Loyal, brave, but untrue: Why Mulan (2020) is not ‘Empowering’

I was eight the first time it happened. Torn from a district with a large Asian student body and thrown into halls where I was one of few people of color in my class, I felt the eyes glued to me as I walked the halls of my new white, conservative elementary school in my discount size three sneakers that hung loosely off my small feet.

When their eyes narrowed at my native name, and my lunchbox full of my country’s traditional food was deemed disgusting at my lunch table, I felt something I had never felt before. I was ashamed of the Korean culture in which I had grown up.

These were the days where I realized that I had bigger shoes to fill than my cheap, worn-out sneakers. From a young age, I was forced to bear the burden of being an Asian-American within a white district, who would be singled out in any circumstance.

Although I became more accustomed to the snide remarks and cruel jokes, my mind slowly began to break from the weight of the shame. Though I could force myself to laugh at the “dog-eating,” “slant-eyed” jokes, they slowly wore down at the pride I previously had towards my birth country.

What made it even worse was that all top models, TV show characters and social media celebrities appeared to be white. When I was told in middle school that Asians were just “not as pretty,” I assumed it was true. If we were beautiful, we would be on TV, right?

My saving grace came with the rise of popularity in Korean dramas, music and overall Asian culture within the United States. With the K-Pop group BTS winning the BBMAs in 2017, the film “Crazy Rich Asians” in 2018 becoming a major hit with a fully Asian cast, and the Korean film “Parasite” receiving six Oscar nominations in 2019. The cultural wave brought more Asian representation to mainstream media.

However, as amazing as the media revolution was, this wave also swept the toxins of cultural commercialization into America. Many opportunists took the cultural wave, which festered on social media and in film culture, as a commercial platform, seizing Asian culture and profiting heavily off of it.

Many businesses produced movies and shows that were marketed to be representative, but were full of inaccurate portrayals that demeaned, parodied or diluted Asian culture. One of these inaccurate portrayals is found in Disney’s live-action remake of “Mulan,” released last month.

Bringing in nearly $60 million in the International Box Office, “Mulan” fared fairly well, considering its canceled international release due to the pandemic. Action-packed and featuring a strong female lead as well as an all-Asian cast, the film was one that many anticipated during quarantine, especially long-time Disney fans who had fallen in love with the original film.

However, shortly following its release, controversy surged on social media. In an attempt to still raise revenue after its canceled international and domestic release, Disney marked Mulan up to $30 on Disney+. The film faced backlash for omitting one of the animated feature’s most loved characters, Mushu the dragon, as well as for the lack of detail that had made the original “Mulan” such an adored film.

An under-criticized element of “Mulan” was within its so-called “inclusivity.” Unlike its predecessors, “Parasite” and “Crazy Rich Asians,” “Mulan” was directed by Niki Caro, a Caucasian director. Most known for her 2002 film Whale Rider, nothing in Caro’s personal or career history indicates that she would be a great fit to direct the movie for a traditional Chinese story.

Caro was not the only Caucasian staff member responsible for directing “Mulan.” Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Elizabeth Martin and Lauren Hynek, who wrote the script of the film, are all Caucasian. Among the ten producers of “Mulan,” only one was of Asian origin. The same pattern extends toward costume design (Bina Daigeler, white), cinematography (Mandy Walker, white), music (Harry Gregson-Williams, white) and most other departments involved in the film.

Though Caro told Vanity Fair that she believes in “cultural authenticity and specificity,” allegedly hiring experts to help preserve “authenticity,” these statements are problematic and disturbing.

The story of Hua Mulan is just one among thousands of Chinese folktales, originally told through song in the “Ballad of Mulan.” By assuming that a Caucasian director and staff with no indication of knowledge towards Chinese traditions could better depict Chinese culture than an Asian director, Caro’s statement dilutes the importance behind the rich history of China that contributes to its vast cultural breadth.

Why does accuracy matter? Since “Mulan” contained major Chinese cultural aspects such as chi, best translated as one’s “life-force,” and featured Chinese traditional makeup and fashion, it is extremely important that the film is not only accurate, but respectful to Chinese culture. This raises the question: how can a Caucasian director and team of Caucasian staff members decide what is or isn’t respectful towards Asian-Americans?

Though “Mulan” (2020) appears to attempt to empower Asians, it is one with a price tag intended to financially benefit the Caucasian production team more than the Asian actors in the long run. While the film may be worth a watch to many curious long-time Disney fans who enjoyed the original animated version, it stands in the shadows of the poor, disrespectful decisions made in not hiring Asian staff members.