Den of the Cyphered Wolf

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Mulan and Filial Piety AKA It's Time to Deal With My Junior Issues

So. Disney decided to remake Mulan.  Okay then.

With the exceptions of Pete's Dragon and Maleficent, I have never quite been able to get on board with the Disney remake thing. While I see value in remaking these stories since many of them are folk tales that go beyond Disney, I have a general lack of faith that Disney will do anything new with them.

Which is a shame.

The reason why I like Mulan is because it introduced me to cinematic and storytelling traditions I might not have been paying attention to at 11. Mulan was my first war movie.

And not just a war movie. A Chinese war movie.

That being said despite how much I like it, I will freely admit that the movie was constrained by it's audience and its studio and I doubt within the confines of a Disney Remake I'm going to get the Mulan movie I want to see.

In almost every version of Mulan the concept of Confucian filial piety is cooked right in. And the sub text of the Disney version is all about redefining filial piety in a modern context and in remake I would like the subtext to become just text.

And this is the part where I admit I am not Asian and have a very limited understanding of Confucianism, and am using the concept as mostly a way to sort out my own junior issues. So take what I say with a grain of salt.

Father and Child

So the reason why Mulan is so important is because Mulan is the model to be followed. Confucianism is a system of morality dictating what is and is not virtuous action. And the story of Mulan is one of its standards setting forth its precepts about what the responsibility of a parent is to a child and a child to a parent, which in many ways it views as the foundational relationship.

Mulan's father has a duty to act honorably before his wife and daughter. It does not matter if he is sick and old and will die. He has a duty to do as the emperor commands even at the expense of his life. And knowing that it will he has resolved himself to it. He has resolved himself to act honorably before his family.

In the original story Mulan is motivated by a desire to maintain her father and her family's honor, not just his life. And that is something that doesn't really come across in the Disney version. Largely because it's harder for a western audience to understand why this old, sick, lame man who would probably be a liability that would get other people killed in real combat is mandated to go. When Mulan tries to stop her father from taking the draft papers a western audience sees the patriarchy and yes that's there but there is also something else going on.

He views his responsibility not just to his country but to his family is to act in a matter that would not bring shame upon them and refusing a direct command from your sovereign that will do it. From a certain perspective Mulan was out of line to try to talk him out of it. At that point in the story he was going to die and he had made his peace with it.

From there the story becomes about how Mulan decides to honor her father. How can she find a way to both keep him alive and fulfill his duty to the emperor.

America, Feminism, and Individualism

Mulan performed horribly in China.  For a lot of reasons. There is a lot of mish-mashing of cultures and history going on, but I think the big one the biggest reason Mulan failed in China is because it kind of flouts and even on some occasions pokes fun at traditional Chinese values. 

I think done the right way by the right people that could work in its benefit.

Let's talk about Maxine Hong Kingston. When I read female Asian-American writers, there is very often this theme of rebellion. This dichotomy between the self and reverence for the family. And those issues have a broader importance in discussions of feminism.

Kingston's 1977 collection of short stories  Woman Warrior (Specifically "White Tigers") uses Mulan's break from traditional gender roles as a reoccurring metaphor to contextualize Kingston's own feelings about war, gender and family.

That the Disney movie speaks directly to these issues the is one of the reasons why it has stayed culturally relevant for going on 20 years.  Yet as I keep saying all of that is subtext not text.

As a character (in the film) Mulan's central conflict is between her personal loyalty to her father, his ideals and her own ideals and sense of self. Both of these things are important to her and her arc is about finding a way to be true to both of these things, to both be herself and honor her father.

A lot of people have a problem that Mulan goes back home at the end. But the fact that she went back is kind of an important part of the traditional story and how you subvert it would be equally important. The traditional story isn't one about personal honor, wealth and glory, but rather how Mulan can act in a way that will honor her country and family within established social structures which even in the Disney movie she does value.

That's why obtaining the validation of the Emperor is her resolution.  It's literally the highest praise she can get.

There is a lot of subversion going on in the movie regarding gender but Mulan isn't trying to break the wheel, but merely find balance. Again part of the point of Mulan is that she is the idealized Confucian daughter willing to die to maintain her family's honor. You can only have her buck the system so much before she stops being Mulan.

All the same done right an Americanized version of the story can and did redefine the notion of filial piety and I would like to see a version that takes those themes further than Disney did at the time.

The Veneration of Ancestors

The movie explains this but again it's much lower key than I would like. If Mulan acts shamefully, which she already has by lying to the government, the emperor and his representatives it brings shame not just upon her but upon her entire family past, present, and future.

This is a BIG DAMN DEAL and is part of her central motivation to act in a way that will honor her family while maintaining her sense of self. It's not enough to just do her duty but she has to be a national hero.

God Save Us From The Martians

The fact that Mulan doesn't just serve but is damn good at war, killing people is something that is really important to the story that the original being a Disney movie kind of just couldn't touch.

While like I said Mulan was my first war movie it is still a Disney musical primarily meant for children.

Remember the resolution for her arc is obtaining the validation of the Emperor, to know not just think, but to know that she has brought honor unto her family name.

That means she has to spend the movie doing WAR shit.

Okay. Mulan like most war stories is very much a story about  nationalism. I have very complex feelings about both war and nationalism. But the story is the story. And Mulan is fundamentally about the rise of a general via competency and proficiency at arms.

Now is not the time to go on some blessed are the peace makers diatribe but point out that  it's one the reasons why I don't know if Disney is up to this.

I don't know if Disney has it in them to really make a war movie.

No. That doesn't count. Hydra was so evil the Nazis kicked them out.

I don't know if you can say that about anybody else. So the new movie is going to have to explain how Mulan is morally right for killing everybody she lays to the sword, and I don't know if Disney is up for that.

Hell I don't know if America or China is up for that.

These days  people rightly give the side eye to any story talking about the honor, glory, and heroism of war.

And if I'm being honest I've internalized a lot of it but that is another blog post.

My point is that any modern (and American) rendition of Mulan is going to have to be about the modern perception of warfare and I don't know how that gels with original's view of Chinese martial and moral superiority and Disney is not the studio to split the difference.

1939 was smack dab in the middle of the Sino-Japanese war, the Disney version made the bad guys rat bastards, and the 2009 version actually gives a (mildly: the bad guy disobeys and murders his father to continue the war) nuanced motivation for the invasion.


A lot of the nomadic peoples the Chinese historically fought lived on land with very poor soil on which was very difficult to create the type of wealth and population generating food surpluses China historically has been known for.


Look, Disney pretty much scraps cultural context off of any story it does for the sake of broadening the audience. But the specific reason why I would want a remake of Mulan is for that cultural context. And I just don't think Disney is going to be the studio to do it.

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