Professor Zhuoyi Wang | What Can the Compromised Progress of the Mulan Remake Tell Us About Cross-cultural Filmmaking?
About this episode
In 1998, Disney released Mulan, an animated take on a Chinese legend. The film tells the story of Mulan, a girl who impersonates a man to join the army. She shows bravery as she fights to save her kingdom. At the time, this was a breakthrough for Disney due to its positive portrayal of Chinese characters and strong women. Nevertheless, the film included many gender stereotypes and instances of cultural appropriation. In 2020, a live action remake of Mulan was released. Directed by feminist filmmaker Niki Caro, it aimed to be gender progressive and culturally appropriate. However, critics argued that it misrepresented Chinese culture, and perpetuated ethnic stereotypes. Given that the film tried to avoid these pitfalls, how did this happen? Read More
A recent paper by Professor Zhuoyi Wang argues that this is not a simple case of artistic inability or cultural insensitivity. The goals of cultural appropriateness, progressive feminism and financial success are often at odds, creating a challenging environment for producing successful films.
Professor Wang discusses three central problems facing the film.
The first he calls the ‘Disney problem’. The production of a Disney film is an industrial process with no central creator. The process resembles an assembly line in which a multitude of teams work on parts of the project to create a coherent body of work. Disney films have become a ‘genre’ in themselves, conforming to consistent aesthetics and ethics. Live action remakes often struggle to reconcile the Disney genre with directors’ creative touches.
The second issue is the ‘gender problem’. The director of the Mulan remake made several feminist interventions. For example, Mushu, a ‘mansplaining’ dragon that appoints himself as Mulan’s guardian, was replaced by a female phoenix, who appears only when Mulan needs her. However, the end result is a film that unsatisfyingly lands somewhere between radical feminism and standard Hollywood tropes.
Finally, Professor Wangs discusses the ‘cultural problem’. The original Mulan failed in China because Mulan was too Western. Many saw the film as Orientalist, portraying China as beautiful but backward. While the remake is more culturally sensitive, it lands in a compromised middle ground. For example, Mulan uses the power of ‘qi’, a concept in tai chi; but tai chi would not emerge until after the period in which Mulan is set.
The Chinese audience may also misunderstand their own complex history, criticizing the remake for elements that actually reflect historical accuracy. Examples include Mulan’s makeup and the architecture of her home, which were plausible during Mulan’s time but may seem out of place to the Chinese audience today.
Professor Wang argues that the 2020 Mulan made important progress, addressing some problems in the Disney original. However, this progress is still compromised. Exploring what went wrong in the Mulan remake helps us understand the challenges that must be overcome to bring about necessary changes in cross-cultural filmmaking.
Original Article Reference
Summary of the paper ‘From Mulan (1998) to Mulan (2020): Disney Conventions, Cross-Cultural Feminist Intervention, and a Compromised Progress’, in a special issue of Arts. This can be found here: https://doi.org/10.3390/arts11010005
For further information, you can connect with Professor Zhuoyi Wang at firstname.lastname@example.org
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