still-rigid institutional and systemic barrier for feminism. 

In the 1998 film, Mulan, after the emperor’s speech, hugs him. One of her friends even whispers “is she allowed to do that?” with the other friends simply shrugging and smiling. The emperor, though at first surprised, ultimately smiles and hugs her in return. Lastly, the emperor bows to Mulan, followed by her comrades, and finally, by the thousands of spectators. Here lies the implicit message suggested by the 1998 creators: that although hierarchy certainly exists, individual value is equal. Though the emperor is a powerful figure, he embraces Mulan’s hug and even bows to her, as though momentarily shedding his royal superiority and acknowledging human value that transcends labels and birthrights. This breakthrough is egalitarian and encompasses virtually all of China while serving the underlying assertion that feminism also demands the liberation of all people from unjust forms of oppressive power. 

In stark contrast, 2020 Mulan’s acknowledgement by the emperor takes place inside the throne room of the palace. The emperor sits elevated on his throne while Mulan is on her knees speaking and listening to him. The room has a selected audience. Her comrades are presented as wealthy, noble men and women. This group does not represent all of China, but a contained audience approved by the emperor as acceptable witnesses. There is certainly no hugging between the emperor and Mulan as they maintain their distance. At the end of the interaction, the emperor does not bow to her; she bows to him. Not only does this mute the feminist breakthrough, but it symbolizes the American international platform, Disney, bowing to this new shift towards appeasing the Chinese government, even if the film loses American values and expressions. 

The 1998 Mulan scene of China bowing to the female commoner is iconic and memorable.  If 2020 Mulan had kept this iconic scene, what would that imply about the current Chinese politicians as having power no greater than their peoples’?  Especially considering that the Chinese government maintains a strict hold on individual rights and freedoms (think of 1989 Tiananmen Square, Hong Kong protests, the cultural genocides of the Tibetan people and Uighur Muslims, and The Great Firewall of China). For many, it is apparent that Mulan’s pandering to Chinese nationalism and the approval of the Chinese government has alienated American audiences. All this begs the question: did Disney lose enough money to dissuade this kind of thing from happening again, or will Hollywood continue the trend of appealing to Chinese audiences through values promoted by the Chinese government?