By Carmel Ilustrisimo
If you’re a ’90s kid or a Disney fan in general, chances are you’ve come across this incredible story of a teenage girl who disguises herself as a man to join the army, protecting her crippled father and saving the whole of China in the process. You most likely know all the lyrics to the all the songs in the movie, and have fantasized about cutting your hair with a sword in one clean stroke.
Disney released Mulan 18 years ago in 1998, and now both Sony and Disney are making live-action films of the legend. While it’s implied that Sony’s version will be a grittier and more mature take on Mulan’s story, Disney is staying true to the animated musical version that made millions of little girls want to be warriors almost two decades ago. Not only that, there’s another live-action movie about Hua Mulan released in 2009 and produced in China, her country of origin.
We already know why this is gonna be a big deal, but here are some extra points for reinforcement:
Mulan is a cultural symbol
See those pink flowers that pop up now and then throughout the movie? Especially the beginning and the end? The ones that look like cherry blossoms? They aren’t. They’re magnolia. Translated into Chinese, mulan.
Mulan’s story comes from a ballad about a legendary female warrior who took her aged father’s place in the army and fought valiantly and skilfully for twelve years. She shocked everybody when she finally revealed that she was a woman. This ballad has existed since the Northern Wei dynasty, in the late 4th century AD. It’s one of China’s most beloved folk stories and national symbols.
Mulan has balls, even though she doesn’t
Mulan is also the only known Disney princess with a body count in the thousands. Take note that this takes place after she has broken societal rule after societal rule. The emperor says it best; she has stolen her father’s armor, run away from home, impersonated a soldier, deceived her commanding officer, dishonoured the Chinese army, destroyed the emperor’s palace, and saved them all.
The best part? She initially did this for only one person: her father. Mulan’s intentions were completely selfless. She loved her family, but she did not want to disgrace them, especially after that debacle with the matchmaker. She wanted to save her father’s life, but in her journey she ended up discovering her true self. It was far from easy and she very nearly died several times, but she had the whole country—and the emperor—bowing to her at the end.
Mulan is not like other…people
A story like Mulan’s could have easily taken the “not like other girls” route, but instead it chose to be feminist.
Mulan breaks gender roles without shaming those who naturally fit in them, like her mother and grandmother, who both are presented in a positive light. While Mulan struggles to fit her society’s definitions of a “perfect bride and daughter,” she does not look down on them. In the army, she starts in more or less the same footing as everyone else, struggling more than any of the men to keep up with the rigor of military training. At the end of “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” the whole army, all the men and one woman, jump and yell in unison, perfectly trained and fit for war thanks to Shang’s training.
But what sets Mulan apart is her determination, and her determination inspires awe from everyone around her. It’s not because she manlier or unlike other girls. It’s because she thrives the most under strenuous circumstances. She makes use of her intellect as well as her army-trained physical strength. She is the first one to reach the top of the pole. While the rest of the army is prepared to die, she runs ahead of them and uses Mushu to create an avalanche that kills most of the Hun army. After Shang almost executes her, she jumps back on her horse and catches up to him, even if she knows he no longer trusts her. She does it because she has to, and because no one else will. And the rest is Disney history.
Mulan was real
As previously mentioned, Mulan was a legend, but there really were amazing female warriors in Chinese history, some whom the ballad might have even been inspired by. One example would be Li Xiu. Born around the late third century, she was assigned to take her father’s place as a military leader after he died of an illness. The council had unanimously agreed that she had all the necessary qualifications to be a good army leader, since she was trained in horseback and archery at a young age. They were right; she was able to defeat the rebels threatening the safety of her father’s province. Her skill as a warrior earned her the title of “Lady who suppresses and pacifies the Enemy.”
Mulan defined representation
She is the second non-white Disney princess (though technically she’s not a princess) in the Disney Renaissance, after Jasmine, and the first among them to cross-dress. “Reflection” has become an anthem for all the girls, boys, and those identifying as both or neither, who feel that they don’t fit in no matter how hard they try, and that society is forcing them to hide their true selves.
Mulan made kids believe it’s alright to be clumsy, or tough, or gentle, or to be anything outside society’s gender expectations, or to be different, as long as they’re not hurting anybody. She also gave Asian kids all around the world a role model to look up to, and a story that’s easy for them to relate. It will be a disservice if a non-Chinese girl plays Mulan, and an even graver one if her actress is not Asian.
Photo from Disney Wikia