2020 has become the Year of Mulan and in a bad way. Not only was Disney's live-action remake of the 1998 animated movie widely panned and a bomb in China, but there were also three more Mulan live-action movies and a new animated movie, all of them bad.
Disney's Mulan cost $200 million and had been hyped since 2019. There were hints in the trailers that it was going to be bad, namely the clunky, on-the-nose lines about duty and honour. When the movie finally opened, it turned out to be so much worse. Audiences in China panned it, seeing through its Orientalist exoticism and inauthentic pseudo-Chinese talk about "chi" and "honour and loyalty." That none of its four screenwriters was Chinese was the first and biggest problem the movie never overcame. Its lack of authenticity proved its undoing – the movie bombed, racking up only $41 million at the Chinese box office so far. Chinese audiences called it the movie equivalent of General Tso's Chicken – a dish invented in America that purports to be Chinese.
Yet this was not the only Mulan movie released in 2020. There were actually four more made and released only in China. And they were all bad.
Matchless Mulan, directed by Chen Cheng and starring Hu Xia Er, follows the basic Mulan story where she takes up arms to fight against Rouran invaders. It's the same thing all over again, grittier than Disney's and increasingly gloomy as Mulan loses her friends, makes a last stand, and dies in battle at the end. This feels like a cash-in and mawkish piece of nationalist propaganda calling for citizens to sacrifice themselves for the nation.
Matchless Mulan can be streamed on iqiy.
Mulan Legend, directed by He Jia Nan, is a caper movie, like a side story in the Mulan saga. It's a B movie where Mulan puts together a squad of thieves, soldiers, and a prisoner to rescue a princess being held captive by a Rouran warlord. There are a few moments of humour, especially in the thieves' town run by the husband and wife who joins the mission, but the movie is mostly a slog. The plot is a take-off of The Dirty Dozen, where Mulan's squad is killed off one-by-one until she and the prisoner face off against the Rouran warlord in the final, tedious, slow motion-laden sword fight.
Mulan Legend can be streamed on iqiyi.
Mulan the Heroine, directed by Yi Lin and starring Liu Yongxi, is the third live-action Mulan movie to be released on the Chinese streaming services. Mulan and her soldiers spend most of the movie as prisoners of the Rouran warlord with dreams of conquering Wei (again). This movie rips off some of the plot of the 2009 Mulan: Rise of a Warrior, where she forms an alliance with the more virtuous Rouran princess to bring the warlord down. The most interesting thing about this movie is the surprise (but still coy) lesbian romance subtext between Mulan and the princess. Otherwise, like the other two homegrown movies, it fails to justify its existence.
Mulan the Heroine, can only be seen on Youku without English subtitles.
Last, and probably least, is the new animated movie Kung Fu Mulan, whose makers at Gold Valley Film boasted that it would be more authentic than Disney's remake and that audiences would appreciate its appeal. This turned out to be famous last words, as the movie opened during Golden Week and bombed so badly that it was yanked from theatres three days after opening.
What all these movies share are a nationalistic propaganda message, often heavily hammered home, reams of slow-motion sword fights that get increasingly tedious, not to mention the now-clichéd moment where someone bends over backward in slow-mo to dodge a sword, and lots of heroic sacrifice where Mulan watches her comrades die. At least the Disney version solves the "Why now?" and "Why should we care?" questions better than the others. The Northern Hun invaders, the Rouran, have become the go-to bad guys standing in for foreign invaders threatening China instead of the Japanese or America being the go-to bad guys. The filmmakers seemed not to trust the simplicity of the original ballad. They opted to over-complicate the story, making for bloated, overloaded stories that fail to make any real point. This is more about fixing what's not broken and ending up with a mess.
That said, this doesn't mean this story is going away. There's always a Mulan story being made, including at least one new TV series every year, and another one is coming next year. It just goes to show you can't keep Mulan down.