The Mulan trailer is a dismal sign Disney is bowing to China's anti-democratic agenda | Jingan Young
Disney have just released their hotly anticipated teaser trailer for their live-action remake of Mulan. The 1998 animated musical action film, following the triumphant story of an awkward young woman who takes her father’s place in a war by disguising herself as a boy, resonated globally. I was seven years old when it was released, and as a half-Chinese girl born and raised in pre-handover Hong Kong, the film had special importance to me, with its combination of east-west values, musical numbers (Honour to Us All, I’ll Make a Man Out of You and Reflection have aged extremely well), and female protagonist who kicks some serious butt while retaining her moral integrity and reinforcing family values. To this day, my Mulan sword, Mushu soft toy and Mulan dolls are somewhere safe in storage at home in Hong Kong.
To say I was excited by the prospect of a live action remake of Mulan is an understatement. The film joins the plethora of live-action remakes of Disney’s 90s renaissance hits, including Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King. All of these retain their musical numbers. Why then has Disney decided to make Mulan a gritty realist film? Particularly considering there are already Chinese versions of the legend: General Hua Mu-lan (1964) and Mulan: Rise of a Warrior (2009).
The Disney remake came under intense scrutiny from the moment it was announced, with commentators warning against “whitewashing”, and protesting at the removal of the army captain character Li Shang and the absence of the original songs. Disney cast Wuhan-born mainland Chinese actress Liu Yifei as Mulan, but stuck to removing the songs, Li Shang and Mushu, Mulan’s absurd, incompetent dragon spirit guide (voiced in the original by Eddie Murphy. Twitter mobs were swift to claim that mainland Chinese audiences took offence at Mushu; however, as with most generalisations, Chinese netizens think quite the opposite.
Although you can’t judge a film by its trailer, the muted, unhumorous tone of this teaser hints at the film’s objective. Mulan is no longer the self-conscious teenager who disappoints her parents by failing to become the ideal wife, before her fierce and beautiful transformation into the woman she wants to be. Instead, she appears solemn and resolute: Mulan is a now robotic warrior. The removal of the songs is a big mistake: it eliminates the joy and emotional heart that Disney do so well. I can’t help wonder why Disney are remaking Mulan at all if they are simply going to pander to the 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.
No doubt Disney have in mind the commercial failure in China of 1998’s Mulan; it was caught up in the controversy over the Disney-funded film Kundun about the Dalai Lama, which led to the Chinese government effectively banning Disney films. The timing of this trailer release is awful, with recent events in Hong Kong culminating in police brutality against anti-extradition bill protesters, and the ongoing oppression of ethnic Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. It feels like Disney is waving a big red flag in everyone’s faces in its desperation to secure success at the Chinese box office. For those who believe in democracy and freedom, this leaves a sour taste.