Contradictheory: Is 'Mulan' culturally accurate? Does it matter? To whom?

Chinese actress Yifei Liu in action onscreen in 'Mulan'. Her support of Hong Kong police on social media prompted calls by protestors to boycott the movie. — Disney/AP

This has been a tough year for cinemagoers. As much as I enjoy being able to watch what I want, when I want, in the comfort of my living room, it’s also great to make an appointment and go with loved ones and friends to a cinema. Yes, I know, it’s strange to talk about bonding while keeping quiet and focused in a dark room, but there is something about that shared experience – perhaps because you can discuss it afterwards.

After watching the latest incarnation of Mulan, I asked an eight-year-old what she thought of it: “What did you think of Mulan? Which did you like better, the cartoon or the movie?”

Even before she replied, though, I knew her reaction would be different from the Internet’s. Not the critics in general, what with the movie getting a high 75% Rotten Tomato rating. But on social media, you will read how Mulan is a horrible movie that’s failed in everything that it tried to do.

In essence, the movie’s storyline is the same as the original ballad it’s based on: Mulan is a young woman who disguises herself as a man to join the army and fight evil nomadic hordes. That wasn’t an issue.

The actress who plays her, Liu Yifei, however, became a target for brickbats after she supported the Hong Kong police force on social media – cops over there have been accused by some of being heavy-handed against protesters in the territory’s ongoing street action. The movie ended up getting flack, too, with talk of boycotting it because of her position on the matter.

I would warrant there are more than a few people in China who also support their police, so to single out Liu misses the point of more than a billion people. But she is in the public eye, and sometimes, sticking publicly to your principles, whatever they are, wins you more enemies than friends.

When people finally saw the film upon its release, the criticism did not falter; instead, it pivoted to the fact that a film set in China and about the Chinese had no writers and directors working on it who were Chinese themselves. This caused an issue because themes in Chinese culture – like filial piety – were deemed to have been shallowly interpreted.

The movie received a muted reception from users of Douban, a China-based movie rating site. Mulan received a rating of 4.9 out of 10; in comparison, Tenet got a 7.8 rating, and the best movies of 2019 got ratings of over eight at the site.

But if you dig deeper into the comments there, it seems that more viewers seemed offended just by the overall poor quality of the movie rather than the fact it misrepresented their culture. (Most seemed to shrug their shoulders and say, what do you expect when Westerners make a movie about China?)

And although 55% of those who commented gave it a poor review, 22% gave it a positive one, which means there are a few people out there who enjoyed the movie. Enough to make Mulan the second highest-grossing foreign film in China in this extremely bizarre year. It has so far earned about US$36mil (RM149mil) there according to the Box Office Mojo website, while Tenet is highest with about US$60mil (RM249mil).

It’s almost like it’s not enough to say that it wasn’t a very well-made movie, you have to also say it was offensive to a group of people (even if you have to spend time looking for those who actually truly felt maligned).

Compare this with the reaction to Enola Holmes, another new movie, this one out on Netflix, also seen by the same eight-year-old. The latest incarnation of a Holmes-yet-not-Sherlock Holmes story is about the strong-willed younger sister of the famous detective, in a film generally enjoyed by people, despite its shortcomings. In many ways like Mulan, except... nobody has complained about the historical inaccuracies in the 19th century-set film.

Given that a popular film like this tends to play fast and loose with history, it might be surprising to see no uproar from English people offended by factual inaccuracies or even praise about what the film got right. The closest I’ve found online has been an analysis of how closely the newspaper props in the film resemble the real-life items.

Why is it that historical accuracy of ancient China seems to be more important than 19th century Britain? I’m not entirely sure. But I do recall people saying that China’s diaspora seem more eager to maintain cultural traditions than those who live in China. When change is a part of you, you’re less able to perceive it, perhaps.

Perhaps more surprisingly, the central thematic spine in both films, feminism, is given scant regard. Both stories convey how tough it was in those times for women trying to operate independently in a man’s world. In both films, the female protagonists disguise themselves as male to fit in at first, before eventually representing their true selves doing what they need to do to get things done.

It may simply be that this is not such a radical idea any more. That we have accepted that women can be doctors, or scientists, or soldiers, or spunky consulting detectives. Or maybe we understand that in theory, even if in practice there is still work to be done.

So when I asked the eight-year-old girl what she liked about both movies, she pretty much said, the bits when they’re being heroes. When Mulan threw caution to the wind and rode in to save the day, or when Enola drew on her mother’s lessons to beat the enemy.

And, yes, the little one liked both movies.

Which I suppose is a point, regardless of what mistakes either film may have made about history. Arguably, films are made for entertainment, and if we get anything more out of it, it’s a bonus. Of course, as we get more mature, it is good that we take a wider view of things around us and understand there is always a context to everything.

But sometimes, it may be worthwhile to appreciate what you see at face value rather than to dig deep to find faults. Films, like people, come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and nobody, and no film, is perfect. For me, if the balance tilts the right way, then that might just be good enough.

In his fortnightly column, Contradictheory, mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi explores the theory that logic is the antithesis of emotion but people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Write to Dzof at The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.

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Dzof Azmi , Chinese culture , history


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