‘Mulan’ Has a Message: Serve China and Forget About the Uighurs
Disney’s live-action remake was filmed partly in Xinjiang amid mass human rights abuses.
All art is political. Strangely, Disney’s live-action Mulan is more obviously so than most.
Mulan makes the current nationalist mythology of a Han-dominated China the foundation of its story. That would be bad enough. But parts of it were also filmed at the location of current and ongoing mass human rights abuses, including cultural genocide, against ethnic minorities.
The credits of Mulan specifically thank the Publicity Department of the Chinese Communist Party’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region Committee, as well as the Public Security Bureau in the city of Turpan and other state entities there. The Public Security Bureau is one of the main forces administering the internment camps, enforcing the surveillance and interrogation of even nominally “free” Uighurs, forcing people into slave labor, demanding that Uighurs host Han guests employed by the government to spy on them, and sterilizing Uighur women. The Publicity Department—a term that used to be more honestly translated as the Propaganda Department—justifies these atrocities. Most of these policies were well in place—and some of them known in the West—by the time the film was shot, partly in Xinjiang, in 2018.
That should be the only thing that needs to be written. But there’s more.
Even before the film—which was not previously known to have been filmed in Xinjiang—arrived, it had blundered right into politics. Two of the film’s stars, Liu Yifei (Mulan) and Donnie Yen (Commander Tung), have voiced their support of the Hong Kong police against the city’s pro-democracy protests, thus sparking an online movement to boycott the film. Its arrival on Disney+ the weekend that Hong Kongers were supposed to have an election, now delayed as the city instead cracks down on dissidents and democrats, adds more symbolic weight.
But the rotten heart of Mulan as a film, rather than its production process, is the accidental regurgitation of China’s current nationalist myths as part of a messy, confused, and boring film. The title card fades into a location said to be the “Silk Road, Northwest China.” This is, of course, Xinjiang—here set up by the narrative frame as an inalienable part of China that Mulan must defend for her father, her family, and her emperor. That’s not the historical reality—or even the reality of the original poem the stories are based on, which depicts Mulan as the servant of a khan of the Northern Wei dynasty, not an all-powerful Chinese emperor.
A smattering of lines hint at something darker without imparting any complexity, as the villain Bori Khan makes passing reference to his conquered homeland. The implication, perhaps, is that his father was a leader of the now colonized “Northwest China” before the reigning emperor killed him. Bori Khan “unites the tribes” and is served by black-clad elite guards who are heavily coded as Middle Eastern assassins, bringing a splash of Islamophobia into the mix.
Neither the subtitles nor any of the other characters acknowledge this, for all that the dramatic difference in clothing and landscape mark “Northwest China” as other. It looks nothing like the lush rice paddies and colorful Hakka tulou of Mulan’s childhood. It isn’t stated in so many words, but the imagery is such that when she takes up the sword to fight, she does so to suppress revolt in recently conquered border possessions and defend her empire’s economic dominance of the Silk Road.
None of this feels intentional. The film was put together by a team of Western scriptwriters who seem to have done very little homework, resulting in a jumbled mess whose absorption of China’s nationalist myths is largely unconscious. Given the realities of filming in China, it’s likely that scripts also had to pass the censors’ approval, resulting in cuts that reinforced this. As a film, Mulan has no confidence in the multiple filmic languages and genres that it draws on. It isn’t that historical inaccuracy or deviation from established wuxia tropes is paramount so much as that this doesn’t feel like a knowing subversion or a stylistic choice motivated by a strong artistic vision; it just feels incompetent.
The filmmakers have said that they were aiming to create a fairy-tale China, drawing from different eras and regions. I worried that this would reinforce that imperialist narrative of a unified and culturally homogenous China. But they were not fluent enough in their use of culture and symbolism to create that. The seams of the patchwork are too obvious.
Instead we have a Mulan whose childhood and home village is exuberant, colorful, and Hakka, but who visits an imperial city that looks sterile and staid and from a completely different culture. When she paints on makeup and is swaddled in bright silk robes, it comes across not as a girl feeling inadequate to or alienated by the ideas of womanhood defined by her own culture, but as her having the ritualized femininity of the imperial court imposed upon her. When she loosens her hair to fight, it lacks any of the symbolism that long hair carried—for both sexes—to a Chinese audience and instead comes across as a desperate attempt to make the heroine look feminine to a Western audience.
Even from a conventional storytelling perspective, Mulan is a bewildering, choppy mess. It cuts from scene to scene with very little logic or thematic coherence, mechanically working through a list of supposed wrongs half-remembered from mainland Chinese disdain for the animated Mulan more than two decades ago.
Thus the supposedly American humor of the original cartoon is gone, and almost every line is intoned with abject seriousness. In keeping with other versions of the tale of Mulan, she now starts her story already proficient in martial arts, having been trained by her father like a son, which leaves her far less space for personal growth. Instead of a journey of self-discovery, Mulan is now consistently motivated by the all-consuming virtue of “devotion to family.”
Gone is all the intriguing queerness of the original Disney film, in which another transgression of gender norms—Mulan and her three male companions dressing as palace women to sneak into the emperor’s palace—saves China. Mulan isn’t someone grappling with her gender identity and the expectations of femininity, she is a woman temporarily pretending to be a man so that she can use her superpowers. The emperor’s quiet dignity in the original Disney Mulan is gone; now he must be a martial monarch, played by a dubbed and nearly unrecognizable Jet Li.
Of course, there’s plenty of room for different interpretations of the Mulan story, and there always has been. The tale of a woman who joins the army in her father’s place has taken on a huge variety of meanings. There is a version where Mulan’s grandfather is a powerful sage and she’s the incarnation of a sacred mountain who took pity on her parents being infertile. There is a version where Mulan fights bandits in the hills and another where she kills herself on the grave of her father, the only man she could be loyal to, after being forced to marry the emperor.
But the film isn’t interested in actually being in conversation with that vast tradition. Occasionally it borrows a name, such as Gong Li’s shapeshifting witch, who shares the name of another cross-dressing woman warrior in the Romance of the Tang and Sui.
But it draws no meaning from these borrowings. Instead it defaults to a series of clichés the screenwriters seem to think represent Chinese culture; po-faced duty, filial piety, magic fights. And yet it arrives at the most depressing and narrow version of the story possible: Service to the emperor will absolve you of all your deviant faults. Perhaps that was the lesson Disney chose to heed when they made their location decisions.