The Asian American community needed ‘Mulan.’ Does it deliver?

As Asian Americans continue to confront racism and xenophobia amid a pandemic, the 2020 release of “Mulan” comes when many members of the community — mainly Chinese Americans — sorely need some reassurance about their own identity.

For the past six months, Asian Americans have experienced increasing instances of hate crimes and discrimination, causing some to question whether their cultural roots will ever be accepted in a country that supposedly welcomes immigrants. If anything, “Mulan,” like its 1998 animated predecessor, was supposed to be a celebration of those roots, an emboldened message to young Asian girls across the world and, to an extent, an indirect rebuke of the current administration’s anti-China stance. 

“Asian women are reportedly the least likely to get promoted to management of any demographic in this country,” Bing Chen, the chairman and co-founder of the Asian nonprofit collective Gold House, explained to In The Know. “We know that maltreatment doesn’t end in offices, though. COVID-19 has exacerbated pre-existing anti-Asian biases, from grandmothers in New York to elders elsewhere. In the face of this historic racism against our community, it’s more important than ever to project affirming, powerful and undeniable images of Asians and Asian Americans.”

For all intents and purposes, however, the live-action remake avoids getting into politics altogether and instead tries to capture the family fun that its predecessor provides. In its attempt to make a Chinese folklore palatable to the masses, the film rarely strikes a chord with the one demographic that would have probably found the most hope in its story of resilience, several people said.

Ron Yuan, Niki Caro, Yifei Liu, Jason Scott Lee and Yoson An attend the European Premiere of Disney's "Mulan" at Odeon Luxe Leicester Square.
Ron Yuan, Niki Caro, Yifei Liu, Jason Scott Lee and Yoson An attend the European premiere of Disney’s “Mulan” at Odeon Luxe Leicester Square.
Credit: Getty Images

“[With] Asian Americans reportedly facing racism and xenophobia in the U.S., ‘Mulan’ feels like a consolation prize that comes too late,” Durra Leung, a New York City-based playwright from China, admitted. “Though this ‘Mulan’ is still a star vehicle for an Asian cast led by Yifei Liu, I wonder if ‘Mulan’ would have [had] a huge impact given the current political climate.”

“Mulan,” which is marketed as a family-friendly movie, misses the opportunity to educate its audience on Asian culture and instead serves as a rushed visual walkthrough of ancient China. The film lightly touches on the Asian family dynamic in the beginning, but quickly delves into a series of action-packed scenes that take away from the emotional depth its stars — namely Liu and actor Tzi Ma — could have provided. As a result, to some cynics, the film seemingly passes for a nostalgic martial arts film while offering little else. 

“For many (including myself), it’s more of a sentimental journey to the 1998 animated film,” Simon Tam, founder and bassist of the Asian American band The Slants, told In The Know. “Some might only see the film purely as exotic [and] foreign and only as a piece of entertainment.”

Perhaps the remake’s greatest flaw lies behind the scenes. While the cast is entirely Asian, the movie’s screenwriters, director and costume designer are not. As such, the movie’s storyline, which slightly differs from that of the animated film, doesn’t feel like an honest retelling of a legendary tale. The film fails to fully capture cultural nuances (such as filial piety and emphasis on social harmony) that make the Asian — or, more specifically, the Chinese — community unique. Rather, it portrays Chinese culture through a decidedly white (and fantasy-driven) lens: one that excessively employs the symbol of a faux phoenix to signal the rebirth of Mulan. 

The truth is that at a time when many Asians and Asian Americans are fighting to reclaim their identity, “Mulan” doesn’t seem to do much for the cause. By failing to humanize its characters, the film reinforces the age-old stereotype that Asians are mostly silent and emotionless. It does little to give voice to the one community that has longed for respect — an irony considering the fact that the movie centers on a Chinese heroine who fights for acceptance. 

Though an argument can be made that the live-action remake of “Mulan” was intended to simply entertain, the movie ultimately had to shoulder the burden of properly representing the community it took inspiration from. Through no fault of its own, it also needed to counterbalance the widely held misperception of Asians and Asian Americans as the “other,” especially when Asians and Asian Americans have been unjustly scapegoated for the current health crisis. Sadly, the film does neither. 

If you’re interested in reading more commentaries like this, consider this article that critiques news coverage of Pop Smoke’s death.

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