4:30 pm EST, February 17, 2017

What Disney can learn from the 2009 Chinese live-action ‘Mulan’

Here's what 'Hua Mulan' got right

Disney seems to have a long-term plan to churn out live-action versions of its most popular animations, and Mulan is the latest of its projects. The live-action version of the Chinese legend is already getting us excited, but many people don’t know that an excellent live-action Mulan movie already exists, made by a Chinese studio.

Hua Mulan (sometimes translated as Mulan: Rise of a Warrior) is a 2009 film by director Jingle Ma. It tells the story of Hua Mulan, a young woman who goes to war instead of her aging father, and rises in the army’s ranks. It won many awards in China, and stars Wei Zhao as Mulan.

Disney’s Mulan wasn’t favorably received in China when it was released, with audiences saying it was too different from the original legend, and too Westernized. Now would be a good time for the studio to make the film as globally appealing as it can be — and Hua Mulan is a perfect example of how to do our favorite female warrior justice.

Here are some things Hua Mulan got right that Disney would do well to learn from.

hua mulan decision

Bringing more realism to the legend

Hua Mulan follows a plot that is more loyal to the original legend of Mulan, which states that she was a warrior for the Chinese army for over a decade. In the film, she even becomes a General, and retires with the nation’s respect, even after her identity as a woman is revealed.

Seeing Mulan lead thousands of men in Hua Mulan is a rare and empowering experience. Her struggles as a woman in a position of power, and the various dilemmas that come with commanding such a large number of people, are what bring intensity and meaning to the story. Mulan itself explored the concept of honor and femininity as well, but we only got a very small glimpse at the power that the legendary Mulan is said to have actually wielded.

While Disney may not want to make a movie that ventures too far from a family friendly atmosphere by portraying a Mulan who goes to war too realistically (as in, showing her killing enemies), it would be great to see her rise in the ranks and revolutionize such a male-dominated space the way she is said to have done.

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hua mulan warrior

Not shying away from the grit — but not making it too grim, either

Hua Mulan does an excellent job of skirting the line between grim tragedy and friendly comedy. With thousands of extras, the battle scenes are as breathtaking and inspiring as they are horrifying. There’s a scene where Mulan counts the dog tags of all the fallen soldiers, and a considerable amount of time is spent exploring her despair and responsibility as the army’s struggle becomes more desperate. The emotional rawness of the story creates a very real, very flawed, yet very lovable Mulan — and takes audiences on an exploration of heroism, perseverance, and honor.

Of course, we can’t expect Disney to go all out with blood and grit — they’re bound to bring out Mushu, after all — but Disney prides itself on epic battles and fantastic special effects, and they’ll want to serve us war scenes as breathtaking and realistic as possible.

However, we’re all tired of grittiness for grittiness’ sake. Despite the heaviness of the more emotional scenes of Hua Mulan, there is sweetness and humor. The friendships in the army, much like those of Disney’s version, can be laugh-out-loud funny, and the scenes of Mulan’s struggle to preserve her male appearance are equally fun to watch.

Related: Disney’s live action Mulan lands female director

After all, audiences won’t be going to see Mulan to see war and sadness — the animated version was fun and adventurous, and although it had somber moments, it still managed to keep things just lighthearted enough for us to not get too sad. With animation, that lightheartedness is an easier task; portraying war with real actors could prove a more difficult challenge.

Establishing more depth in the main relationship

In Hua Mulan, Mulan and Wentai’s relationship is beautiful, but it builds over a long period of time, and strengthens through their mutual respect as they both struggle to lead an army. Their love is based on that combination of trust built over time, and shared responsibility.

Shang and Mulan have what is possibly one of the best relationships Disney has ever come up with. Among the Disney ‘princesses,’ Mulan and Shang probably have the greatest chemistry and story of all, and scenes from the animated film continue to be shipping fuel. Presumably, they’ll want to replicate this relationship in the new live-action version.

However, the animated film was sadly limited to only a few glimpses of the developing relationship. It would be amazing if we could see more of the friendship between Shang and Mulan (as Ping) and how it becomes something more. It’s rare in a ‘princess’ movie to see romance begin with sincere friendship, and it’ll be interesting to see how they deal with the confusion regarding Mulan’s gender in both a funny and profound way.

Giving it a more realistic conclusion

There are some scenes that could do with a makeover, especially at the very end. Mulan’s final trick to kill Shan Yu — by dressing three soldiers in drag and having them attempt to distract him — is hilarious in the animation, but would come off as strange and unrealistic in a live-action movie, and perhaps even a little offensive.

Hua Mulan’s approach to defeating the enemy is a much more powerful one. Although it equals Mulan in stealth and cleverness, it involves realistic strategy and power dynamics, and finally involves her making a deal that saves China through negotiation, rather than war — and making a terribly painful personal sacrifice.

Disney has a penchant for epic final battle scenes, but that isn’t what happens in either Mulan or Hua Mulan. In both cases, it’s Mulan’s cleverness that saves the day. It would be great to see that cleverness translated into a realistic solution, in the same way it does in Hua Mulan.

It’s not like Disney hasn’t subverted its own canon, after all. In Maleficient, it isn’t the prince’s kiss that lifts the spell. Disney could certainly benefit from giving Mulan a more epic finale, and perhaps one that does her legendary character justice.

Immersing us in historically-accurate China

Besides perhaps The Jungle Book, we’ve yet to see a live-action adaptation that takes place in a non-European culture. In fact, this would be the first film to employ solely actors of color. What Disney decides to do here will be particularly interesting; since Aladdin will be getting its own adaptation soon, and Pocahontas could also follow in the live-action trend, the decisions taken here will likely set a precedent for what will be done with those films.

There were rumors earlier of Mulan having a white love interest, which now seem to be crushed, thankfully. We want to see a film with an entirely Asian cast — hopefully at least mostly Chinese — and get a chance to explore the scenery, sets and props of ancient China.

Although, it’s only fair to say that Hua Mulan also has its own white character — a Russian singer called Vitas, who inexplicably pops up now and again. That’s another tip for Disney: don’t just insert white guys into the story for no reason.

Hua Mulan’s shots of rural China are beautiful and unique, and it would be amazing to see what Disney can do if they choose to show much of what they did in animation, with real sets and locations. Hopefully, Disney gets a chance to actually film in China itself.

All this doesn’t go to say that we want a copy of Hua Mulan. Not at all. Hua Mulan is an excellent film in its own right, but it’s considerably more adult than Disney would ever dare make an adaptation. The realism of its wars and of the toll duty takes on Mulan and her companions is nothing like the fun, if occasionally emotional, adventure Disney took us on with Mulan.

Disney’s version is a movie to be excited about, and the additions the animated film made to the legend are what makes it a classic. It would be amazing to see Mushu, Shang, the ancestors, and maybe even the cricket, on screen, as well as the songs, of course! “Make a Man Out of You” with real actors will definitely be one of the biggest highlights.

So far, we know that Mulan’s director will be Niki Caro. Although she isn’t Chinese, a matter that raises a lot of questions about representation, it’s still encouraging to see a female director chosen — and if Caro’s powerful film Whale Rider is any indication, she’s rather good at telling empowering stories with female leads. Hopefully, the rest of the team can be filled with talented Chinese filmmakers that deserve to have a hand in rendering such a culturally significant story properly.

After all, Mulan is primarily a Chinese legend, and her story spans a history much longer than the 18 years since Disney’s animation came out.

In the meantime, go check out Hua Mulan, which is a fascinating film (although a considerably more adult one; you’ve been warned)!

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