Loyal (Gay) Brave True: Mulan marks return of queer feminist icon
When news first broke of a live action Mulan adaptation, I had low expectations because of the garbage remakes Disney has been churning out lately (see my Cinderella review). But then that trailer dropped and gave us slow-mo back flips on horses and an orchestral version of “Reflection.” I was in. I forked over the $6.99 for a Disney+ subscription, plus the goddamn Premier Access fee of $29.99. I would’ve preferred to watch it in a theater, but we were able to hook up my laptop to the TV.
First off, THANK GOD it wasn’t a musical. It wouldn’t have made sense for this kind of film, and frankly, Disney’s live action musicals have sucked. I highly recommend the YouTube channel Sideways for more on why they don’t work.
What we get instead is a martial arts epic cementing Mulan into the canon of female action heroes and queer icons.
Mulan (Yifei Liu) is a wily, adventurous gal in imperial China who is taught from a young age to hide her martial arts gifts in order to bring honor (and a man) to the family. But after a disastrous meeting with a matchmaker, there is an announcement in her village that the emperor needs men to fight in battle against an army led by Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and a mysterious witch, Xianniang (Li Gong). Her father is too weak to fight, so Mulan secretly disguises herself as a man and goes to fight in his place.
Liu KILLS IT in this role. Apparently she did 90 percent of her own stunts, and it shows. This movie has everything: Archery, parkour, horseback riding and sword fighting. She also captures the vulnerability of a young woman caught between who she’s trying to be and who she is. Although I don’t understand why Mulan has long, flowing barrel curls during battle scenes. Couldn’t someone give this b-tch a banana clip?
Instead of Lee Shang, Mulan’s love interest is another soldier, woke bae Honghui (Yoson An). Fun fact: Lee Shang was my sister’s first crush, and she was gutted that he wouldn’t be in the remake. However I can understand why the film eschewed a romance with Mulan’s superior in the cartoon for someone fighting alongside her. It makes more sense for a 2020 adaptation. Plus I really enjoyed the sexual tension (and queer subtext) between Mulan and Honghui. There’s also an emphasis on the importance of male allyship in order for women to be treated as equals.
I appreciate the inclusion of a female villain. Gong looks badass in all her fight sequences, all while dressed for the Met Gala in costumes similar to Queen Ravenna in Snow White and the Huntsman. There’s the whole Star Wars “WE’RE NOT SO DIFFERENT ARE WE” conflict between her and Mulan. We also get the classic hero’s journey of Mulan learning to use (*cough the force) her chi.
Some of the editing doesn’t work for me. There are some transitions that don’t make total sense to the narrative. Despite some epic battle scenes, Mulan doesn’t quite hit the emotional beats as well as its predecessor. It could be that there are too many subplots. What works so well in the original is the simplicity of the story.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the queer subtext in Mulan. Like other films before it, the classic trope of disguising oneself as the opposite sex can be interpreted as not only a challenge to gender roles, but to gender as a social construct. It’s worth noting that Mike Pence wrote an op-ed in 1999 arguing that the animated film was “liberal propaganda.” Mulan was released in 1998, five years after Clinton signed the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell law, and 21 years before the trans military ban. I joked on Twitter that the refrain throughout the movie “loyal, brave, true” just needs “gay” to spell out LGBT. Hell, even the song “Reflection” is written like a gay anthem. This can’t be a coincidence. I see it as a subtle “f-ck you” to Disney, a corporation that has historically fought against any queer representation in its films.
It sucks that Liu supports the Hong Kong police. An old post she’d made on the Chinese social media app Weibo has resurfaced, leading to #BoycottMulan to trend again. I’d really hate for her sh-tty political views to affect the performance of such an important Chinese-American film. To see a big studio movie like this open a year after the trans military ban and almost 30 years after Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is to me, poetic justice.
Header image credit: Disney+