A few years ago, in an attempt to broaden my artistic horizons, I sat down to watch the much-renowned anime series “Neon Genesis Evangelion.” Perhaps I simply lacked the background to plumb the true depths of its social commentary—I’m told that it’s a scorching indictment of “Gundam”-style, mecha-and-kaiju narratives—but, frankly, I didn’t find it all that compelling. What I thought was most interesting about the series, in the end, was its frequent use of explicitly Christian or Christian-adjacent elements: “Adam” and “Lilith” and “souls” all become key plot points.
Significantly, though, in the series there’s no attempt whatsoever to deploy these concepts in a context remotely befitting their theologically-rooted origins: for those behind “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” sheer cool factor is all that matters. The anime pilfers the Christian tradition for its iconography, but none of its ideas.
I have to think Disney’s 2020 update of “Mulan” feels, for viewers with a Chinese background, somewhat like that. For all its pretenses toward cultural authenticity, the film merely exchanges the 1998 classic’s theme of filial duty for a ho-hum Western empowerment story, one that just happens to be laced with a very modern notion of Chinese nationalism.
The basic setup of the plot will be familiar to all fans of the original film. After an army of “Rourans” (proto-Mongolians), under the leadership of mysterious Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee) invades “Northwest China” (also known as Xinjiang—you know, the place where Chinese authorities are currently incarcerating Uighur Muslims in concentration camps), Hua Mulan (Liu Yifei, who earned notoriety last year for backing Hong Kong police forces over against pro-democracy demonstrators) takes her father’s place in the imperial army, posing as a man.
Ahem. I’ll try to keep the politics to a minimum from here on out.
In any event, shortly thereafter the 2020 take on “Mulan” veers sharply away from its predecessor’s narrative. As it turns out, Mulan herself has strong qi, or individual life-energy, which grants her something resembling superpowers. (Transposed into a Western register, this notion is somewhat akin to spontaneously channeling the power of the Holy Spirit to perform superhuman feats like telekinesis. Pentecostalism meets Power Rangers!) But evidently, Mulan’s qi can only manifest fully when she acknowledges and embraces her true female identity. And so, rather than fighting invaders in male garb and being found out inadvertently, Mulan jettisons her disguise and rides into battle with hair flowing free. Girl power conquers all!
Ironically, despite the movie’s purported emphasis on reclaiming the original Chinese tale—including, controversially, filming in Xinjiang itself—it’s tough to imagine a more Westernized take on the story. The metaphysical underpinnings of traditional Chinese ethics—which (broadly speaking) stress the good of the community over individual self-actualization, the virtue of hierarchy, and the importance of living fully into one’s place in that hierarchy. The joyous revelation of the emancipated self, a theme at the very heart of “Mulan” 2020, simply never enters the picture.
In short, everything that made the 1998 film distinctive, shot through with a haunting sense of fate and social order, is here dissolved. One looks in vain for anything truly moving or memorable. (As far as I’m concerned, the hyperactive dragon Mushu isn’t particularly missed, but it certainly doesn’t help matters that all the classic songs have been excised, except in momentary instrumental clips.
That’s not to say that the film is a disaster, strictly speaking. In the hands of director Niki Caro, “Mulan” is competently—if uninventively—filmed and paced. Some of the fight choreography is pretty good, in all fairness, and Harry Gregson-Williams’s score is unsurprisingly stirring. There are worse cinematic choices for an evening at home, if one can stomach the thought of supporting a film so closely tied to the Chinese state. But all in all, “Mulan”—like so many other live-action resurrections of the Disney classics—simply lacks the original magic.
If this is the best material on offer, dire times may lie ahead for the House of Mouse.