What is the story of Mulan about? That may not seem like a difficult question to answer, but when it comes to the themes of the centuries old tale, there are actually some quite different perspectives on what Mulan is really saying, and the new live-action story from Disney is going to do its best to bring those potentially disparate, ideas together.
The plot of Mulan is simple, of course. It's about a young girl who disguises herself as a man in order to fight in the army in her father's place, but what motivates Mulan's decision is perhaps a little less obvious. During a trip to New Zealand to visit the set of the new film several months ago, Producer Jason Reed explained that the traditional Chinese audience, and the larger Asian community, actually saw Mulan to be about two very different things. Somehow the movie is both about commitment to duty and tradition, and about fighting those traditions in order to find one's own way. According to Reed...
Traditionally the story of Mulan is a story about a young girl finding a way to do her duty. It’s all about duty and it is about devotion to Confusion order. What we found in our research was for the [Asian] diaspora community they read it as a story about a young girl finding her way against her parents that despite the rules and despite the traditions that she found her own way forward. And so those are sort of two completely different ways of reading the story.
To some the story of Mulan is about a girl who doesn't easily fit into the space that women are expected to occupy going outside of that in order to find out who she really is and who she can be. At the same time, the reason that Mulan does pretend to be a man and become a soldier is so that the honor of her family will remain intact.
It's easy to see how these two concept would seem to conflict with each other. However, Jason Reed says that, in actually the two themes only appear to conflict, and the new movie has found a way to bring them together.
We thought that they only seemed to be in conflict. What we realized as we were looking through it is that while it’s a story of an individual finding their true self and finding their inner truth but ultimately she is doing that in service of the Confusion ideal. So she is finding a way to do her duty but she can’t do it the way that young girls were normally expected to so she finds her own way against the norms of society but still ultimately fulfills her destiny.
The live action Mulan will see a number of changes from Disney's animated version, many of them specifically attempts to help the movie appeal to the Chinese audience, which does not look upon the animated version fondly. It makes sense that the new film will be sure to include these traditional Chinese concepts. At the same time, the more western perspective will not be entirely ignored either.
So is Mulan a story about honoring one's culture or about fighting it? In the end, there are aspects of both here, and Mulan is going to try to honor both. It's a potentially difficult tightrope to walk. We'll find out how well the live-action remake succeeds when the new Mulan debuts March 27.