As is the case with all of Disney’s live-action remakes, the first trailer for next year’s Mulan brought both an outpouring of love and excitement, as well as cries of concern and outright anger over certain elements. For domestic audiences, the lack of Mushu in the trailer (and seemingly the film) was enough to freak out over. However, in China, where the story of Mulan emanates from, Mulan is getting some flack for perceived historical inaccuracies.
The legend of Mulan, originally described in The Ballad of Mulan from the 6th century, tells the story of a girl born in Northern China in the 5th century during the Northern Wei dynasty. This is important because it seems that according to some Chinese viewers, Mulan is apparently playing fast and loose with history, culture and geography.
The issues start at the beginning of the Mulan teaser trailer when we see two large, round, yellow homes. These communal buildings are called tulou, or Fujian Tulou, and they are unique to southeast China’s Fujian province, home of the Hakka ethnic group. According to CNN, the first tulou were built towards the end of the Song Dynasty (960 AD-1279 AD) and it seems they didn’t become widespread until starting in the 15th century. You can see them in the first look trailer, below.
Or take a look at the houses in question, below.
So given that the Mulan story takes place in northern China around the 5th century, a tulou would not only not be present, but it would not even exist yet. It’s like putting a skyscraper in a movie about the Renaissance. This discrepancy did not go unnoticed on the Chinese social media platform Weibo, with one user commenting (via Variety):
Disney shouldn’t be so careless and just think that because tulou are beautiful, they can make Mulan live in one. She’s not Fujianese!
While the distinction might not mean much to Western audiences, China is a big country, and to some, these cultural elements matter a great deal. This commenter basically surmised that Disney chose the tolou home simply for aesthetic reasons, ignoring the larger historical context.
A viral video criticizing the trailer drilled down on this belief, with the creator, a PhD student, saying:
This film is just trying to ingratiate itself to Western audiences. It’s like they thought, oh, this element is really Chinese, it’s very Oriental, so I’m going to shove it into the film to make everyone feel this is a very ‘Chinese’ film
It is quite the cynical take and basically casts Disney’s Mulan as an Americanized version of a Chinese film, and not a real Chinese film, kind of like what you’d eat at a Chinese restaurant in America versus the food you’d actually find in China. There is concern that Disney will do this throughout the film, cherrypicking elements that look good with little regard for how they culturally do or do not fit together.
Yet, while Disney undoubtedly wants this film to appeal to Western audiences, China is the 2nd biggest market for Hollywood films, and with an all-Asian cast, Disney is hoping for Mulan to do well in China too. Like most of Disney's blockbusters, it is designed to appeal to a global audience but especially in China, as evidenced by the casting of popular Chinese actors.
Despite all these criticisms of Mulan’s historical inaccuracy, there was also an outpouring of excitement for the film as well from those unbothered by those problems. Many praised Crystal Liu Yifei in the title role, and on Weibo, another commenter indicated Mulan may have solid box office prospects in the Middle Kingdom:
I watched this repeatedly for an hour. When the film comes out, I’m going to make the box office explode!
Signs are good that the box office will indeed explode for Mulan. On Weibo the hashtags “Hua Mulan” and “Mulan Trailer” have been viewed 1.5 billion times and 1.2 billion times, respectively. That’s a lot of interest.
Mulan opens in theaters on March 27, 2020. Check out our 2019 premiere guide to see what else you can look forward to this year.