Review by Arthur Hu for Asian Focus (Seattle) June 28, 1998http://www.asianfocus.com
An Honor To Us All
The word is out on Mulan, Disney's latest, and it's very good. Even the grouchiest activists admit that at least the round-eyed barbarians didn't screw it up this time. Where I saw it, the teen girls were swooning when Shang took his shirt off, they gasped at the battlefield of death, they shrieked when the bad busted out, and were rolling in the aisles at the jokes. After all the fuss over the African themed Lion King, Native American Pocahontas, and racially incorrect casting in Miss Saigon, maybe they finally got it right.
Disney has finally accomplished what thousands of years of Chinese civilization couldn't do - turn an old Chinese legend into a worldwide hit when every previous attempt has failed. Disney is even re-releasing Miyazaki's Kikki's delivery service after signing a deal to market Japan's equivalent of Disney's animated features which are huge in Asia, but are still unknown except to Anime buffs this side of the pond. Every Chinese girl might know about Mulan by heart, but as a boy growing up with Spock, Luke Skywalker, and the Six Million Dollar man, Maxine Hong Kingston's "Woman Warrior" was the first I ever heard about it.
In the original poem, the girl Mulan takes her father's place in the Chinese army, becomes a hero, goes home to retire, and her buddies don't find out that he's a she until they visit her much later. In other versions, she marries the guy, as it's been done with more variations than the Hunchback of Notre Dame. One woman on the usenet complained that the real Mulan was a tough fighter, where Disney's is sort of a Barbie doll that uses her wits to keep up with the guys. She falls so that Shang has to carry her load but redeems herself by using her wits to get the arrow nobody could climb and get.
Speaking of dolls, the Mattel's matchmaker Mulan looks great. It sure beats the "Chinese Barbie" doll and ornament for those looking for the rare Asian doll. Most of the Disney dolls since Pocahontas have ended up in the clearance bin, but this one might just sell out. There's also a line about "each one a perfect porcelain doll", which is where "China doll" came from before it came to mean exotic Asian brides for Western men. Americans seem to love Asian women as brides, news anchors and skaters. Maybe now we can add Disney heroine.
Disney's Mulan is a misfit as a potential bride. Her figure is modest compared to the Cosmo girl builds of Pocahontas or Esmerelda. Mulan is clearly skewed towards the girls in merchandising. But like most Disney heroines, she's stuck with a bunch of guys as buddies from Snow White's seven dwarves to Ariel's Flounder and Sebastian. Every other McDonald's figurine is a guy, and when you put on her armour, Mulan is one too! Ling, Yao and Chen Po are 3 stooges as backup like Quasimodo's gargoyles or Timon and Pumba. But I doubt that they'll be promoted to their own saturday series, and I'll be amazed if American kids manage to memorize any names beyond Mushu, Mulan and Shang.
This one movie has more Asian American talent than Hollywood normally hires in 5 years. It doesn't go quite as far as the 1960's Roger and Hammersteins's "Flower Drum Song" where the entire cast, acting, singing, and dancing, was Asian, except for the mugger, who was white. But it's still the biggest Asian cast in a movie likely to make the year's top 15 if not top 10.
Ming Na Wen, Mulan's speaking voice first hit it big on the Joy Luck Club, and has had success on TV in ER and the Single Guy even in roles originally cast for dumb blondes. Filipina Lea Salonga was the original Miss Saigon, had a modest solo CD, and was the singing voice of Alladin's Jasmine. Disney cast Michelle Kwan as Mulan in the skating ABC-TV special (ha, beat that Tara!). For all that Asians gripe about casting Caucasian men as Asians, Disney also cast Kristi Yamaguchi as the Arabian Jasmine, and Kwan skated as Pocahontas as well.
Captain Shang is built like Hercules, with the prowess of Bruce Lee. In contrast to the usual complaint that the Asian guy doesn't get the girl, he eventually warms up to Mulan after the Emporer tells him "You don't meet a girl like that every dynasty". He sort of typifies the real man's values when when "Save China" is number 1 on his list, but "Get girl" is somewhere down the top 10. This must really drive the girls nuts about us guys. The cassette storybook ending leaves Mulan without her man at all.
Shang is played by B.D. Wong, from Madame Butterfly, Jurassic Park. Yeah, he's not quite built like that. He's a real change from the Asian guy loser stereotype, speaking of which, they also signed up Gedde Watanabe who helped fill in some of the clunkiest nerd roles in 80's hits like Sixteen Candles. Gedde lightens up the high pitched Ling this time. Shang's singing voice is the same Donnie Osmond some of us remember from his bad 70s hits days as the mormon version of the Jackson 5. If you can't remember "One Bad Apple", check out the Lost 45's on KJR-FM some weekend night.
The skating Shang wasn't Asian either, but if Asian parents produced some strong male skaters and singers instead of just doctors and violinists, maybe we'd have better luck next time. Shang's father is James Shigeta, the son in "Flower Drum Song". He's also been cast as a Japanese admiral and Japanese business executive. Pat Morita's role as the Asian American version of John Houseman or James Earl Jones is cemented as the emporer, not bad for a guy who first hit it big as the wiseguy cook on Happy Days.
James Hong is Chi Fu, sort of like Lost in Space's Dr. Smith who's supposed to be on our side, but makes you wonder. He's never been the star, but like John Lithgow, he's been everywhere including Big Trouble in Little China, Blade Runner, and Operation Dumbo Drop. Ma and Pa are Freda Foh Shen and Soon-Teck Oh. I looked them up on the internet and found out that they were part of the original 1976 Pacific Overtures, a Broadway play by Stephen Sondheim about westerners and the Shoguns. Instead of Amy Hill, June Foray does a fun Grandma, she was the original voice of Rocky the Squirrel (surprise!). Grandma is disappointed that Mulan returns with the emporer's medallion, but no man. Then she wants to sign up for the next war when the hunk arrives at Mulan's heels.
Miguel Ferrer's Shan-Yu is drawn with the sharp edges of a Jonny Quest villian. He comes off like the Alien monster who comes back for more just when we think he's buried. The cute stylized rag doll is straight out of an anime epic. The scene of a burned out village and body strewn battlefield was as nearly as striking as Luke's burned out ranch in Star Wars.
George Takei, plays the first ancestor in a scene that looks like it came straight out of Hercule's Mount Olympus. He was not only Sulu, but he's making the reruns now as the poor ARVN guy who gets it backing up John Wayne in the Green Berets. Is it PC to cast Eddie Murphy as the black comic relief guy? No matter, as Mushu the Dragon (yeah, the Chinese soft taco) Murphy is still a god and I've never seen him funnier. He outdoes the Robin William's Genie without dated cultural references or special effects
Some might be disappointed by the music. It breaks the string of Menken hits, with a soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith. But he's up there with Titanic's Horner and Star War's John Williams in big time symphonic scores like the Star Trek movie. It sounds like a return to those epic Asian movies from the 1950s. It sems that when the PC police got rid of stereotypical portrayals of Asians, Hollywood gave up on Asian themes. Oddly, the CD album runs through the songs first instead of following movie sequence. It also omits the short opening title, and the mesmerizing synthesizer sequence when Mulan "transforms".
My wife tells us that "Honor to Us All" borrows from a common Chinese folk tune. It might be a traditional Chinese version of the Flower Drum Song's "I Enjoy Being a Girl", which still pops up now and then as the one hit song FDS firmly implanted into pop culture. Liberated American girls might snicker at Mulan's tortures, while they dress up in wonderbras, spike heels, and big hair to land their men. "I'll Make a Man Out of You" might show up in future training or recruiting films as a cross between Rocky and Enter the Dragon. I think Taiwan still trains their soldiers this way. It hits home as a reprise as the guys go into drag to sneak by the guards. "A Girl Worth Fighting For" sounds a bit like South Pacific's "There is Nothing Like a Dame" another hit musical comedy about war between Asian powers. Still, the songs stick with stereotypical gender themes, and they still promote the idea that guys have all the fun fighting and killing.
Disney soundtracks have always managed to eek out if not score big with one or two hit songs, but I haven't heard anything from Mulan yet. Stevie Wonder's True to Your Heart seems tacked on the end as a party number. Reflection appears as a pop version, though I prefer Salonga's broadway style solo which is as stiring as Ariel's signature "Part of Your World".
The computer graphics effects are Disney's best. They look seamless with the awesome helicopter shot of the charging huns. The crowd figures no long look like they're "It's a Small World" robots. Check out the birds as the soldiers march across a signature Chinese landscape, I think they're CG too.
Ironically, it's still too American for my parents in law, who can't understand English dialogue, and think they know the Chinese story and that Disney movies are for American kids. But my parents loved it, as will anyone else who can appreciate a good Disney feature. Check it out.
P.S. 7/4/98: Asian Week, and some Chinese newspapers are reporting that some Chinese are miffed at costumes and cultural references that come from Japanese or Korean cultures. Mulanís dress looks like a Korean Handok, the white face is Japanese Geisha, the armour looks Japanese, etc. So their consultants goofed up, and itís a little more multicultural that it should have been?
For a lot more info, check out Angela Kuo's excellent Mulan FAQ on the web at
Here's the complete poem from
Ode of Mulan
Anonymous (c.5 A.D.)
Tsiek tsiek and again tsiek tsiek,
Mu-lan weaves, facing the door.
You don't hear the shuttle's sound,
You only hear Daughter's sighs.
They ask Daughter who's in her heart,
They ask Daughter who's on her mind.
"No one is on Daughter's heart,
No one is on Daughter's mind.
Last night I saw the draft posters,
The Khan is calling many troops,
The army list is in twelve scrolls,
On every scroll there's Father's name.
Father has no grown-up son,
Mu-lan has no elder brother.
I want to buy a saddle and horse,
And serve in the army in Father's place."
In the East Market she buys a spirited horse,
In the West Market she buys a saddle,
In the South Market she buys a bridle,
In the North Market she buys a long whip.
At dawn she takes leave of Father and Mother,
In the evening camps on the Yellow River's bank.
She doesn't hear the sound of Father and Mother calling,
She only hears the Yellow River's flowing water cry tsien tsien.
At dawn she takes leave of the Yellow River,
In the evening she arrives at Black Mountain.
She doesn't hear the sound of Father and Mother calling,
She only hears Mount Yen's nomad horses cry tsiu tsiu.
She goes ten thousand miles on the business of war,
She crosses passes and mountains like flying.
Northern gusts carry the rattle of army pots,
Chilly light shines on iron armor.
Generals die in a hundred battles,
Stout soldiers return after ten years.
On her return she sees the Son of Heaven,
The Son of Heaven sits in the Splendid Hall.
He gives out promotions in twelve ranks
And prizes of a hundred thousand and more.
The Khan asks her what she desires.
"Mu-lan has no use for a minister's post.
I wish to ride a swift mount
To take me back to my home."
When Father and Mother hear Daughter is coming
They go outside the wall to meet her, leaning on each other.
When Elder Sister hears Younger Sister is coming
She fixes her rouge, facing the door.
When Little Brother hears Elder Sister is coming
He whets the knife, quick quick, for pig and sheep.
"I open the door to my east chamber,
I sit on my couch in the west room,
I take off my wartime gown
And put on my old-time clothes."
Facing the window she fixes her cloudlike hair,
Hanging up a mirror she dabs on yellow flower powder
She goes out the door and sees her comrades.
Her comrades are all amazed and perplexed.
Traveling together for twelve years
They didn't know Mu-lan was a girl.
"The he-hare's feet go hop and skip,
The she-hare's eyes are muddled and fuddled.
Two hares running side by side close to the ground,
How can they tell if I am he or she?"
From:The Flowering Plum and the Palace Lady: Interpretations of Chinese Poetry
By Han H. Frankel, Yale University Press, 1976.