Disclaimer: This post is for a film assignment.
CS8900 Assignment 2: by Diana Goh
Directors: Tony Bancroft, Barry Cook
Animation giant Disney’s first foray into exploring the Chinese culture as its main story lands itself the story of Mulan (1998). This animated film is based on the tale of Hua Mulan, a Chinese female warrior who lived during the Northern Wei Dynasty (386 – 534) (Tang, 2008) and took her father’s place in the war for ten years. While most audience got to know of this female warrior through Disney, there have been several varying accounts of the historical story of Hua Mulan. Some even question the existence of Mulan and speculate that she is purely fictional (The Scribe, 2011) and Disney has used one of the most famous Chinese tales to exhibit the Chinese culture to a Western audience through the 1998 film.
As a modern film audience, I see Mulan as a family-friendly film that challenges the stereotypes of gender, and is a form of empowerment of the female identity in the Chinese culture. The film stays true to its Disney formula, interspersing comedy into a film dominated by a potentially heavy and mature theme of patriotism and female heroism. But at the heart of it, it is a simply a tale of filial piety and loyalty, which are important values in the Asian context (Chen and Uttal, 1988). However, given that the film was released almost twenty years ago, the audience then was different and perhaps not as accepting of the portrayal of the Chinese and their traditions in the film. As such, this article aims to explore the (mis)representations of the Chinese culture of the film Mulan, given its precedence in the film. While the film is a remake of the story of a female warrior, I will not be touching on the historical truth of the story. Instead, I will be looking solely at the film and how the Chinese and their culture are portrayed in the film.
From the start, it is blatantly clear that the Chinese culture is being manifested in this film. The opening scene starts with Chinese calligraphy and painting, traditionally done with ink, which is said to be a form of self-expression and “emblems of […] character and spirit” (Art, 2004). Furthermore, when the title appears, Mulan is underlined by a red dragon, which symbolizes power, luck and nobleness in the Chinese culture (K, 2016). Coupled with the background music of the Chinese flute and string instruments, it is hard to dispute the fact that Chinese traditions are in full display even in the first minute of the film. How can we miss out the legendary Great Wall? It features right at the beginning of the actual storyline, which makes for a grandeur opening. In my opinion, the opening is great because as the audience, we are immediately aware of the ancient, traditional setting and we are better able to situate ourselves in terms of spatial, temporal, and even cultural differences.
I have to give props to the producers of the film for capturing the setting of China so well throughout the entire film. Be it the natural landscape or in the domestic setting, namely Mulan’s house and the village she lives in, the images are rather compelling and in my opinion, beautifully illustrated for this animated film. Of course, this is not all done without prior research on the producing company’s part. To prepare for Mulan, Disney had sent a team to China for three weeks in 1994 (Dong, 2006) to capture images and landscapes of the country. This move definitely paid off because the images have been fantastically crafted.
While the physical representation of the Chinese landscape is fairly accurate, the representation of the behaviour of the Chinese in a culture set in that time period is not so. In the film, we see Mulan as a strong-headed and independent woman, and values brains over looks, as she sings “How about a girl who has a brain, and always speaks her mind?” much to the dismay of her fellow comrades. However, back then, women were often relegated to a domestic role and never interfered with affairs of the state or nation, and definitely not a war (Wolf, 1972). Mulan is expected to be virtuous, to have “good taste, obedience, work fast-paced […] and a tiny waist” as encapsulated in the song “Honour to us all”.
However, Mulan ceases to fulfil societal expectations of being “the perfect bride”, which Mulan herself acknowledges in her emotional monologue “Reflection”. She is not supposed to speak “without permission”, which is the complete opposite of her natural self. Even when she is in training camp, her fellow comrades are thinking about “a girl worth fighting for”, which are the ideals of the female back then. The soldiers croon that their girl would “marvel at their strength, and admire their battle scar”, must be a great cook and “love a man in armour”. All the traits that a girl is expected to have and be – gentle, submissive, domesticated – are not fully reflected in a strong girl like Mulan. She is the binary of a cultured lady and in all capacities, a complete misfit for the Chinese culture back then.
More importantly, Mulan is essentially the story of a warrior who defies traditions and because of love for her family, decides to take her father’s place in war. Through the tumultuous times, she uses her strength and wit to save her entire country. The concept is highly individualistic, with particular emphasis on achievements of the individual (Schroder and Zoehfeld, 1998). We can even say it is Mulan’s “self-conscious search for a successful individuality that is acknowledged and accepted by other characters” (Dong, 2006). Unfortunately, as Hsieh and Matoush (2012) have written, the idea of an individual going on a journey to discover oneself “is a modern American concept and a noble goal from a western perspective, but one that conflicts with East Asian perspectives regarding the more communal nature of the self”.
This is evidenced by Mulan making her own decision without consulting her family and stealing her father’s armour to go to war. The scene where Mulan chops off her hair with a sword is rather symbolic because it is almost as though she is sacrificing her feminine side, encapsulated in her long hair, and embracing the role of a male in the Chinese society back then and doing her part as a civilized member of the country. This idea is also perpetuated when her flower comb lies forlornly in a puddle of rain in the night when Mulan’s father drops it while chasing after her. It is almost as though Mulan was the only war involved in fighting because only her achievements are singled out and highlighted in the film. The film portrays the achievements of an individual as a vital key to triumph, which is not reflective of the Chinese society then.
However, as Mulan is the crux of this film, she is the one creating all the tension in the movie and essentially, without a character in Mulan, there would be no film for Disney. In this instance, we may forgive the misrepresentation of how a female should behave in ancient times because we are all rooting for a female hero, (finally!) aren’t we? Upon closer inspection, though, we do find further discrepancies in how the Chinese culture is represented.
Because Disney is a global film giant, it is undeniable that their films are tailored to suit the palates of a global audience, more prominently a Western one. An instant where the film has played to a Westernized audience is through the focus on masculinity in the film. As Dong (2006) rightly mentions, “Masculinity becomes a role that Mulan assumes, in the same way that Caucasian youngsters would identify with a Chinese-looking yet American-acting Mulan”. This seems to be the tried-and-tested Hollywood formula. Hollywood films often feature storylines with the young, male protagonist on a journey of self-discovery and independence, which is essentially what the story of Mulan is about. Now, here is where it becomes problematic. Such a struggle is often only portrayed in the male identity and not the female. So, when we see Mulan achieving great things and getting recognition only when disguised as the male soldier, Ping, we are reminded of the way the Chinese female identity is exhibited in the film. In a way, we see how the transgression of gender roles in society back then was deemed as a “fatal taboo” (Dong, 2006), especially in the scene where Mulan’s parents attempt chase after her in the cold, rainy night after her departure to war. Mulan’s mother instructs her husband that he “must go after her[for] she could be killed”, but he realizes that if he does go and reveal her true identity, “she [most definitely] will be”.
Through the spatial divisions in the film, Disney has very cleverly constructed and contrasted the two roles that Mulan played in the film. As a daughter, her role is very much restricted to a domestic setting, “with a wooden-structured bungalow, lattice windows, doors, curtains, and feminine dresses [that] denote her female life”. (Dong, 2006) At home, her role is unimportant and mild, other than having to feed the chickens and memorize scripts of Chinese virtues to impress the matchmaker. This is juxtaposed against her role on the battlefield, where she is confined “to outside space with mountains, rivers, soldiers, horses, and armour that connote her “masculine” role” (Dong, 2006). This masculine role is an important one, in fact. It is one that saves the entire country, and eventually brings honour to her family, rather than through finding a prospective spouse. Well, she does snag a man from the war, which is typical of a Disney, happily-ever-after ending anyway. Essentially, the transformation from a female to a masculine role is subtly represented through Mulan’s movement from the inner to outer, open space.
Keeping in mind the idea of playing to the fantasies of a Western audience, it seems that the Chinese culture has been exorticized as the “other”. These include the opening sequence happening at the Great Wall (oh, the Wall is a double-edged sword) and the climax of the film in The Forbidden City (Dong, 2006), both of which are iconic images that exorticize the Chinese culture. There is great fanfare featuring the Chinese culture at its best, with a majestic occasion taking place at The Forbidden City. We see Chinese lanterns, the traditional lion dance, and pagodas.
Mushu even brandishes Chinese dumplings to roast over a miniscule fire. Some parts of the narrative construction also enhanced the film’s exotic appeal when Mushu comically awakens the ancestors of the Hua family with a gong. Chopsticks are used throughout the entire film as a constant reminder of the Chinese eating habits (Tang, 2008) and the comrades in camp (hilariously and naively) call out their breakfast orders, “pan-fried noodle”, “sweet and pungent shrimp” and “moo goo gai pan”, the Cantonese dish of chicken and mushrooms which is popular in American-Chinese restaurants. These images have been situated in a way such that American audience are cognizant that these are distinctively Chinese, no questions about that (Tang, 2008). To put it simply, Disney has reinforced the idea of Orientalism, which is the conscious division between the East and West, and that each is different (Rosenblatt, 2009).
However, we do need to bear in mind that this is a Hollywood film after all, and I am certain Disney did not want to complete alienate and bore its Western audience with the foreign Chinese culture. As such, several aspects of the film deviate from actual Chinese culture from remaining visually loyal. It can thus be said that Mulan is a globalized product rooted in a Chinese setting but catering to a global audience. Wang and Yeh (2005) mention that “Mulan is introduced in the Disney film by a series of comic gags that are built on misunderstandings and bickering”, which is perfectly true and synonymous with the classic Hollywood formula. As the saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
This is seen through the use of numerous non-Chinese elements in the movie, most notably in the linguistic expressions and choice of cast in the film. The character in Mulan’s grandmother seems to almost too modern for the film. Her use of expressions, especially “Sign me up for the next war!” is most unacceptable, especially coming from an elderly member of the family. There are several references to a Western culture too, when Mulan’s first breakfast in training camp is that of porridge, eggs and bacon, which is unusual for a Chinese breakfast. We even have a “travel-sized” dragon, Mushu, which is a term coined by the Western hemisphere to refer to smaller-sized items to carry around for convenience (Tang, 2008). Apparently, mushu is a pork dish served in American Chinese restaurants (Hsieh and Matoush, 2012). Surprise, surprise!
It was also uncharacteristic (and still is, I think) for people in the Asian culture to engage in physical displays of affection in public. This thus created some form of discomfort among Chinese viewers when Mulan gregariously hugged the emperor in full view of the country and kissed Mushu on the forehead affectionately (Tang, 2008). These are just a few gross misrepresentations of the Chinese culture. For me, the greatest encapsulation of the non-Chinese elements comes from Mushu, who is voiced by Eddie Murphy. Eddie Murphy is a huge comedic Hollywood star with numerous movies under his belt (The Nutty Professor, 1996; Norbit, 2007; Tower Heist, 2011) and has one of the most recognizable voices in Hollywood.
When I was watching Mulan, I instantly experienced a moment of puzzlement when I heard Murphy because I felt like it was such a mismatch! He distinctly carried an African American English accent, which was very ill-fitting for a Chinese ancestral dragon with a Chinese name. But in this context, I believe it was Disney’s intention to “disneyfy” the film and include some humour, which Murphy has done excellently. Perhaps physically a misfit, but I cannot imagine another voice encapsulating the characteristics of Mushu – mischievous, eager to impress but not great at much either. For me, Murphy himself is Mushu, albeit from a different cultural body (no pun intended).
The choice of cast is also rather interesting because the main characters in the film (Mulan, Mushu, Shang) were all voiced by actors with American accents (Ming-Na Wen, Eddie Murphy, Bradley Darryl Wong), while those of the older generation, Mulan’s parents, grandmother, the ladies at the salon, the matchmaker and more, are all laced with a tinge of Chinese accent. Since the film was set in ancient times, it is jarring to hear the characters speak with an American accent, given that interactions between the West and East were little to none in that dynasty. In retrospect, should the story even be dubbed in English? How “Chinese” exactly is this film, seeing that the entire story is set in China, and based on an old Chinese legend and yet the characters speak in English? As reiterated, this film is targeted at a global audience and English is a “world language” (Mair, 2003), thus it is inevitable that Mulan is dubbed in English to maximise the number of audience. Understandably, this film was dubbed into a Chinese version for the Chinese audience in China, which saw superstar Jackie Chan take on the voice of Shang.
In this article, I’ve attempted to sieve out the representations and discrepancies of how the Chinese culture is reflected in Mulan. While the physical landscape has been beautifully and rather accurately reflected in the film, there are misrepresentations of the said culture for reasons to do with a globalized audience, thus warranting the need for a more globalized product in Mulan. This has led to several interesting choices in terms of the cast, narrative expressions and even a storyline that plays to the fantasies and delight to a predominantly Western audience. However, what I have covered is merely the tip of the iceberg, and so much more of how the Chinese culture is represented can be uncovered if we compare this animated film to The Ballad of Mulan, which is what the film drew inspiration from and is largely based on. Of course, we cannot forget the numerous versions and variations of the true legend of Mulan that have existed since the Early Middle Ages. All in all, Disney has done a decent job in encapsulating the Chinese culture in a close to 90-minutes film, and is worth your time, no matter your race, age, or gender. Misrepresentations aside, Mulan is quite a light-hearted film and definitely leaves its audience laughing for more.
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