Who is that girl I see?

10 July 2018

Watching Mulan is like finding Pringles in your pantry and then realising they are the budget kind. Underwhelming, but hey, I’ll take budget Pringles over no Pringles any day! Bad analogies aside, it’s a film that most would view as a revolutionary portrayal of Asian women, and for the most part, it is. There’s plenty to love about soliloquies that are sung whilst staring into one’s reflection in a pond, and lizards named after a Chinese pork dish. Though the film is far from being an anthem for us yellow women, it is, at the very least, an animated trailblazer of its time.

Mulan was the film that broke the long tradition of portraying us as a tragic fetish. Besides the dragon lady trope, Mulan is the first mainstream characterisation of a Chinese woman that hasn’t been a pathetic damsel. We have watched film after film where girls with features like ours cry more than they speak, whose plotlines always seem to involve falling in love with white soldiers and killing themselves after being abandoned. Girls whose characters exist not to advance the plot but to serve as racially exotic porn fantasies: silent, submissive, and most importantly, fuckable. Importantly, Mulan can hardly be called submissive or helpless as she battles a Hun and somehow wins by using a decorative paper fan. Mulan is undoubtedly a refreshing departure from the portrayal of Asian women as weak creatures who easily crumble like the butterfly shells and silk gowns men see when they offer to buy them a drink. Whilst Mulan isn’t necessarily the film which marks an end to this fetishisation, it is definitely a remarkable detour.

The filmmakers’ attempt at accurately depicting Chinese culture was a mixed bag. Mulan is commendable in many aspects, but the cultural elements the film do feel very Americanised. We get an huge visual dump of Chinese lanterns and traditional lion dance and pagodas and the iconic Great Wall, all of which might as well have been ripped from a tacky travel brochure. Comically, all of the breakfast orders sound like they’ve been read off the menu of an Americanised Chinese restaurant, I mean, “sweet and pungent shrimp”? Come on. There’s a huge difference between authentic Chinese food, and bastardized Chinese food. Undoubtedly, the directors were trying to appeal to a Caucasian audience by making everything seem as exotically Chinese as possible. However, this had the unfortunate side effect of making the film feel like the playing out of Western fantasies of the Far East. Even the storyline has a Westernised feel to it: Mulan is about an individual discovering themselves, whereas Chinese teachings are rooted in community. Yet, for all its cultural flimsiness, I take my hat off to the ending of the film, which carefully reflects the extent to which Chinese culture treasures family. The visual landscape, also, was fantastic, so mad props to the directors who actually went to China and did their research.

The value of the main character being given an actual Chinese name is immeasurable in its worth. The name Mulan isn’t overwhelmingly significant to the plot, but it is significant to us who have always hated our surnames. Most of this self-hatred is slow and unrecognised, the inevitable result of years of watching films where the names are always white ones. In some ways it’s a warped Shakespearean moment: what’s in a name?, particularly when you realise that girls who look like you always seem to have names that are less “Chang” and more “Dunne”, as if our names are deemed less mellifluous because they aren’t Western ones. Some of our childhood memories include cringing over full name introductions, hearing the syllables of your surname which jarred in your ears like wrong chords. Our tongues have often stumbled over the hot shame of hearing a boy in our class make a joke about our names sounding like a fork dropped down the stairs, in the name of harmless playground fun. The value of a proper Chinese name being used is, fittingly, immeasurable in its worth.

Mulan is an excellent film which does a really good job of preserving some culturally accurate elements, whilst not doing so great a job at others. One last thing though, why is nobody talking about the fact that Mulan’s rice porridge had bacon and two fried eggs in it?!

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