The story of Hua Mulan goes to a time far, far away. Legends say that she existed somewhere between the fourth and sixth century A.D. Her story, told in the Ballad of Mulan, inspired youths all over China for millennia. Relatively recently, thanks to Disney‘s cartoon version of Mulan’s story, the legend went global. Few weeks ago it was the time of a live action, still produced by Disney. Regardless of the many good points that the project had to achieve an incredible success, things did not go as most would have expected.
Filial piety and feminism: the story of Hua Mulan
Hua Mulan is a Chinese young woman who decides to take the weapons and armor of her old father, in order to prevent his death on the battlefield. She also disguises herself as a man, as a woman would not be allowed to serve. Disney‘s famous cartoon Mulan shows a good part of Hua Mulan’s story.
In the cartoon, Mulan’s true identity is eventually discovered by her leader. This creates lots of issues.
First, how can a woman disguise herself as a soldier, and don’t get noticed by bureaucrats and fellow soldiers altogether? Second, how can a woman actually be a soldier? In that period it is still a male profession, after all.
While the first point is not discussed much, the second gets an immediate, negative, answer.
A woman cannot be a soldier, no matter what.
As a classic of Disney, things turn for the best and Mulan becomes the heroine of her homeland and finds love as well.
An happy ending, with Mulan managing to protect her father, serve her country, find true love and, most importantly, show that women can be just as capable as men. Both feminism and filial piety are core concepts of the cartoon.
Differences with the original story
In the original story, though, Mulan was never discovered during her 12 years of service. Her identity remained shrouded in the darkness. At the end of the war, she refuses the emperor’s offer of a possible career (which she would deserve, as a veteran of the war). Thus, the young woman heads back home. Only then, when she reveals herself to the family, her identity will be discovered by some of her comrades.
Even in the original story, filial piety is extremely important. Although feminism is not as predominant as in the cartoon, it is clear that it is central to the story. The original Hua Mulan may have not been the heroine of the whole China, but she did her duty to the country, just like her male peers, a point that the ballad itself hints at towards the end.
Why Mulan failed in the West
The recently produced live action did not enjoy an incredible success. The biggest problem, forecasted by Disney itself, was to make a movie that could be enjoyed both by Chinese and non-Chinese fans.
As a matter of fact, the main actress – Liu Yifei – was attacked by Westerners many times on social media. This was because of the stance that one of her tweets implied on the Hong Kong riots. As a famous actress, Liu Yifei’s stance on the side of the Hong Kong police angered many, who promised to boycott the movie as a response.
Disney is not a Chinese producer. It should not receive blame for the opinions of an actress. Still, the movie received strong critics for many months. Similar issues happened with other famous personalities on both sides of the fight.
An expensive ticket, but no seats
Critics increased due to the decision of Disney to publish the movie in its Disney+ app, forcing whoever wants to watch it to pay a subscription to the service, plus an extra fee for the movie. In many countries the movie was not available in cinemas, because of the coronavirus lockdown. For this reason, many have to pay 1.5 to 3 times the regular fee to watch the movie from their TV or computer.
Another important issue is that many in the West expected a more coherent story with the original cartoon. As a matter of fact, what most people know about Hua Mulan’s story comes from the cartoon, and the live action is actually based on that. But the differences are many, hurting different groups of fans. The cartoon was based on filial piety and feminism. Through working hard and smarts, Hua Mulan became an heroine and saved the country (and civilization itself). Instead, many critics said, Qi and predestination became the core topics.
As a result, while both products are based on the same story and share most of the details, their message is very different. Some in the West even say that Disney was making the movie just for Chinese audience. IMDb, a popular movie reviewing website, gives it a 5.4/10 score.
Why Mulan failed in China, too
Liu Yifei was not enough to save the movie in China. Some in China agree that her presence indeed ensured a good portion of the success. Still, the movie failed in China for many reasons. The most important ones are exactly the same of the Westerners. From a Chinese perspective, a movie produced by Disney on Hua Mulan shouldn’t have such depictions of Qi and martial arts, which borrow from very different inspiration sources, and look far from the actual Chinese concepts. Influencers attacked both the technical effects and the plot.
Douban, a Chinese website similar to IMDb, score 4.9/10 for Mulan, not far from IMDb’s results.
In the current period, Hua Mulan’s success could have moved the West and China towards a small reconciliation, or at least it could have been an attempt.
Instead, it seems that its through the failure that we can notice, in spite of the differences between the West and the East, that the two sides are more alike than they seem.