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It would be impossible to adapt the ancient folk tale of Hua Mulan without a requisite amount of girl power. But Disney’s stunning live-action retelling of a woman who disguises herself as a man to fight for king and country avoids making the story a modern feminist allegory.
Unlike in the 1998 animated version, Mulan joins the army not only to spare her father but because she has certain extraordinary gifts. More balletic than brute, they’re unique to her. And at no point does the film denigrate Mulan’s more traditionally feminine sister.
As expected in such a culturally specific story, references to Eastern beliefs abound: village shrines and prayers to ancestral spirits. But these are more window dressing than worldview. The film refreshes the tired theme of self-empowerment with something surprisingly welcome: the power of telling the truth.
Here, Mulan discovers she’ll never unleash her chi—an inner energy that sounds suspiciously similar to Star Wars’ “the Force”—until she’s honest about who she is. By honest, we’re not talking about postmodern, I-define-my-own-identity, “This Is Me” self-worship, but something truly countercultural.
She realizes if she wants to lead, she must confess to her commander and comrades that she is a female. Her journey then contrasts with that of another woman with unusual abilities who rationalizes deceit and disloyalty because men have victimized her. Mulan stands as a striking rebuke to justifying wrongdoing by crying victimization. Though her parents have hurt her, she insists on showing them respect. That’s to say nothing of the eye-popping packaging this traditional tale comes wrapped in.
While all of Disney’s recent remakes have been visual treats, none so far rival Mulan. The stunning natural vistas and jaw-dropping PG-13 action sequences make this a film every member of the family is likely to enjoy.
But as The Washington Post has pointed out, those gorgeous panoramic shots of the glittering Imperial City cast a dark shadow. To gain access to the Xinjiang province for filming, Mulan’s production team worked with government entities instrumental in China’s campaign to sterilize Uighur Muslims and put them in concentration camps. Per standard procedure, the film expresses gratitude to these groups during the closing credits.
Disney “worked with regions where genocide is occurring, and thanked government departments that are helping to carry it out,” the Post reported.
In recent months, the studio has edited some decades-old films and declined to add others to its streaming service because of their embarrassing inclusion of ethnic stereotypes. Years from now, will Mulan—which goes far beyond insensitivity by partnering with organizations participating in genocide—suffer a similar fate?