The flower that blooms in adversity: Mulan revisited

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Directors: Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook
Screenplay: Rita Hsiao, Philip LaZebnik, Chris Sanders, Eugenia Bostwick-Singer, and Raymond Singer
Story: Robert D. San Souci
Featuring the Voices of: Ming-Na Wen, Eddie Murphy, BD Wong, Miguel Ferrer, Harvey Fierstein, Beth Fowler, George Takei, and Pat Morita

If you are in search for ladies in ball gowns and romantic adventures, imperial China is definitely not the place to be. However, aside from the innate uniqueness of this great civilization, we find a powerful narrative that provides redefinitions of strength, capability, and womanhood beyond established norms and conventions. And because MNL Film Club celebrates the fiercest females on the big screen, this kickass character is a definite inclusion – she’s so kickass that she defeated a troop of a thousand horsemen single-handedly. She is Mulan.

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Mulan (1998) is based on the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan, a young woman (presented in the film as the fictional Fa Mulan) who impersonated a male soldier to save her elderly father from a military conscription following an attack on China by invading Huns. Running away from home, Mulan embarks on a journey where she eventually defeated the Huns, saved the empire, and more importantly, found her true strength and purpose.

The kind of narrative that Mulan presents is a striking divergence from the classic Disney brand of storytelling, which, unfortunately, entailed an ensemble of all-too-familiar lead characters – lovestruck ladies waiting for their princes to come. Mulan, with her unconventional outlook is not (or even never) qualified in the fairy tale department, but the kind of character which Mulan first represented was indeed overdue, especially because of the fact that the film was preceded by a Disney animation focusing on physical prowess and masculinity, the epic of Hercules (1997).

The perennial popularity of gender-bender stories (the more recent cases in point are a few Hollywood films and a number of East Asian dramas and movies) mirror changing attitudes toward established social norms and gender roles as time goes by. However, as today’s gender-bender stories feature a mix of awkward near-kisses and romantic endings, Mulan is more than just a piece in the popularized and romanticized gender-bender repertoire. Placed against the backdrop of Chinese society’s intricacies and complexities, Mulan’s masquerading act shows, and more importantly, transcends the rigid dynamics of tradition, citizenship, and identity.

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Throughout a sizable portion of China’s dynastic history, society became instrumental in the pursuit of stability and prolonged power, and a powerful philosophy had shaped Chinese society to serve such function – Confucianism. Chinese government and social relations was grounded on a natural order of the universe translated into a basic hierarchy of human relationships. One of the central elements of Confucian philosophy is the grave importance of the family, and this is reflected in the basic Confucian virtue of hsiao/xiao (孝), or filial piety. The value of honor and respect for members of the family, even extending to ancestors, was clearly depicted in Mulan’s struggle to bring honor to her family by becoming a perfect bride, which turned out to be a disaster and even making the matchmaker exclaim “You are a disgrace! You may look like a bride, but you will never bring your family honor!” But it is in this very episode in the story that Mulan’s search for her brand of honor begins.

Mulan’s question of whether she was “meant to play [the] part” of a perfect bride and daughter echoes the feminist argument against roles ascribed on the basis of sex. One of the five relationships in Confucian philosophy – that of husband and wife – has been subject to numerous criticisms from feminist scholars. Given this rigid imposition of Confucian norm, what Mulan did (which was beautifully represented in the fearless cutting of her long hair) was indeed a considerable feat.

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But the very thing that made the film triumphant in conveying feminist thought is the fact that even though she had to hide under a male disguise, Mulan never lost her femininity. By eventually defeating the Hun leader Shan Yu, Mulan proved, not only to her family and her fellow male colleagues in the army, but to the whole of China, that she (without the disguise), is as capable as a man in proving her worth as a citizen and a person, and in the end, she ultimately emancipates herself from the confines of rigidity of state-centered and male-dominated society and tradition.

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We might never know what happened to Hua Mulan (in some accounts, it is said that her cover was not discovered) or some might argue that the film’s feminist message was only debunked when Mulan falls in love with Shang (she had already proved her strength and worth anyway), but the groundbreaking message that Mulan brings, especially coming from a Disney flick during that time, is worth applauding.

Mulan’s journey is that of a beautiful flower – she is likened to a late blossom by his father Fa Zhou, but the words of the Emperor tell of something more: “The flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare and beautiful of all.” The legendary tale of Mulan should serve as a constant reminder that it is in facing challenges and uncertainties that we measure our strength and discover ourselves. And it is in this exact regard that Mulan truly bloomed into a loving daughter, a dutiful citizen, and most importantly, a woman of honor.

-V

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