Turning a scathing Mulan review into an education

Liu Yifei as Mulan.
PHOTO: Disney

Here's the thing: Despite how brilliantly simple Disney made a lot of Chinese concepts, traditions and cultures in the new Mulan live-action movie so that they can be easily understood, many still have deep misunderstandings about the inner workings that drove this movie.

After reading some comments and a very jarring review of the movie harping on the same issues, I thought I'd offer a little more, without completely giving the story away.

Warning: Spoilers ahead

Animation vs live-action: Two completely different iterations

Hua Mulan is a famous Chinese folktale and Disney adapted it into an animated film to cater to its target, family-centric audience - but the origins of this well-known Chinese story are not of Disney, let's get that clear. (In fact, there are many other stories and animations that aren’t Disney originals either.)

Also, this live-action movie has all the elements of a Chinese war movie, more than anything else. Therefore, you have to view it differently and apart from the animated version.

In fact, this new version is better, simply because it is closer to the original story.

1. Qi 

I'm not sure how this can be misunderstood as the thing that suddenly gives Mulan “superpowers” and turns her into a superhero. Well, it isn’t and doesn’t.

Mulan’s father was a great soldier. And it was - and in some cases today, still is - very traditionally Chinese to want sons to carry on the family name. It is explained and shown from the beginning that being the first-born, Mulan has been well-trained (like a son) since young in the ways of martial arts.

This qi (as in qi gong: inner energy, life force) is something we are all born with. Star Wars refers to this as “the Force”. They’re one and the same. It is believed that with proper training, the flow can be harnessed and honed to help pugilists all over the world push their physical limits.

It’s not a superpower. It’s very real.

2. Yin and Yang Qi

PHOTO: Unsplash

Mulan is female, so her Yin Qi (female force) is predominantly stronger. But since she pretends to be a man, she has to lean on her weaker Yang Qi (male force), thereby the balance of her natural Qi is suppressed, making her unable to realise her full potential.

Both her father and her commanding officer (Donnie Yuen) address this in the movie, making it amply clear: “You have to hide your qi, Mulan…”, “Hua Jun, your qi is strong, why are you hiding it…”.

3. Four ounces can move a thousand pounds

This is a very common idiom in Chinese literature. It can be applied to everything, even (in the context of Mulan) military scenarios: small against big; weak against strong; few against many.

Case in point: The 300 Spartans at Thermopylae.

This is also explained in the movie. Almost everything Mulan does, she has been trained to do. She applies her skills and wit strategically, turning the enemy against themselves.

Again, these aren’t superhuman feats.

4. Rouran witch Xian Lang 

Mongolians, like many other pagan warrior tribes all over the ancient world, believed in witchcraft and prophecies from their gods. 

Powerful shamans and witches were said to have shape-shifting abilities. Even Genghis Khan referred to his people as descendants of wolves.

Disney rides on those superstitions and uses amazing CGI to enhance the character of the Rouran witch Xian Lang (played by Gong Li). She has been through the same experience as Mulan, and thereby understands and empathises with the struggle that Mulan is going through.

In the end, Mulan does what Xian Lang couldn’t achieve, and the latter admires Mulan’s courage for it.

5. Dragon (Mushu) or phoenix?

Mushu, voiced by Eddie Murphy in the animated version was created as comic relief. For kids.

It is virtually impossible to replicate a trash-talking dragon for a live-action film (notwithstanding how much CGI tech has improved) without cheapening the whole movie.

This character was cleverly replaced by a symbolic phoenix which represents Mulan’s family crest as a protector of the Hua family.

In Chinese lore, dragon = masculine, phoenix = feminine.

6. The three pillars of strength

One thing Disney did alter is the 3+1 pillars of the Warriors’ Code: Zhong, loyalty, yong, courage,  zhen, truth + xiao, filial piety.

The first and the +1 are regarded as conflicting virtues. As the Chinese saying goes: Zhong xiao bu neng liang quan, meaning, it is impossible to accomplish both loyalty and filial piety. One has to choose between one's country or one's family.

This film eliminates that conundrum and fulfils both, although the main moral of Mulan’s story is filial piety.

Incidentally, the three pillars are lifted from the four main Chinese virtues amongst warriors: Zhong, loyalty • yong, courage • gang, strength • yi, fortitude.

Reviews are merely snapshots of how movies perform and they are neither right nor wrong; there are only different perspectives. But I wish some reviewers wouldn’t politicise everything.

Like it or not, Mulan is just a movie, so there’s really no need to be that sour - which totally defeats the purpose of entertainment, doesn’t it?

In any case, I hope this background knowledge helps you to have a fuller experience at the cinema like I did.

This article was first published in Wonderwall.sg.