With the cast of Liu Yifei as the titular heroine, many fans breathe sigh of relief. However, there’s still the male lead interest being casted as well as the rest of the characters. Not only do the characters are yet to be casted, but also the plot could be currently tweaking with possible changes. As China is growing to be the second biggest box office market in the world, Disney has an incentive to make the movie palatable to Chinese audience, which the implications could mean live-action Mulan would be more authentic to the original ballad and Chinese history and culture. In fact, Mulan’s reception in China in the 1990s was relatively poor as the animated version was criticized for historical inaccuracies and culturally inauthentic such as being an American story with Chinese dress setting. The post will cover speculations on possible occurrences in the live action of Mulan.
Before speculating on some possible plots in the live action version, the characters and the settings would be discussed first. From what can be gathered from several different sources, characters will be different in the live-action version. It seems Li Shang has been replaced with a character named Chen Honghui, who would be Mulan’s love interest.
Although casting calls for other characters are currently not available in English, there was a Chinese version floating on Weibo. As the movie is still in pre-production and the Weibo casting call was uploaded months ago, the characters might not be set in stone.
Mulan – 18 – 25 female, lithe and agile, stronger than she looks
Chen Honghui – male in 20s, tall and burly, confident and handsome; determine to be the best soldier in history
General Tong (Tung) – male in 50s, commander and general of the imperial army
Khan Jieli – leader of the Gokturk tribe
Xian Lang – female, 40 years old, witch, ruthless and cunning
Emperor Taizong – male, emperor of China
Wu Wei – female, 30s in prologue, later 40s, Mulan’s mother
Hua Zhou – male, 30s in prologue, later 40s, Mulan’s father, in poor health
Military Instructor – male, over 40s, strong and healthy, Mulan’s instructor
Cricket (Chien-Po)- male, over 20, fat and clumsy, newly enlisted recruit
Bu (Yao) – male, over 20, soldier, strong, big-headed, scary-looking
Ling – male, over 20, soldier, romantic personality
Xiu – Mulan’s older sister, young woman, handles domestic matters
Young Xiu – female, ten years old, long black hair, young Mulan’s older sister, more traditional type of girl
Young Mulan – female, eight years old, mischievous girl who dreams of winning honor for family
For the character Chen Honghui, the updated casting call changed the characterization as the initial bullying arrogant streak would have made Chen Honghui unlikeable. Now it seems Chen Honghui would be friendly and well-liked.
Original and Updated Casting Call
One of the biggest changes from the animated to the live action is the time period. As the original animated was most likely set in the Han dynasty as evident by the inspirations of real life General Li Shang who lived during Western Han dynasty and references to the Han-Xiongnu (Huns) war, the live action in contrast is set during the Tang dynasty. This is the reason that the invaders were changed from the Huns (Xiongnu) to the Gokturks.
The setting affects the plot greatly. In addition to Disney most likely making the movie truer to the Chinese culture and history, scenes and characters could be cut, added, or modified. Here are some theories on how the live action would change.
- Mulan won’t be the same/No Mushu – Mushu as a character was too westernized. As dragons are revered as powerful creatures akin to deities in Chinese culture, it is unlikely that a dragon would be serving as a comedic guardian sidekick under the heroine and therefore removal of Mushu is a possibility. However, a possible alternative in keeping Mushu in the story would be if the live action were to have Mushu being punished and exiled by the heavens to serve Mulan during the war, referencing the dragon prince being punished to serve Xuanzang by being the white dragon horse from Chinese classic literature “Journey To the West”. At the end, when Mulan successfully defeats the enemies, Mushu’s punishment ends. Even if Mushu were to be retained, his characterization would be different. While the comedic nature of Mushu and Cricket works well in animation, it would not translate well to the more serious direction the live action seems to leaning towards. This also means a lot of the jokes would be removed since the references were anachronistic and/or culturally specific to American. Removed jokes could include references to porridge, bunny slippers, black-and-white, Mongolian barbecue, etc.
- Lack of or smaller conflict regarding social norms – As the big theme in the Mulan legend is filial piety, Mulan demonstrates this when she risks her life to go war in place to protect her sick father despite not being allowed to serve in the army as a woman. Although Mulan in the legend did break out of traditional feminine role of going to war, it was to serve a higher cultural value. While the animated version also shows filial piety, there is the added subplot of Mulan not fitting in with the rigid traditional society norms for a woman at that time in contrast to the original ballad in which there Mulan was very much capably of being traditionally feminine and reverted back to being feminine after the war. Her inability to fit in causes her great distress as she struggles to want to be herself while at the same time bring her family honor by following the prescribed female role. It is also said that Mulan partially went to war in order to prove herself. In fact, Mulan being true to herself successfully saved China from the Huns and brought her family honor. The plot line of being true to oneself and succeeding in a rigid society follows more in line with American values of individualism and individual achievement. Therefore, there is a possibility for the conflict between the individual and society norms to be removed or diminished in the live action film. If the live action film were to keep the conflict between self and society in, it would likely emphasize filial piety and duty primarily and demonstrate on how Mulan can violate social norms and still fulfill her duty and filial piety. A most likely scenario for highlighting Mulan’s deviating from the norm would be contrasting her to her more traditionally feminine older sister. As a young child, Mulan dreams of achieving honor. In attempt to achieve it, she screws up somehow, leading to society to pity or express disapproval of Mulan and wishing she would be more like her older sister.
- No songs or reduced role of songs – Presumably, the reason for the removal of the songs could be that the director wanted to focus more serious direction of the film. Or it could be that the songs were too stereotypical about ancient Chinese society regarding gender roles even though medieval Chinese norms would be sexist by modern standards. If the original songs were retained, one scenario would be that the film would not be a musical but would still have songs in background with no characters directly singing such as the “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” playing in the background during the training montage. Second scenario would resemble the direction that the live Jungle Book film took in having characters singing despite the film not being a full blown musical. Another scenario could have the characters directly singing since Disney did cast an actress with a past singing background. Regardless, the lyrics would definitely changed as there isn’t any Huns in remake.
- Fa to Hua – The surname Fa in the animated version is the Cantonese version of the same surname Hua. Fa Mulan is a mix of Cantonese and Mandarin since the Mandarin Hua and Cantonese Muk Lan were a bit harder to pronounce. As the casting calls specified the ability to speak Mandarin Chinese, Mulan’s surname in the live version would be Hua. Furthermore, Mulan is a northern Chinese girl so a Cantonese surname would make less sense geographically.
- No shooting cannons – The cool scenes in which Mulan and the army fight the enemy with shooting cannons could be cut as the usage of gunpowder as a weapon occurred later than 7th century China if Disney were striving for historical authenticity. It’s also possible Disney could retain the scene in if Disney was going for more general reference instead of 100 % historical accuracy.
- No hair cutting scene – There is a prominent Chinese virtue called filial piety, which means great respect to one’s parents, elders, and ancestors. In accordance with traditional Chinese concept of filial piety, hair, nails, and skin are gifts from parents. Once the man or woman is of age, cutting the hair is taboo as it would have been considered very disrespectful to one’s parents. Hair cuts were punishments for criminals in Chinese historical accounts.
- No grandma – It is likely the grandma could be cut since her character was absent in the Chinese casting call.
- Enemy captured – Emperor Taizong and Khan Jieli were real historical figures. As such, there is a possibility in which the enemy may be just defeated and captured, not killed just like what happened historically. This would be a nod to one of the Mulan stories and have historical basis. Mulan in the live action could be the one who spearhead the plan and to personally capture Khan Jieli and bring him back to capital Chang An for him to face the Emperor Taizong.
- Mulan marriage- The updated English version casting call has Mulan’s age in the story as 16. In ancient China, the starting marriage age for females was 16. Will the topic of marriage be a plot point in live action, meaning Mulan would be pressured to marry at the start of the film? I would imagine Mulan’s abilities to fight could come into question in the marriage process if she starts with them at the beginning of the movie. Also, this could be the opportunity for Disney to showcase a pretty princess Disney dress for Mulan for merchandising purposes. Either Mulan screws up the whole marriage process or she would be initially betrothed to none other than Chen Honghui, which the marriage would take place at the end of the movie.
- Impersonation of Nonexistent Younger Brother – Considering the addition of an elder sister to the live action follows the original the ballad, there is still the absence of her younger brother, who was described in the ballad to be too young to go to war in the legend. Mulan could try to pass off as her nonexistent barely talked about teenage younger brother. The alter ego Ping would likely have social difficulties at the army as his teenage pretty boy looks and full name Hua Ping (flower vase), which is a metaphor for pretty but useless and a slang for effeminate men, would make it difficult for recruits in their 20s to take him seriously.
- Mulan’s Great Stone Dragon spirit – The casting call refers that there is “mysterious power inside Mulan”. Could this be referring to the Great Stone Dragon spirit residing in her with the purpose of protecting her? Would there be more emphasis on the the Great Stone Dragon’s role in the live action? It is said that the Great Stone Dragon from the animation could not be waked by Mushu since its spirit has already left with Mulan, representing her courage.
- Magic – Since magical elements would be present according to the Chinese casting call, it’s a wonder on how a witch would play out in the live action film. Is there going to be some sort of prophecy involved? Would she be linked to Mulan’s “mysterious power” somehow? Will the witch serve as the mentor to Mulan’s hero role?
- Mastermind Witch – As the witch is described as cunning, there is a possibility that she could be the mastermind behind the invasion of Gokturks. Another possibility would be the sorceress plays the archetype of a helpful mentor before revealing herself as the true villain with the Khan being relegated to one of the antagonists but not the central conflict of the movie. Additionally, the witch could be the evil counterpart to Mulan. As Gong Li was said to inspire Mulan physically in the animated film, having Gong Li as the witch contrasted against live action Mulan would be fitting.
- Foreigners present – As the Tang dynasty was known to be cosmopolitan, there were a lot of culture exchanges and ideas between China and other locations. Chang An, the capital of Tang China, would most likely be shown at some point considering the presence of Emperor Taizong. Historically, the foreigners would be traders of Arab, Turk, Persian, Tibetan, Indian, Jew, Korean, and Japanese origins rather than European living in Chang An. In the movie, there might be a few non-Chinese/Asian characters cameos.
Regarding to all the casting calls and news about Mulan, there are several other thoughts besides on how the movie could turn out.
Personally, I am hoping the “mysterious power” within Mulan does not mean she will have supernatural or magical powers that would be the reason for Mulan’s success. This would negate the audience’s ability to relate to the character and also undermine the themes of the original Mulan and Disney version. In both the animated and legends, Mulan has always used realistic skills in attaining achieving her goals. Regarding Niki Caro’s vision of the film being a martial arts girly extravaganza, I am also hoping she does not solely focus on Mulan using brute strength. Part of Disney’s Mulan appeal was on how she defeated her enemies. She used her brains to improvise and concoct creative tactics to fight. While the short original ballad never mentions Mulan’s mental abilities, the live action should still implement Mulan’s intelligence and creativity into the live action film as a reference to the original animated film. There are several scenarios the film could show this. Mulan could be just like her animated counterpart in improvising creative tactics on the spot or she could a chess master in which she take a lead in the army by devising war strategies before taking actions. If Disney were to go with Mulan having martial arts abilities at the start of the film, Mulan would learn to use her brains in order to defeat the Gokturks since using solely brawns wouldn’t be enough as they became unstoppable in invading China.
Regarding the songs, at least Mulan must leave “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” and “Reflection” in somehow. Mulan remake doesn’t have to be a full blown musical. Those two songs are so iconic to the Disney version that it would be a crime altogether eliminate them from remake. In fact, when Niki Caro stated that “there are no songs right now”, many fans were quick to react in anger. Considering the angry feedback from fans and the commercial success of Beauty and the Beast, Disney has more incentive to include the songs. However, as the movie is war themed and more action oriented than the previous remakes such as Beauty and the Beast, it begs the question on how the film will incorporate the original songs. Singing works well in animation considering the comedic nature as well as animation more lenient on the matter. Characters breaking out in songs in a live film about war and action might be jarring if the song incorporation is not done well.
As it is most likely Disney will try to change the remake to appeal more to Chinese box office, it is also important that Disney does not wholly eliminate everything that is uniquely in the Disney version and stay within that niche. Attempting to make Mulan remake into 100 % serious, war movie without any uniquely Disney elements will result in noticeable loss of audience in USA as the niche of a very serious, war film was already filled by the Chinese versions. For example, if Disney were to eliminate all traces of Mulan’s original songs, especially the iconic “I’ll Make a Man Out of You”, it’s guaranteed that anticipation for the remake will fall in the USA at least. People can be open minded or even eager for changes as long it doesn’t deviate too much from animated Mulan. In terms of values representation and humor, which are both culturally dependent, it’s interesting to see how Disney can appeal to both USA and China without losing one side.