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All About the Chinese Films Featured at Busan Film Festival (Part III)

Gabi Verberg

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From Chinese dissident filmmakers to government-funded films, you can find it all at Busan, Asia’s biggest film festival. What’s on Weibo provides an overview of all the Chinese nominees at the festival. This week, the final 7 in our Part III (See Part I here, part II here).

On the 4th of October, the 23th Busan International Film Festival in South Korea finally kicked off. With the screening of 323 films from 79 countries, and 140 world and international premieres, it is one of Asia’s biggest and most exciting international film festivals, with China as one of the main suppliers of films.

This week, we will introduce to you to the final batch of the Chinese nominees, including mostly arthouse films in the category Wide Angle (many of them being short films), but also the big comeback of one of China’s greatest directors, Zhang Yimou.

 

1. My China (Wǒ de Jìngtóu 我的镜头)

China Mainland/Hong Kong
Genre: Documentary (90 min)
Selected in the category: Wide Angle
Director: Wang Xiaoshuai (王小帅)
Premiere: 6th October 2018, Busan International Film Festival

About the Director:

Wang Xiaoshuai (王小帅) is a renowned Chinese director who was born in Shanghai in 1966. He directed his first film The Days (冬春的日子) in 1993, after which it immediately entered film festivals in Canada, Berlin, The Netherlands, Italy, London and many more. Since then, Wang has made around one film every two years.

Scene from ‘The Days’ (冬春的日).

Wang especially gained international recognition since the 2001 film Beijing Bicycle (十七岁的单车), which became the winner of the Silver Bear Jury Grand Prix at the Berlin Film Festival and wowed critics with its story of a youth’s search for his stolen bicycle, particularly with its shades of Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 Bicycle Thieves. In 2005, Wang’s film Shanghai Dreams (青红) won the Jury Prize at Cannes Film Festival. Other famous works of Wang include Chongqing Blues (日照重庆) and Red Amnesia (闯入者) which were both nominated for best film at the Venice Film Festival.

Storyline:

My China, also known as Chinese Portrait, is a documentary portraying Chinese people and the places they live in during a period of upheaval. While traveling all over China, the documentary captures people from all walks of life, including miners, fishermen, farmers, students, or construction workers, with Wang Xiaoshuai himself being the main character and guide throughout the film.

See the trailer with Chinese subtitles here.

Why you should watch it:

Although Wang is one of the most famous Chinese directors outside the PRC, his works are often not welcomed within China. With his often-critical lens, he tries to lay bare contemporary China and her societal problems, leading to many of his works being banned in China.

Chinese Portrait might be Wang’s most personal work yet, as he questions his own identity in it by following the path of his family members; he tries to get to know his own country and get an understanding of how the country influenced him as a person. The film is a very intimate portrait of the director and an honest and a beautiful visualization of China’s tumultuous modern history.

 

2. On The Border (Yánbiān Shàonián 延边少年)

China Mainland
Genre: Drama/Short Film
Selected in the category: Wide Angle
Director: Wei Shujun (魏书钧)
Weibo Hashtag: #延边少年# (164.000+ views)
Premiere: 18th May 2018, Cannes International Film Festival

Starring: Li Zhengming, Cui Yuan, Fei Peng, Gang Yanming, Yang Gao and Zhao Lihua.

About the Director:

Wei Shujun (魏书钧) was born in 1991 in Beijing. At the age of 14, he first entered the film industry as an actor. In the years that followed, he worked in various junior positions, such as runner, assistant director, and sound recorder, before he directed his first documentary Said in the Forbidden City (说在紫禁城). In 2016, Wei had an international breakthrough with his first feature film Duck Neck (浮世千) which got him a nomination at the Busan Film Festival as the youngest nominated director that year.

Storyline:

This 15-minute film revolves around Hua Mingxing, a boy from a Korean ethnic group who lives in a Korean-Chinese border village. His father left him a long time ago to earn money in the city. As the boy is passing his time in the village that is mostly populated by elderly people, he decides to go and find his father in the city to ask him to finance his travel plans to Korea. But instead of finding his dad, Hua ends up roaming the streets of Yanbian, striking up a friendship with a young woman.

See here the trailer with English subtitles.

Why you should watch it:

On the Border was awarded with a Special Jury Distinction-Short Film at the Cannes Film Festival of 2018.

 

3. Void (Mèn 闷)

China Mainland
Genre: Drama/Short film
Selected in the category: Wide Angle
Director: Xu Jianshang (徐鉴赏)
Premiere: 19th June 2018, China Mainland

Starring: Chen Xuanyu (陈宣宇)

About the Director:

Majoring in film directing at Beijing Film Academy, Xu Jianshang received recognition for her short Lost in the City (城市), which won Best Screenplay at the Xiejin Academy Film Festival and got nominated for the French Poitiers Film Festival. She graduated from the Asian Film Academy in 2014 and directed the feature film Ma•amaa, a co-production between India and China. She is currently studying film production at Busan Asian Film School.

Storyline:

Pai is a Beijing-based student who is alone and struggling with her studies, her friends, and her living situation. When Pai tries to make things better, the this 19-minute short film shows how her situation further spirals out of control.

Noteworthy:

Despite the fact that Xu is still young, she already received much recognition for her work. Xu is the only female listed among all the directors in our three part overview of Chinese nominees at Busan.

 

4. In the Middle of Blue (Yīzhǐ lánsè de xiā 一只蓝色的虾)

China Mainland
Genre: Drama/Short film
Selected in the category: Wide Angle
Director: Qi Ji or Miracle(祁骥)
Weibo Hashtag: #一只蓝色的虾# (315 views)
Premiere: 21th June 2018, Beijing Film Academy Graduation Show

Starring: Kong Yan (孔雁), Zhang Benyu (张本煜) and Zhang Lu (张鹭).

About the Director:

Qi Ji is a 22-year-old director that graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in July of this year. In 2016, after studying film for only one and a half year, he directed Belief (念) a short film portraying the Muslim minority in China. The film unexpectedly entered the International Youth Micro Film Exposition (国际青少年微电影) and ended in the top ten Best Chinese Films. For Qi’s second work, In the Middle of Blue, he won the jury award at the +86358 Short Film Festival.

See here his speech ‘Can an artist be made?’ on TEDx in English.

Storyline:

This 26-minute film features a female protagonist called Ye Hong, who is left by her husband after not being able to have children. Her life then takes a dramatic change, that unexpectedly leaves her having twins and only raising one of them.

Why you should watch it:

Qi is an extremely young and promising director that is worth keeping your eye on. This does not only show in his nomination for the Busan Film Festival, but is also evident from the cast he rounded up for this production.

 

5. Down There (Nàlǐ 那里)

China Mainland/France
Genre: Drama/Short film
Selected in the category: Wide Angle
Director: Yang Zhengfan (杨正帆)
Premiere: 6th of September 2018, Venice Film Festival

Starring: An Qigu, Wang Songhua and Chen Shaokai

About the Director:

Yang Zhengfan started his career in filmmaking in 2009, and in 2012 he set up production company ‘Burn the Film‘ with producer Zhu Shengze (朱声仄). In 2013, his work Distant (远方) received international attention and was nominated at the Locarno and Vancouver Film Festival. In 2016, he was invited at the Rotterdam International Film Festival, receiving the Jury Award at China Independent Film Festival and the Best Experimental Film Award at South Taiwan Film Festival with his work Where Are You Going (你往何处去).

In collaboration with Zhu, Yang also worked as a cinematographer and producer for two documentaries titled Out of Focus (虚焦) and Another Year (又一年). Both received much international attention.

Storyline:

A blissful night is unexpectedly interrupted by the sound of a woman desperately screaming downstairs. Residents of the apartment building do wonder about the sound, but it quickly loses their interest, and continue the thing that they were doing before. If nobody sees what happened, does that mean it becomes something that never happened? This 11-minute sgort film explores indifference and cruelty in the modern-day city.

See here the trailer with English subtitles.

Why you should watch it:

Down There received nominations for both the Venice International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival. Another reason why you should watch it, is that Yang has proved to be an expert in portraying individuality, loneliness, and exclusion of people in big cities. Whether he is portraying migrant worker families or middle age taxi drivers, Yang has a gift for showing the immensely intimidating effect the big city environment has on people.

 

6. Monkey Magic (Dànào Xīyóu 大闹西游)

China Mainland
Genre: Animation
Selected in the category: Wide Angle
Director: Ma Xihai (马系海)
Weibo Hashtag: #大闹西游# (3.498.000+ views)
Premiere: 22nd of September 2018, China

Starring: Sun Ye (孙晔), Shen Dawei (沈达威), Tao Dian (陶典) and Liu Beichen (刘北辰).

About the Director:

Ma Xihai began his career in the animation industry in the early 1990s. He started as a crew member, made it to senior graphic designer, production supervisor, and eventually executive director. Besides Monkey Magig, he has worked on many adaptions like Master Q: Incredible Pet Detective (老夫子之反斗侦探), Master Q: Fantasy Zone Battle (老夫子之魔界梦战记), and Storm Rider. His computer animations even brought him to South Korea where he produced a TV series, and to Japan where he worked on game animations. In 2013 he co-directed his first animation film The Soccer Way (圣龙奇兵大冒险). Monkey Magic will be the first film directed entirely by Ma.

Storyline:

Monkey Magic is a modern reinterpretation of the timeless Chinese classic Journey to the West. The story starts when toys refuse to admit that monkey Sun Wuyuan is the king of monkeys because he doesn’t have Sun Wukong’s magic stick. Full of determination, Sun Wuyuan goes to find the legendary king Sun Wukong on Mount Huaguo to give him the magic stick – the beginning of a tumultuous adventure.

See here the trailer with Chinese subtitles.

Why you should watch it:

The film has already seen a very good reception within China since it premiered, selling over 36 million tickets. It was the most popular film in theaters during the mid-autumn festival, and it already is the most successful animation film of 2018.

 

7. Shadow (Yǐng 影)

China Mainland
Genre: Drama/Action/Historic
Selected in the category: A View on Asian Cinema
Director: Zhang Yimou (张艺谋)
Weibo Hashtag: #影# (88.674.000+ views)
Premiere: 6th of September 2018, Venice Film Festival

Starring: Chao Deng (邓超), Sun Li (孙俪), Zheng Kai (郑恺), Wang Qianyuan (王千源), Wang Jingchun (王景春), Hu Jun (胡军), Guan Xiaotong (关晓彤) and Wu Leo (吴磊).

About the Director:

The renowned Zhang Yimou is an awarded cinematographer and director from Xi’an. He is often praised for his knowledge of Chinese history and his capacity to respectfully and truthfully transform these old stories into white screen productions. He is one of the few Chinese directors that is a regular at both Asian and western film festivals. In 2003, his film Hero (英雄) was nominated for an Oscar for the best foreign film. Other famous works include Red Sorghum 红高粱), Not One Less (一个都不能少), The Flowers of War (金陵十三钗), and his previous film starring Matt Damon, The Great Wall (长城).

In 2008, Zhang directed the opening- and closing ceremony of the Olympics held in Beijing, China. This gained him a very high reputation in both China and abroad. That same year, he was nominated for “person of the year” by the American Time Magazine.

Storyline:

Shadow is based on Zhu Sujin’s rendition of China’s legendary Three Kingdoms saga. It tells the story of Yu, a commander who lost his kingdom. In an attempt to regain his power and kingdom, he trains a boy named Jing to become his ‘shadow’ or double (note: Yu and Jing are both played by Chao Deng). But things go differently than he planned, with Jing falling in love with Yu’s wife and growing up to doubt his own identity and the path that was chosen for him.

See here the trailer with English subtitles.

Why you should watch it:

Variety was positive about the film and was talking of a comeback after Zhang’s somewhat soulless previous two films. The review read: “Every supremely controlled stylistic element of Zhang Yimou’s breathtakingly beautiful ‘Shadow’ is an echo of another, a motif repeated, a pattern recurring in a fractionally different way each time.”

Others describe the film as “rousing” and “typically beautiful.”

To see the other Chinese films at Busan, check Part I and Part II here.

By Gabi Verberg

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us.

©2018 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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Gabi Verberg is a Business graduate from the University of Amsterdam who has worked and studied in Shanghai and Beijing. She now lives in Amsterdam and works as a part-time translator, with a particular interest in Chinese modern culture and politics.

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China Arts & Entertainment

Canceled Chinese TV Drama Gets Second Chance: Novoland Is Here!

Novoland, China’s “Game of Thrones” was canceled just before its premiere six weeks ago.

Manya Koetse

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First published

The Chinese fantasy drama Novoland: Eagle Flag is one of the most-anticipated series of the year. After the show was suddenly canceled twenty minutes ahead of its premiere in early June, it was announced on July 16 that it will broadcast anyway.

With 1,8 billion views, the hashtag Novoland: Eagle Flag (九州缥缈录, Jiǔzhōu piāomiǎo lù) is top trending on Chinese social media site Weibo today after the show suddenly announced it would broadcast its first series on July 16.

Over six weeks ago, on June 3rd at 21:40 CST, the show was suddenly canceled just twenty minutes before its much-awaited premiere on Tencent, Youku, and Zhejiang TV.

Novoland: Eagle Flag has been called China’s answer to Game of Thrones. It is a 56-episode costume drama that tells a story of war, conspiracy, love, and corruption in a fantasy universe called ‘Novoland.’

It is based on a popular web fantasy novel series by Jiang Nan (江南) and produced by Linmon Pictures. Production costs reportedly were as high as RMB 500 million ($72 million).

The drama features Chinese celebrities such as Liu Haoran, Lareina Song, and Chen Ruoxuan.

Why was the show’s premiere suddenly canceled? The only reason given for it on June 3rd was that there was a ‘medium problem’ (“介质原因”).

China’s English-language state tabloid Global Times reported on June 4th that their official sources also did not know the reason for the withdrawal, although they did admit to having received an order from “higher level,” which would come from China’s National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA,国家广播电视总局).

China’s regulatory body started to severely crack down on the rising popularity of Chinese costume dramas (古装剧) in March of this year.

Regulatory rules were supposedly issued for costume dramas with ‘themes’ (题材) such as martial arts, fantasy, history, mythology, or palace, stating that they should not air or were to be taken down from online video homepages. The strictest crackdown would allegedly last until July.

From early on in 2019, it was already rumored that Chinese costume dramas would face a tough year, after Chinese state media outlet Beijing Daily published a critical post listing negative influences of court-themed TV dramas (宫廷剧).

The critique included arguments such as that the imperial lifestyle was being hyped in these dramas, that the social situation of the dynastic era was being negatively dramatized, and that these productions are just aimed at commercial interests while weakening China’s “positive spiritual guidance.”

After the show’s premiere was officially “postponed,” fans are now overjoyed to hear that it will air anyway.

The first eight episodes are available for binge-watching now via Youku (Chinese only).

It is unclear if (ordered) changes were made to the show over the past six weeks.

By Manya Koetse

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. Please note that your comment below will need to be manually approved if you’re a first-time poster here.

©2019 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

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China Arts & Entertainment

China’s Woman Warrior Goes America Again: The Disneyfication of Mulan

The story of Mulan is ingrained in Chinese culture, but Disney has made her an international classic.

Manya Koetse

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Disney’s upcoming live-action remake of Mulan has become a recurring topic of debate on social media recently. The movie is much-anticipated in China, but there are also critical voices suggesting the American Disney company “doesn’t understand China at all.” How ‘Chinese’ is Disney’s Mulan really? 

Ever since news came out that Disney would turn Mulan into a live-action movie the topic has been frequently popping up in the top trending lists on Chinese social media.

The movie has been especially top trending on Weibo this week since the official trailer was released.

Mulan is the much-anticipated live-action remake of Disney’s 1998 animated Mulan movie, which tells the story of the legendary female warrior Hua Mulan (花木兰) who disguises as a man to take her father’s place in the army.

Over recent years, Disney has released and announced the live-action adaptations of many of its animated classics. Remakes such as Cinderella (2015), The Jungle Book (2016), Beauty and the Beast (2017), Dumbo (2019), and Aladdin (2019), have all been successful and, besides Mulan, they are now being followed up by the remakes of The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, Lady and the Tramp, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Disney’s new Mulan movie is directed by the New Zealand film director Niki Caro.

The role of Mulan will be played by the (mainland-born) Chinese American actress Crystal Liu Fei (刘亦菲). The film also features Yoson An as Mulan’s love interest, Tzi Ma as Mulan’s father, Donnie Yen as Mulan’s Commander mentor, Gong Li as the evil witch, Jason Scott Lee as the enemy warrior leader, and Jet Li as the Emperor of China.

 

MULAN: WEIBO MANIA AND CRITICISM

Americans really have no idea about China.

Since the story of Mulan is a Chinese legend that has a history of over 1500 years in China, Chinese audiences are particularly invested in the topic of the upcoming Disney movie. Every new detail concerning Mulan seems to become another trending topic on social media.

On Weibo, “Disney’s Mulan” (#迪士尼花木兰#) has seen over 420 million views by now, while the hashtag “Mulan Trailer” (#花木兰预告#) alone received a staggering 1.2 billion views.

Following the release of the movie poster made by Chinese visual artist Chen Man, the relating hashtag (#花木兰海报是陈漫拍的#) was viewed more than 260 million times.

A topic dedicated to the missing Mushu, a talking dragon that is the closest companion to Mulan in the animated film, also received 310 million views (#花木兰里没有木须龙#).

Online discussions on Mulan show that there already is quite a lot of criticism on the movie and its historical accuracy, even though its release is still months away.

Some commenters criticized Mulan’s makeup in one of the movie scenes as being too exaggerated and unflattering.

The fact that the actors in the movie all speak English also did not sit well with some people, writing: “Why is it all in English?!” and “I understand the logic, but why would a group of Chinese people speak English while it’s filmed in China? Even if it’s a Disney movie, it seems awkward.”

Another controversy that has been especially making its rounds for the past few days is the one relating to the traditional tulou round communal residences that are featured in the movie trailer (#花木兰 福建土楼#, 170 million clicks).

The tulou are Chinese rural, earthen dwellings. Although the buildings are part of Chinese traditional architecture, they are also unique to mountainous areas in Fujian province. Not only is Mulan not from Fujian, her story also takes place long before these tulou were built – something that many Chinese netizens find “nonsensical” and “distracting.”

“Americans really have no idea about China,” some people on Weibo commented, with others writing: “We can’t expect Disney to research everything, but they can’t not do research. They shouldn’t let Mulan live in a tulou just because it looks pretty, she is not from Fujian!”

“Why on earth would she live in a tulou,” others write: “Isn’t she a northerner?”

“Foreigners just don’t understand China,” one among thousands of commenters said.

Another Weibo user writes: “Americans should first thoroughly understand the Northern and Southern Dynasties, and Chinese geography, and Mulan’s ethnic background, and then they can give it another try.”

 

FROM SELF-SACRIFICE TO SELF-DISCOVERY

The meaning of the story of Mulan varies depending on how it is told, when it is told, and by whom it is told.

Although many people outside of China only know about Mulan through the 1998 Disney animation that made the story of this Chinese warrior go global, Hua Mulan’s story has seen continued popularity in China for more than a thousand years.

The first known written version of the Mulan legend is the anonymous sixth-century Poem of Mulan (木兰辞), followed by other plays and novels in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Edwards 2016, 19-20; Li 2018, 368).

Especially since the twentieth century, the story of Mulan has become a recurring theme in China’s popular culture, appearing in various plays, movies, TV series, operas, and even in games. Some of China’s earliest films were about Mulan; from 1927 to 1939, three different films came out on the female heroine, all titled Mulan Joins the Army (木兰从军).

“Mulan Joins the Army” is a 1939 Chinese historical war about the legend of Hua Mulan.

The meaning of the Mulan legend varies depending on how it is told, when it is told, and by whom it is told. The story has seen a centuries-long period of change and development, with different perspectives being presented depending on the region and genre (Kwa & Idema 2010, xii).

The basic outline of the story is always the same: Mulan is the daughter who disguises as a man to protect her father and take his place in the army, where she fights for twelve years before being promoted to a high-ranking position by the emperor. Mulan declines and asks for an honorable discharge instead, so she can return home to her family. Once she is home, Mulan changes into women’s clothing again.

Chastity, filial piety, feminism, perseverance, sacrifice, militarism, patriotism – the Mulan story has it all, but which motives are given prominence is always different. Within China, the Mulan narrative is related to issues of China’s national identity and political goals.

“Mulan: Rise of a Warrior” is a live-action film produced in mainland China in 2009.

In Chinese literary versions before the twentieth century, Mulan is presented as a northerner of uncertain ethnicity, a figure of resistance, who sacrifices her own safety to protect her father and show filial piety. Confucian values and the importance of family are at the core of the Mulan story (Edwards 2016, 19-20).

In Chinese versions after the twentieth century, Mulan is implicitly presented as being Han Chinese and as a “loyal patriot defending China.” The focus is no longer solely on Mulan giving up her own freedom for the sake of her father; it is her militarised sacrifice to the state and the importance of patriotism that is highlighted instead (ibid., 19-20).

With Disney’s 1998 adaptation of Mulan as an animated film, the main focus of the story was again shifted. Disney presented Mulan not so much as a patriot or as a Confucian daughter, but as a somewhat goofy and free-spirited young woman on her “Americanized self-realization journey” (Li 2018, 362-363).

Mulan’s individual coming of age and feminist story is echoed in the film’s Reflection song, in which Mulan sings:

I am now
In a world where I have to hide my heart
And what I believe in
But somehow
I will show the world
What’s inside my heart
And be loved for who I am

Although the narrative of the young woman who finds her own true voice resonated with many around the world – Mulan became an international box office smash hit -, it did not resonate with Chinese audiences.

In China, the Disney film grossed only about one-sixth of its expected box office income and was even among the lowest scoring big imported US films since 1994 (Li 2018, 362-363).

According to scholar Lan Dong, the Mulan flop in China indicated Disney’s failure to anticipate how the film would be received in China and how the Chinese audience’s familiarity with Mulan’s story had already shaped their expectations of the film (ibid.): Disney’s Mulan clearly was not the same as China’s Mulan.

 

THE DISNEYFICATION OF A CHINESE FOLK HEROINE

The animated Mulan film clearly Disneyfied the story by playing into various American stereotypes of feudal China.

But who is “China’s Mulan”? And who is “Disney’s Mulan”?

As described, Chinese versions of Mulan have significantly changed through times. And Disney’s Mulan of 2020 is also very different from the Disney princess that stole the hearts of viewers around the world in 1998.

Judging from the trailer, the upcoming Mulan will be a much more serious movie that focuses on the action and martial arts, and seems to represent Mulan as a self-sacrificing woman warrior (nothing goofy).

There’s an apparent risk in this route taken by Disney. On Chinese social media, the complaints about the movie relate mostly to the movie not being ‘Chinese’ enough when it comes to historical accuracy and language.

In English-language media, the movie is criticized for omitting the talking dragon and the songs and for “bowing to China’s nationalistic agenda” with its patriotic theme (Jingan Young in The Guardian, also see Vice).

The Disney company aims to entertain children and adults all around the world. In doing so, they convert “cultural capital” to “economic capital”1 and create content with universal appeal for global audiences, virtually always requiring commercial concessions to adapt to tastes and expectations of their mass audience.

Mulan merchandise, image via mouseinfo.com.

Since tastes and audience expectations change over time, it seems logical for Disney to make different choices for its Mulan feature film in 2020 than it did in 1998, and not only because the company might have learned from its past mistakes in mainland China. China’s role in the world, and how people view China, has also greatly changed over the past twenty years.

National cultures, stories, and legends go through a process of ‘Disneyfication’ once they became part of the Disney canon. The term ‘Disneyfication’ has been coined since the 1990s to describe this phenomenon and has been used in various ways since.

Speaking of globalization and literature, author David Damrosch (What is World Literature?, 2003) uses ‘Disneyfication’ to describe how many foreign literary works will only be translated and sold in the West when its content ‘fits’ the image audiences have of that certain culture. What remains is actually a ‘fake’ cultural product that holds up certain stereotypes and clichés in order to please the audience (Koetse 2010).

In the 1998 animated film, Mulan was clearly ‘Disneyfied’ by playing into various American values and stereotypes of feudal China that were most dominant at the time.

Although the upcoming Mulan movie will be very different from its animated predecessor, we already know that it will play with some of those stereotypes again in a way that you could call ‘market realistic’: viewers will see an English-speaking Mulan that lives in a traditional Fujian tulou building. Some of the sceneries and settings will have absolutely nothing to do with the authentic story, but much more to do with how viewers around the world now imagine China.

The movie will undoubtedly present folk heroine Mulan and ancient China in a way that is aesthetically pleasing and accessible, making Mulan and her story easy to understand, digest, and love.

 

WHOSE MULAN IS IT ANYWAY?

For many Chinese viewers, Mulan has become ‘too American’, while foreign media criticize the film for being ‘too Chinese.’

The irony in the criticism that has emerged over Disney’s Mulan recently, is that in the eyes of many Chinese viewers, Mulan has become ‘too American’, while foreign media criticize the production for being ‘too Chinese.’

This is by no means the first time the Disney company is under attack for the way in which it adapts local legends or stories into international feature films.

With Pocahontas, Disney was accused of “whitewashing horrific past,” the Moana movie was said to show “insensitivity to Polynesian cultures,” some critics found Aladdin to be “rooted by racism and Orientalism,” and recently, Disney’s choice to cast a black actress for the remake of The Little Mermaid triggered controversy for removing “the essence of Ariel.”

There are two sides to the controversial ‘Disneyfication’ coin. On the one hand, one could argue that some of the cultural value of the original local myths, legends, and stories are lost once they are transformed and simplified to satisfy mass market demand.

On the other hand, the Disney corporation also truly makes these local stories go global and in doing so, further adds to their cultural significance and worldwide recognition.

Mulan is now a Chinese legend that has gone beyond its borders and is no longer ‘truly Chinese’ – whatever that might mean. She has become a part of people’s childhood memories and popular culture in many countries around the world.

Just as The Little Mermaid no longer solely belongs to the realm of feudal Nordic folklore, Quasimodo no longer just exists in French literary canon, and just as Aladdin has become so much more than part of the The Thousand and One Nights, Mulan has also come to represent more than a Chinese folk heroine. She has become a world-famous woman warrior whose story will keep evolving for the years to come.

About the upcoming Mulan movie and its criticism, one Weibo commenter writes: “I find it hard to understand why people are so fussy. They have a problem with Mulan’s make-up, or with the fact that there’s no singing and no Mushu, or with the scenery. This is a movie. It can only stay close to the original work, but it will never be the original work.”

Luckily for Disney, many Chinese viewers are still very keen to watch the Mulan premiere despite – or perhaps thanks to – the ongoing controversies. The casting of Liu Fei as Mulan has also been met with praise and excitement.

Popular Weibo law blogger Kevin (@Kevin在纽约) writes: “On the first day that the trailer for Disney’s live-action Mulan was released, it had 175.1 million global views, making it the number two Disney adaption. The number one is The Lion King which had 224.6 global views [on its first day]. Although the Americans made Mulan live in a tulou, and made her speak English with a Chinese accent, it all won’t prevent Hua Mulan from having great success in 2020.”

Other netizens also agree, and they do not seem to mind sharing ‘their’ Mulan with the rest of the world.

“Some people are being too obstinate,” one female Weibo user writes in response to all the criticism: “This is the American Disney company, and all princesses speak English first. Jasmine in Aladdin also did not speak Arabic. I gather that in the film there will definitely be some subjective ideas or errors based on Western conceptions of China. As Chinese, we might find them misrepresentative or laughable. But from the trailer, I can already see that [this film] matches our esthetics and imagination. Most importantly, this film expresses the strength and beauty of Chinese women, and of women in general – that’s what matters.”

Discussions on Disney’s Mulan will certainly continue in the time to come. The movie is scheduled to be released in theatres on March 27 of 2020.

Too Chinese? Too American? Too Disneyfied? Too patriotic? Disney’s Mulan might not please all viewers. Fortunately, there are and will be dozens of other Mulan versions providing viewers and readers with new and different perspectives on the centuries-old legend. But who is the ‘real’ Mulan in the end? We’ll probably never know.

By Manya Koetse

1 (Harris 2005, 50).

Dong, Lan. 2010. Mulan’s Legend and Legacy in China and the United States. Bibliovault OAI Repository, the University of Chicago Press.

Edwards, Louise. 2016. “The Archetypal Woman Warrior, Hua Mulan: Militarising Filial Piety.” In: Women Warriors and Wartime Spies of China, pp. 17-39.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Harris, David. 2005. Key Concepts in Leisure Studies. SAGE Key Concepts. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Koetse, Manya. 2010. “The Imagined Space of Chinatown: An Amsterdam Case Study.” Leiden University, https://www.manyakoetse.com/the-imagined-space-of-chinatown/ [July 12, 2019].

Kwa, Shiamin and Wilt I. Idema (eds). 2010. Mulan: Five Versions of a Classic Chinese Legend with Related Texts.” Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company.

Li, Jing. 2018. “Retelling the Story of a Woman Warrior in Hua Mulan (花木兰, 2009): Constructed Chineseness and the Female Voice.” Marvels & Tales 32 (2): 362-387.

Young, Jingan. 2019. “The Mulan trailer is a dismal sign Disney is bowing to China’s nationalistic agenda.” The Guardian, July 8 https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/jul/08/mulan-trailer-is-a-dismal-sign-disney-is-bowing-to-china-anti-democratic-agenda [July 12, 2019].

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