If you grew up in the ‘90s watching Disney animated movies, you’d probably have been anxiously awaiting the highly anticipated live adaptation of Disney’s Mulan.
After several release delays, Mulan finally hit movie screens in Singapore last weekend. And of course, I had to see it! Especially after watching (and rewatching) the 1998 animation on videotape countless times as a kid, belting out Reflection in my living room.
I knew going into the theatre that the live adaptation would not be exactly the same as the animation. First of all, Mulan’s beloved walking-talking dragon sidekick Mushu was notably missing, which was a pity as he played a major comic element in the animation.
Also, Shang was dropped as producers were uncomfortable having him as both Mulan’s commanding officer and love interest in the time of the #MeToo movement.
The remake, instead, centres around Mulan (played by Liu Yifei), a fearless and determined heroine who goes to fight in her father’s stead, while at the same time struggling to find her own place in the world.
It adopts a more serious and dramatic tone while paying homage to the original through many visual and aural cues, like when an instrumental rendition of Reflection plays in several iconic scenes, not to mention many callbacks and easter eggs that would delight the attentive fan.
Despite lacklustre reviews, and ignoring news of the politicisation of the movie, I came out of the theatre feeling just as, if not even more inspired, as I had been watching the original animated Mulan as a young child.
In 22 years, a lot has changed. Not just in the world, but in myself as a woman.
The movie’s themes of female empowerment, bravery and devotion to family all are extremely relatable to me and my peers as we navigate a changing, uncertain world.
I took away four important lessons watching Disney’s live-action Mulan. (The motifs may be overused, but in the spirit of the movie, please bear with me).
Mild spoilers ahead.
Mulan embraces loyalty with fierceness, a quality she learned from her father, Fa Zhou (played by Tzi Ma), an honourable former warrior bound by allegiance to the Emperor.
After receiving the order that one man from every family must serve in the Imperial Army against an invading horde, the elderly Zhou, who requires a leg brace to walk, could have chosen not to comply, but he takes the high road of patriotism, knowing it would likely lead to his death.
In a particularly poignant scene that left me choked up, Mulan’s mother tells her: “We must be strong. This time he will not return.”
But it is not just patriotism that is on display, Mulan and a fellow soldier Chen Honghui (played by Yoson An) take it upon themselves to look after their compatriots, who are not as highly skilled as they are. Loyalty is not leaving anyone behind.
I have seen this value in many ordinary Singaporeans I have spoken to over the past few months. These quiet heroes have taken the initiative to help those in need – from a Covid-19 survivor who started a neighbourhood buddy system to support the elderly to a young woman who suffers from a skin condition called Topical Steroid Withdrawal syndrome and shares her story to inspire others with the same condition.
The film is also a testament to Mulan’s bravery. As Mulan’s father tells her, “There is no courage without fear.”
Bravery is being afraid and doing it anyway. Nelson Mendela once said: “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.” Bravery is facing your fears and having the courage to overcome it.
Continuing to fight against the multitude of challenges we face in our lives, for ourselves and those around us is truly the feat of a modern-day warrior. Courage is seen in our frontline heroes, who not only risk the possibility of contracting Covid-19 while keeping us safe, but also suffer the loneliness of service as they stay away from loved ones even during their downtime to keep them safe.
Bravery is also speaking up to inspire change, whether it is standing up against injustice or fighting for a more inclusive society.
Sometimes, bravery also finds itself in the trembling heart – and hand – of one who simply chooses to be true to themselves. That brings me to my next point.
Other stories you might like
The movie takes a significant turn when Mulan reveals she is Hua Mulan, instead of Hua Jun, her alter ego as a male soldier. Embracing who she is and her identity as a woman enabled her to utilise her full strength, or Qi, as the movie describes it.
In Singapore, we are fortunate to live in a country and time where women are given equal opportunities as men. We may not yet enjoy the same pay as men but I’m glad that more people, including some of our MPs, are speaking up on the issue.
Unlike women in some parts of the world, we have the freedom of choice in pursuing our education and career paths, even in traditionally male-dominated fields like engineering, maritime and the Singapore Armed Forces. By embracing their strengths, many women have achieved great accomplishments. And they don’t even need to be leaders in their fields – working mothers already do so by wearing more than one hat!
We may not be the best at what we do but as long as we do our best, and stay true to ourselves, one day our efforts will be recognised, in a way we might least expect.
Devotion to family (孝)
One thing I enjoyed about the remake is the deeper exploration of the relationship between Mulan and her father. Though Zhou is firm, he is also kind and gentle. In an early scene, Zhou explains to young Mulan the harsh realities of what society expects women to be, while acknowledging her strength.
In Asian culture, parents often don’t express feelings of affection to their children. But when Zhou realised that Mulan had left home with his sword and armour, instead of being angry, the first thing he did was to go to the temple to pray that their ancestors protect her.
My late father was a man of few words. But his love and devotion to our family was evident in his actions – he worked hard to provide for my mum, sister and me. In everything he did, he always put family first. He never spent a cent on himself, but took us on holidays every year. He never missed a single performance or graduation ceremony. He gave me the freedom to pursue what I wanted and to be the woman I am today.
In my eulogy for him, I wrote: “Your strength will be my strength, and your faith my faith”.
Just like Mulan, I like to believe I too am taking his place, albeit in a different way. I am continuing his legacy, which is not just carrying the same surname, but espousing the values he upheld and imparted to me.
At the end of the film, Mulan did not immediately accept the Emperor’s invitation to be an officer in the Emperor’s Guard, as she wanted to return to her hometown to make amends to her family first. To her, success was not status, power or wealth, it was bringing honour to her family. And that is refreshing in a world where people are constantly competing to be the first in the rat race.
While Covid-19 has disrupted lives, the silver lining is that many of us have found ourselves reflecting on the relationships that matter most and appreciating family.
In crisis, Mulan reminds us that the human spirit is stronger. We are resilient because we are still here, waking up to each new day. We have people to fight for and we are in the fight together.
Mulan represents the women in all of us who are fighting to be the best daughters, the best sisters, the best mothers, and that in itself makes it a show worth watching, and a girl worth fighting for.