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Once Upon a Time in the East: 2020's "Mulan" and Classic Czech Fairy Tales

A non-traditional take on Disney's new "Mulan" and how it pales in comparison to classic Czech fairy tale films.
Linda Keršnerová
Above: Mulan (2020)
It may seem there’s no bone left to pick with Disney’s live action Mulan weeks after its release. That is, what could I possibly say that would be worthy of press after the movie had been under fire for, among other things, putting a special thanks to a local government operating concentration camps in the credits. That one is, admittedly, hard to beat. 
To justify the massive oversharing in a review of a Disney film for something as highbrow as MUBI's Notebook, you have to understand that my criticism for Mulan comes from a warm place deep inside my heart. So, I couldn’t just let it be. I had to join in on the group diss track, so that the circle of dissatisfaction can be complete in scale: world-view clashes next to the good ol’ "doesn’t live up to the original,” all the way to my culturally conditioned, teeny-tiny personal disappointment.
Firstly, to get it out of the way, no, it’s not that the animated, 1998 Mulan was my favorite childhood sing-along. I knew of it, became aware of it, the same way I became aware of The Lion King, deep in my twenties, by a chance mention from an Anglo-American friend. The shock, the compulsory supervised home screening, the memories of happy times or rather the retelling of those memories: all of that always came second-hand for me with Disney movies. Because back when I was an adorable pre-schooler, we didn’t have Disney classics, we had something better. 
I am from the Czech Republic and about to plunge back into the 1990s, so under “we” you are free to imagine anything from the cast of the first ten minutes of Borat to the typical icons of my number one favorite Facebook group "Squatting Slavs In Tracksuits." Not that we watched some Babushka and the Burek knock-off of Beauty and the Beast—what I’m thinking of is a cult-like experience similar to that of Disney movies, but in other respects decisively different. For as long as I remember, there has been a tradition at Christmastime of filmed fairy tales being broadcast on TV. What is meant by filmed fairy tale in this context is a feature film, usually based on an older legend or a children’s story, though sometimes they also had an original plot. It would have seasoned actors or talented newcomers destined to become future favorites, music, quality production design and what not. The story didn’t really have to be about Christmas, the holiday simply provided the time for people to indulge in easy entertainment. A new one of these films would be made every year, like clockwork. It would be broadcast on state TV on Christmas Eve, dubbed “the new fairy tale” and become the center of keen national debate only to be forgotten, as another one would premier in 12 months’ time.
This habit—spending a huge chunk of the holiday season watching these elaborate TV fairy tales—always baffled my non-Czech friends, who usually have to make do with a measly Doctor Who special, The Grinch, or a Christmas themed rom-com here and there. These films may cater to the Christmas market and may indeed in some aspect form an inseparable part of people's holidays, but they are not an entire cultural ecosystem in itself, like these fairy tale broadcasts of ours. In fact, not many of these friends would even be familiar with this kind of genre. When a fairy tale sensation did bleep up on the radar (most recently Frozen), it was an animated one, which simply isn’t the real thing. For us Czechs, I think live action fairytales hit more close to home because they showcase things we like to think we’re good at or proud of: the kind humor and sometimes subtle social critique, the landscape with its many castles, and also the craftsmanship (the Barrandov studios in Prague, founded in 1931, attract big productions to this day). So, if something like Shrek was made here, I can guarantee you, computer generated characters wouldn’t do. No sir—if Shrek was made in the Czech Republic, we would have Vítězslav Jandák, the former Minister of Culture, play the ogre.
What I’m trying to say with all of this is that I may not have the original Mulan songs burned into my brain right alongside nursery rhymes, but on the other hand, I was ready—more than ready and arguably more ready than most—to see what Disney was promising. A fully-realized live action production, packed with magic and love and effects to spare. Wowing, thrilling to children and grown-ups alike, all watching until the inevitable heart-warming happy ending. It may not be Christmas yet but I have had a lifetime of training, so bring it. This stream of consciousness basically describes the place I was coming from as I sank in my seat in the theatre to watch the new Mulan.
One particular gem of the Czech fairy tale obsession is the 1973 Czechoslovak/East German coproduction of Cinderella (Tři oříšky pro Popelku / Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel / Three Wishes for Cinderella), currently still the 153rd best movie on the national movie database as per popular vote. It features Cinderella horseback riding (better than men and in an obvious bid to spite them) and shooting a crossbow (also better than men and in an obvious bid to spite them), as well as refusing an ill-timed proposal of marriage from the prince so that she can come get her beloved herself on her own terms at the end of the film. She comes on her steed of course and already dressed in her wedding gown, produced from a hazelnut.
Above: Three Wishes for Cinderella
You can therefore imagine my disappointment when I found none of this effortless female badassery in Mulan: a story of a girl who impersonates a man in order to fight in battle in place of her incapacitated father. This should have been, and that much seems obvious to me, a feminist or at least a vaguely women-inspiring film. A movie that would provide a worthy rebellious role model for young kids that happen to be born or identify as that type of human. You know, those thought of as weaker and less capable than their male counterparts, expected to marry to get anywhere in life (while in some places such marriage might even still be arranged for or forced) and the prospects of earning less wealth and respect than that other type of human probably for the rest of eternity because equal pay just seems to remain an idea too complex in the Year of our Lord 2020.
It’s probably not for a lack of trying that the general idea of female greatness didn’t come across in the new Mulan; in fact, maybe it actually tried too hard in this respect, to the point of the message becoming a shallow slogan. Whereas the original Mulan was a wild tomboy with a sharp mind and her heart in the right place, the new Mulan possesses, cultivates and eventually learns to control a particular, mystical power (one that is typically reserved for men). The old Mulan’s success came from a place of resourcefulness and good calls; the new Mulan excels in the way a top level sportsman would be expected to excel at their discipline. (Let me note that it’s very hard to resist all these Czech references when one’s trying to paint an underdog story on a sports backdrop—the Czech snowboarder Ester Ledecká won a golden medal in a skiing event on borrowed freaking skis in the last Olympics). The old Mulan was awesome in spite of being an ordinary girl; the new Mulan is awesome because she has qualities presented as not often found in a woman. Watching the new Mulan, I almost felt like I was being tricked, like I came to the cinema to see an uplifting tale of female strength and was instead presented with what a man thinks a woman warrior is. Most notably in this case, someone who keeps using their sword as a mirror, apparently. This kind of makes sense in the original if you’re using the sword to cut your hair to make it more manageable for battle, but not if you’re not, and no amount of elaborate historical talk of the importance of hair will convince me otherwise (the haircut scene from the original film was scrapped, reportedly in the name of cultural accuracy). 
On the topic of authenticity and trueness to the ancient Chinese folklore tale, I do not kid myself to be in any way qualified to judge this, but if there is something I certainly wouldn’t call the new Mulan, it’s “authentic.” The film is your regular children-friendly spectacle with all the problems that usually entails. Disney, of course, doesn’t really show any blood, despite featuring countless (and otherwise very well done) fight scenes, including very large ones, which just end up seeming odd, as if the film is doing a Jean-Claude Van Damme split between being a kids’ program and a war epic. The dialogue was similarly torn between two worlds, with historical-costume-clad characters throwing around modern lingo. The studio also got rid of the romantic chemistry between Mulan and her comrades almost altogether, but still included a bathing-in-the-moonlight scene for good measure. Mulan is now without an adorable talking mini-dragon, but stars a shape-shifting witch-bird instead, who, although seemingly all-powerful, mostly does nothing but subject herself to China’s adversary Khan and give Mulan some unsolicited advice about how hard it is to be a woman in a man’s world. I wonder if anything close to this was ever part of the original ballad?
I don’t buy Mulan’s claims of striving for authenticity and respect to Chinese culture because it comes naturally that films like these are, above all, made for profit and the rest is simply woke marketing. But I also don’t buy it because unlike the horseback riding, crossbow shooting Eastern block Cinderella, it simply didn’t work. Unfortunately for Mulan, the Chinese target group didn’t buy it either, judging from the lukewarm response, so I wonder what the thinking behind the entire thing even was? Is there an audience that could possibly be charmed by the Mulan remake?
Ideally, I would insert a paragraph here about that one thing that did click in place in Mulan, some feature of the film that made it bearable or even enjoyable, not a complete waste of time. Yet, I’m struggling to pinpoint anything of that sort. I did laugh (about once), I did feel warm and fuzzy inside (about twice) and then it was over. The film is well cast, and I must admit that it was refreshing to watch a movie where everyone wasn’t desperately white, but even writing that makes me cringe at the idea that I, as a Caucasian-European, am casually commenting on the level of satisfaction I got from the fact that for once, Asian people were playing Asian people in a film. 
So maybe instead of trying to be diplomatic, let me conclude that I just find it ridiculous when a multimillion-dollar production based on an almost universally loved movie from the late 90s is, twenty years later, desperately searching for a way to be relevant—and then fails. What precisely happened is not really clear. Perhaps too many political and economic forces competed over the final direction of the outcome, which was then left hollowed out, bland and unimpressive. That said, politics aren’t any excuse, after all that hype and expectation, to release something like this. Because it’s not like it’s impossible to make a good movie without being controversial and stepping on toes. Looping back, for example, to the Czechoslovakian 1951 (and therefore heavily Socialist propaganda-infused) fairy tale The Emperor's Golum (Císaruv pekar - Pekaruv císar), a staple in the Czech Christmas TV marathons just like the 1973 Cinderella, is quality entertainment despite being rich with ideology.
It turns out that all you need to make a good movie is, well, to make a good movie.

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