Mulan, promotional poster - 1998, Barry Cook / Tony Bancroft, Walt Disney Pictures.
Mulan - A woman's fight
After having dissected the origins of Mulan, we were able to observe her Turkish-Mongolian origins in North China during the 4th century in a context of cultural mix due to the incessant wars. In the original ballad, she was a esteemed general who refused honors to rejoin her family and quietly resumed her life as a woman after the war against the nomads of the North. Devoid of romance, it is clearly distinguished from stories centered on a female character thanks to a perfectly egalitarian message. Since she is not bothered by the social barrier, Mulan can rise to the highest military rank, a post supposed to be the ultimate male prerogative which is achieved as much by talent in combat as by clever military strategies. And above all, victorious battles.
If this message should be understood by everyone today, it is obvious that it was a minority at that time and that it will remain so for some time before the wave of strong women in the 1990's (despite a large number of feminist stories all throughout history but who were generally drowned in the mass when they were not simply censored).
Now, let us resume the course of Mulan's evolution.
It was not until a thousand years after the first ballad that a new significant and more detailed adaptation made its appearance during the Ming period (1368-1644). It will be born under the pen of the painter and playwright Xu Wei who will make a play in two acts (The heroine Mulan goes to war in place of her father, 雌 木蘭 替 父 從軍; Cí-Mùlán Tì Fù Cóngjūn) and gave her the last name Hua (花) that she will keep, even if she is called Fa in the West. As her family was originally unnamed, she was also given the names Ren (任), Zhu (朱), and Wei (魏). In Liu Weide (劉 惟 德)'s novel, which also dates from the Ming dynasty, her real first name is Han E (韓 娥) which she abandons in favor of Mulan.
In 1675, in the novel by Chu Renhuo, Sui Tang Yanyi, which narrates in a romantic way the period of transition between the Sui and Tang dynasties (in the 7th century), Mulan is present as an important secondary character similar to the representation of Robin Hood in Ivanhoe. This version is curiously often mistakenly cited as the original text of the legend of Mulan, probably because it marked its readers with its tragic interpretation which will hardly ever be repeated thereafter.
In this version very strongly inspired by Confucian morality, she is part of a Turkish tribe allied to the emerging Tang dynasty which calls for one male member per family to serve in the army. Trained in combat like many girls from important families, Mulan asks her father for permission before leaving the family home, disguised as a man, but is captured by the opposing army, the Xia led by Dou Jiande (竇建德), known for being an honorable and caring king. When her daughter, the warrior princess Xianniang (線 娘), realizes by questioning her that she is dealing with a woman, they decide to become blood sisters (laotong) and Mulan therefore joins the army where she becomes a powerful general.
However, when King Dou Jiande decides to betray the Emperor by allying with his enemies to protect his lands, he is defeated and captured. His daughter, accompanied by Mulan, go ask the Emperor to take his place but this act of filial piety wins and Dou Jiande is released to end his life as a monk (he was however executed in reality). For her part, Mulan is offered money by the Emperor's mother for her family. Unfortunately, on her return home, she learns that her father is long dead, her mother has remarried and, as her khan has heard of this warrior woman, he calls her to him to become his concubine. Rather than serving a foreign lord, she prefers killing herself to join her father.
If we find again the lack of love interest from the warrior, this story differs greatly from the other adaptations by losing the disinterest in the traditions and the voluntary aspect of the young woman (in the ballad, once the war over, she does not hide as a woman and finds her comrades in arms as naturally as possible). If we find a certain form of independence in her final decision, the problem with this story remains the high (too much) insistence on the daughter's bond of complete devotion to her father which is at the heart of Confucius' thought.
Mulan entered the twentieth century in 1917 via the play Mulan joins the army (a subsequently recurring title), which was noticed thanks to the presence in the lead role of Mei Lanfang, a legendary artist nicknamed "Queen of the Peking Opera "for his exclusively female roles. A first silent film will then appear in 1927 followed by a new adaptation the following year. The third adaptation of 1939 was produced by Ouyang Yuqian, one of the three founders of Chinese talking cinema during the Second Sino-Japanese War when the country was occupied by the enemy's troops. In this context, the subtly patriotic subtext was just what Chinese audiences needed at that time, and the film was a huge critical and popular success that spawned a very large number of adaptations of Mulan's story thanks to this sudden popularity.
Subsequently, three other film adaptations were released in 1964, 1994 and 1998 as well as four Chinese television series devoted exclusively to her between 1998 and 2013.
In 1976, Chinese-American Maxine Hong Kingston published The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts which tells about five traditional Chinese tales through her autobiography and their connection to her position as a woman from a first generation of migrants. In the second chapter called White Tigers, she addresses Mulan's story and compares the warrior's rebellious but low-key attitude with the fact that she herself cannot speak out openly against her racist employer. This story, awarded with two prizes (Maxine Hong Kingston was herself awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2013 by President Barack Obama) seems to have greatly influenced the adaptation of the legend by the Disney studio.
The latter, the thirty-sixth Disney animated feature film (and ninth of their "Renaissance" period), was born in 1998 from the cooperation between the two experienced animators, Barry Cook and Tony Bancroft, in the director's chair and five screenwriters including Chris Sanders (who will later direct Lilo & Stitch in 2002 and How to Train Your Dragon in 2010). The influence of the latter was crucial since, after a month of travel of the team in China in 1994 in order to obtain the necessary cultural knowledge, the project turned towards a romantic comedy where Mulan was engaged to a man whom she had never met. Chris Sanders, just coming out of The Lion King's writing, was appointed screenwriting director on Mulan and was immediately frustrated with this unoriginal romance. He therefore launched the team on a rewrite much more faithful to the original legend. He was also the one who pushed Mulan's character to its final version by making her less self-centered and more likable.
To analyze the film itself it will be necessary to dissect it, it is therefore obviously advisable to have seen it before in order to avoid story spoilers. But especially not to ruin the powerful feelings provoked by the discovery of particularly successful sequences which we will have to talk about.
The film opens with a very good exhibition scene featuring all of the subtle characteristics of Mulan that the viewer should know. With some details, we immediately understand that she is a cheerful, intelligent and ingenious young girl, in particular thanks to her handmade system for her dog to do her chores, the fact that she provides a spare cup to compensate for her clumsiness or her cheating system for her upcoming exam. These same details also show her biggest flaws: her lack of self-confidence and an undisciplined side. And this lack of discipline joining her creativity clearly exposes her desire to get out of the stranglehold of traditions. Mulan isn't an activist but in the end, she usually ends up doing what she likes. The film thus succeeds in showing the evolution of the character through the trials she goes through while exposing in a few minutes that she was in reality rebel since the beginning. We also see her opposing a boy who annoys a little girl in the first song Bring honor to us all.
In this same song, her intelligence is further underlined by a simple movement thought in a few seconds, which brings victory to an old man on the game of xiàngqí (a kind of chess) he was playing. This ten second action also shows that her mind wanders on the subject of the moment that interests her and that this riddle obviously attracted her more than her late meeting with the matchmaker.
Speaking of the songs, we have to talk a little about that because the movie features some of the best songs from the Disney movies (in my opinion). From a musical point of view, but above all by the messages they convey.
Reflections is still today a powerful song carrying all the doubts that someone who is looking for herself (or himself) may have. Whether it's for their own perception of themselves or for society's view of their body or identity, everyone can relate to Mulan's reflexion. If it resonates particularly with the questions of LGBTQ+ communities who regularly express their love for it, all women and men also have gone through the question of the image that we want to send back to a society that judges them or imposes (more or less) its codes on them.
Mulan suffers from the fact that the image that society sends back to herself does not correspond to her personality. She is not meant to be a perfect bride but the alternatives just don't exist since that's what everyone expects from her, as featured in Bring honor to us all that precedes Reflection. Women are expected to present in a certain way and not otherwise.
Thankfully, the wordless musical sequence that follows sends this whole image overboard as Mulan actually rebels against her father for the first time in the famous passage renamed Mulan's Decision after audiences showed their passion for this epic and dramatic instrumental (which remains, to this day and by far, the most emotionally charged music video I have seen in a movie).
Bring honor to us all, Mulan - 1998, Barry Cook/Tony Bancroft, Walt Disney Pictures.
Reflections, Mulan - 1998, Barry Cook/Tony Bancroft, Walt Disney Pictures.
Mulan's Decision, Mulan - 1998, Barry Cook/Tony Bancroft, Walt Disney Pictures.
To finish talking about the songs, we have to develop a little I'll make a man out of you which has obviously been misunderstood and above all, taken out of context by too many people.
This song has been criticized a lot for being a tribute to so-called male superiority, but I never understood how anyone who saw the film could buy into this strange idea. If we had to see a discreet message hard to understand on the first viewing, it would be on the contrary that, just like Mulan and the women, men are subjected to the preconceptions of society (to a much lesser extent, obviously). Mirroring Bring honor to us all and A girl worth fighting for, I'll make a man out of you shows what is expected of a man: being strong, aggressive and without feeling. And, admittedly, Mulan struggles to keep up with the draconian training, but just as much as the other men who manage to rise to the rank of supermen that is expected of them only after a long, painful and dangerous training.
A mastery that Mulan is ironically the first to achieve. First thanks to her intelligence and then thanks to her physical training which ends up catching up with the delay she had by dint of tenacity. And not from a biological difference but from a societal one since she never had to train physically like her companions.
Moreover, to criticize this song by accusing it of misogyny is to forget the entire context of the film which, on the contrary, rejects all the clichés about women and what societies around the world impose to them, while omitting the repeat of this same song at the end of the movie.
Since detractors tend to forget it, remember that the chorus comes back at the very end. When physical strength fails, Mulan sets up a ploy exploiting male weakness by disguising her friends as women while I'll make a man out of you echoes in the background. A both funny and ironic return which shows that the question of gender is not linked to the way of dressing and that the subtlety and the discarding of misplaced pride sometimes allows much more than a frontal attack. At this point, Mulan's friends agree to blur the differences and don't feel inferior from being disguised as women. On the contrary, they recognize her intelligence superior to theirs.
No, I'll make a man out of you is definitely not a misogynist song.
I'll make a man out of you, Mulan - 1998, Barry Cook/Tony Bancroft, Walt Disney Pictures.
But Mulan is not just an interesting film on gender equality, it is above all the personal quest of a young girl full of doubts who struggles to find her place in the world. She also recalls it herself after being revealed as a woman and abandoned on the ruins of the battlefield where she single handedly defeated the Hun army. There, she confesses "Maybe I didn't go for my father. Maybe what I really wanted was to prove I could do things right, so when I looked in the mirror, I'd see someone worthwhile".
Since everything she does is not validated by anyone other than her eccentric grandmother, she doubts herself and her abilities throughout the film, despite her progressive victories and her determination to make it through whatever she does. We can also clearly see that she has the possibility of giving up during I'll make a man out of you but she stays to prove to herself that she can succeed when she could have gone home with the blessing of her superior, which would have still saved her father without her having to fight.
It's only when she finds out that there is still a threat of assassination on the Emperor that she will stop moping and finally prove to be confident and impervious to criticism by throwing herself into the action. But now as a woman with nothing more to hide. If this return is not without consideration (no one listens to her or trusts her anymore when she wants to warn of the impending attack and Mushu then slips her a "You're a girl again, remember?" ), she no longer intends to stay in her place and will force Captain Shang to act (by giving him a look that has become cult on the internet to perfectly embody the women's annoyance in the face of men's disdain).
Ultimately, Mulan radically sets herself apart from the female protagonists from Disney movies by displaying such mastery of martial arts that she will not only save the Emperor, but also the Captain Shang, outmatched in combat. She is also the only Disney "princess" to voluntarily kill, as a soldier, her enemy in a final duel (not to mention the thousands of Huns who disappeared in the avalanche that she voluntarily unleashed on them).
And since we point out her originality, she is one of the very few female characters to have disheveled hair in the morning and she has an atypical appearance for a film heroine but much more realistic and common: big eyebrows, smooth hips and chest, broad shoulders and sturdy limbs, wearing loose, practical clothing, possessing a deep voice and an intelligence considered by experts to be above average.
If we suspect that this physical design was necessary in order to facilitate her credibility as a man, she still joins her original model which was not studied to become a "sex symbol" but a woman among many others.
The end of the ballad is also kept when she returns home after refusing the honors that the Emperor wanted to grant her for having saved China. There, she offers the Emperor's medallion and Shan Yu's sword to her father as an excuse for running away and to restore her family's honor that she has tainted by disobeying him. Her father then drops these treasures and bursts into tears in his daughter's arms, telling her that the greatest honor is having her as a daughter.
Subtle but simple: the places have been reversed with Confucianist thought, it is the father who feels humble in front of his daughter who has become a legendary warrior.
This short, very simple scene also marked many spectators thanks to the powerful feeling of love that emanates from it.
Now, it should be noted that the film is not without slight flaws. It places the action more than a thousand years after the original historical period and was notably criticized for being a very westernized vision of the ballad. The love story with Shang, for example, is quite flat and sticks more to Hollywood romantic criteria than to the message of emancipation from the rest of the film.
The Emperor is also very, very, very flexible with protocol (no one could have thrown herself at his neck inconsequentially like Mulan does, which brings out a "Is she allowed to do that?" from Yao).
A certain lack of taste will later be committed by the Japanese studio Square Enix in the (nonetheless) excellent video game Kingdom Hearts II where Mulan was reworked to stick more easily to local clichés of women by making her very fearful, mannered and must be saved by the hero, Sora.
The positive point being that the studio did not fall into the contradiction of the marketing around the film which prefers to represent Mulan only with extremely feminine dresses. A contradiction that the 2019 film Ralph Breaks the Internet mocks by giving voice to the Disney princesses, tired of always presenting well in traditional and complex costumes. Having the choice, Mulan will opt for a masculine sports jacket that will delight fans all around the globe.
The dragon Mushu (dubbed by Eddie Murphy) is also a very American caricature in tone, but it was necessary, like the genie from Aladdin, to not lose the Western audience in a culture that many did not know well. Mushu’s humor is also lifesaving since, without him, the dramatic atmosphere of war would never be lightened and his function as an "animal" allows him to make the neutral transition between men and women.
This is not a film criticizing men but taking advantage of a woman's "infiltrated" point of view to humorously point out their flaws. It is true that between men, the humor is gross, that competition is often raging on every subjects and that a certain letting of manners can quickly appear. The pinnacle of these very macho points of view comes with the song A girl worth fighting for where everyone enjoy describing their perfect wife (cook, devoted to her husband or simply beautiful). But when Mulan comes up with an intelligent woman who says what she thinks, everyone rejects the idea outright.
The film, therefore, illustrates certain male flaws by observing them from a female point of view without condemning them but by emphasizing their ridicule.
As final word on this film, it should be noted that the design was of course based on traditional Chinese paintings but also drew heavily in silent German expressionism, English and American peplums from the 50s and 60s, in spaghetti westerns and the first Disney feature films (Bambi, Pinocchio, Dumbo...) in order to have a more refined design highlighting the characters.
Finally, when it was released, the film won numerous awards for its writing, dubbing, music and animation. Since 2008, it has also been one of the 50 best American animated films listed by the American Film Institute.
Mulan marked a turning point in the portrayal of women in the Disney classics thanks to her courage, disinterest in romance, and ethnic portrayal. Her opposition to gender stereotypes opened the door for many female characters taking (with varying degrees of success) this new path of strong and independent women who take charge of their destiny while remaining realistic and interesting as characters. She will also be cited as the main example of Merida, the heroine of Brave who places opposition to imposed fate at the center of her story.
Even today, she is one of the public's favorite Disney characters, regularly appearing in the top 10, even number 1 in the 2013 IGN ranking. She is often quoted by young girls, especially by those of Asian origin who take her as model. She is also the eighth "Disney princess" despite the fact that absolutely nothing links her to royalty or nobility. Each Disney Princess is elevated as symbol for her defining values and Mulan represents the determination to never give up, the absence of gender restrictions, and the importance of family and honor.
-But there's no way we talk about the 2004 direct-to-DVD Mulan 2 that sits incredibly on all the qualities of the first movie and is rated as one of the worst Disney movie sequels, even movies in general.
In the end, a new Chinese film on Mulan was made in 2009 with the stated desire to transcribe a version more faithful to the original ballad.
Indeed, in Hua Mulan (花 木兰), the action is situated during the invasions of the ruruans of 450. The subject is however very different from the personal quest of the Disney film or the message of equality of the ballad. While these two aspects are, of course, present, the emphasis here is much more on a woman's perception of war. The tone is dark, the deaths numerous and Mulan hardens over the years in constant contact with death while refusing to indulge in the lack of feelings that seem to show the officers fighting alongside her.
Very good film worth seeing for the impressive reconstruction of the wars of the 5th century in China, my only criticism would relate to the difficulty that we have to perceive the actress Zhao Wei as a man. If her acting is very good, her shrill voice makes the gullibility of his companions so ridiculous that the atmosphere of the film takes a hit. Yet in this context, it is vital. The Disney movie had a comedic side to it that didn't make Mulan's credibility as a man so important but in a realistic, heavy and dark context, that's a different story.
But if we forget this point, it remains a very good epic and realistic film bringing very interesting reflections on the war and the sacrifices that each one is ready to make according to the context.
After this lengthy post, it's time to wrap up Mulan's story for now while waiting for the 2020 Disney live-action remake and observe her legacy that it will or will not leave afterward.
Regardless, while the 1998 film popularized the legend around the world, Mulan has always been a role model for many women who can relate to her for all of the reasons discussed above, but she also convinced many men that a legendary warrior does not have to be a Caucasian man. And if more men realize that a female warrior is as valuable as her male counterpart, one of their worst preconceptions will collapse, dragging the others down little by little. Thanks to that, Mulan continues to be one of the most important heroines of her gender to lead, one day, a real respect between humans.