Mulan 2020 Part 1
Welcome to Chasing Dramas! This is the podcast that discusses Chinese history and culture through historical Chinese dramas. We are your hosts – Karen and Cathy.
We’re pausing today on our discussion of Empresses in the Palace to discuss a more recent film. Mulan. We recently watched the new Mulan movie that is available on Disney +. It stars the beautiful 刘亦菲 in the titular role as Mulan and has some other notable stars such as 巩俐 who plays 仙娘, a witch, and Donnie Yen, as General Tung. After watching this movie we just had so many thoughts that we just had to do research and discuss it here! Karen and I grew up watching the Disney version of Mulan. We basically know it by heart. Not even that, we’ve watched the mandarin dub and the Cantonese dub. Fun fact, the mandarin and Cantonese dubs include Jackie Chan as Shang and yes he does the singing in it! We’re excited to share our thoughts and the history and culture that we see on the screen.
Following our general podcast format, we will go over a high level summary of the movie and then some in depth analysis on the history of Mulan. This episode is SPOILER FREE of the movie. We reference the beginning and what’s widely available in plot summaries or trailers. We will have a separate episode where we go in depth on our thoughts of the movie. For this podcast, we will be discussing the movie primarily in English but pronounce proper nouns in Mandarin Chinese.
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Alright, with that? Let’s get started.
This movie depicts the tale of 花木兰, a young woman who takes her father’s place in the Imperial Army and her epic battles to save the emperor from northern invaders. The movie starts with Mulan meeting the matchmaker in hopes of a good match. It doesn’t go so well. As Mulan is being told off for bringing dishonor to her family, her village hears news that the Emperor is conscripting men from every family to fight the RouRans. Wanting to protect her injured and elderly father, Mulan steals his armor, sword and conscription notice and takes his place in the army. We follow Mulan’s journey as she becomes a warrior,
The storyline is similar to the 1998 Disney animated version but they have made it slightly more historically accurate, at least in terms of the enemy they’re facing. Instead of huns invading China, it is actually the RouRans or 柔然。Who are these people? We’ll discuss that in our historical analysis.
Let’s talk about the cast! This cast is quite fun as it includes a few very prominent names in Chinese entertainment.
刘亦菲 plays 花木兰. She is primarily a mainland Chinese actress but has had a foray into Hollywood with the 2008 film, The Forbidden Kingdom. That film also starred Jackie Chan and Jet Li. I remember going to the theater to see that film with my friends. It’s a fun time but mixes a lot of Chinese lore/legends together which was a little jarring. Not my favorite film overall but entertaining.
she has been one of our favorite Chinese actresses for about the last 15 years. I was ecstatic to hear that she would play 木兰。 She started in the industry at a young age and is deemed as one of the most beautiful women in China. Her nickname is called 神仙姐姐 which means Goddess older sister. This is derived from her role as 小龙女 in a Martial Arts, 武侠 Drama called 神雕侠侣 that came out in 2006. She plays an ethereal martial arts master who only wears white. Seriously, look at her photos from this drama, I’ve posted some to twitter. She is stunning. Her background was in ballet but since she’s been in so many martial arts dramas, she’s very adept with various weapons. You’ll see in the movie that she generally is very comfortable with her sword and is doing many of her own stunts. I feel that many people who have watched her dramas growing up will be happy to see her in this film.
Gong Li is the witch 仙娘. She is considered one of the greatest Chinese actresses living today. She debuted in 张艺谋’s Red Sorghum or 红高粱 in 1987 and has been in numerous award winning movies over the decades including Farewell my Concubine, Flirting Scholar, 2046, Western audiences will know her from Memoirs of a Geisha and Miami Vice. There are quite a few movies that are available to stream if you want to catch up on her filmography. I really did enjoy Farewell my Concubine. I don’t know about her makeup here in Mulan but she does look great!
Jet Li is the Emperor. Who doesn’t know Jet Li? The Chinese action star for the 90s and 2000s. Born in Beijing, Jet Li was a Wushu champion before becoming an actor. For those of you that don’t know, WuShu is Chinese martial arts. He was in the fantastic film 2002 film called Hero or 英雄 by 张艺谋 and then in the 2006 film Fearless or 霍元甲。He broke into the international market with Lethal Weapons 4 in 1998. He’s also been in the Expendables franchise with Sylvester Stallone among various other films. He’s now retired from being an action star but can still be an emperor in Mulan! I was shocked to see how much he aged in this film. Maybe it’s the make up or this is a reflection of reality but I was quite surprised.
Donnie Yen is Commander Tung. Donnie Yen or in Mandarin, 甄子丹, is a popular Hong Kong action star that starred in many popular movies including the Ip Man movies and was also in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. He is known for doing most of his own stunts. If you’re interested in seeing some of his work, definitely start with the Ip Man movies. He is fantastic at various forms of martial arts. The character he plays in this movie is Commander Tung who trains the soldiers before heading off to battle.
郑佩佩 – She is the matchmaker. This is a small role but guess what!? 郑佩佩 played 刘亦菲’s Grandma in 刘亦菲’s classic drama, 仙剑奇侠传 or Chinese Paladin, that came out in early 2000s. It’s heartwarming to see them in this film even though they don’t have many scenes together. 郑佩佩 has been in many many movies and dramas in China, Hong Kong, and the US including Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon
The rest of the cast include Yoson An as Chen Honghui and Tzi Ma as Hua Zhou and a fun cameo that we won’t spoil now.
Now that we’ve geeked out about the cast, let’s get on with some history.
The story of Mulan was first recorded as a folk ballad in the latter end of the 北朝 era or the Northern Dynasty era, so around the 6th century AD. There is no definitive author of this ballad nor are we certain of Mulan’s existence. Her birth, where she’s from, her last name are all a mystery. It is widely accepted that her last name is 花 or Hua which means flower but it is never mentioned in the ballad. Interestingly, if you move this last name behind Mulan, as 木兰花, it’s actually the magnolia flower. She is generally thought to have been from the 河南 Province but again, there is no definitive answer.
The ballad, or poem, isn’t very long. On the whole it’s similar to what the Disney movies have depicted though there are a few differences. Here’s my rough English translation:
Mulan is weaving cloth but is thinking about the conscription notice that arrived yesterday. The ruler is drafting men for war. Every notice or document has her father’s name on it but he does not have an older son. So, Mulan willingly decides to go to the market to buy a horse and saddle to take his place in the army.
The next day, she leaves her family and travels to the Yellow River, no longer able to hear her parents calling out to her。She only hears the rush of the Yellow River. The following day, she travels to the Yan Mountain, no longer able to hear her parents calling out to her. She hears only the horsemen and their horses.
They travel thousands of miles to reach the battlefield, climbing over many mountains as if they were flying. Through the cold northern air, they hear the night clap, the moonlight shining on the soldier’s armor. Some fall after a hundred battles, others return after ten years time, victorious.
The victors return to meet the son of heaven who sits on his throne. Each soldier is rewarded for their merits and Mulan receives a hefty sum. The son of heaven asks Mulan what else she desires. She says she does not want a role in his court. She only wants to return home to her family.
Her parents, upon hearing that she is returning home, come out to greet her. Mulan’s sister dresses herself up. Mulan’s younger brother starts working to slaughter pigs and goats to celebrate. She opens every door at home to look around. She takes off her armor, dons her women’s clothes. She fixes her hair and puts on makeup. She walks out to greet her fellow soldiers who are stunned at her transformation. They exclaim that they have traveled and fought together for twelve years and never knew she was a woman.
The poem ends with – There are characteristics to tell the difference between male and female rabbits. But when they are running together, how can one tell the difference?
So what are some of the differences from the poem vs what we’ve seen in the movies. 1st, there’s no mention of a matchmaker so that seems to be added for general story purposes in both the animated and live action versions. There is also no intense battle to save the emperor documented in this ballad. Instead, she fought this war for 12 years. Further, her identity is never revealed to her fellow soldiers in some dramatic fashion. They only discover her secret after she decides to reveal it to her friends. Interestingly, in this ballad, she has a younger brother and a younger sister. There is, also unfortunately, not a love story in this ballad. This seems solely focused on her devotion to her family and her wish to protect her father. Evidently, any love interests are further fabrications or additions to this ballad.
But geez, keeping your identity a secret for 12 long years! That’s an incredible feat. This probably also speaks to Mulan’s intellect at being able to fool everyone for so long.
As a major point of deviation from the animated version, the enemy in this movie are the RouRans. This is actually true to history and was most likely the enemy that Mulan fought in this Chinese ballad.
Who are the RouRan’s exactly?
The origins of the RouRan people are not definitive but experts generally agree that they are descended from Eastern Hu, Xiong Nu and Xian Bei people. RouRan was a khaganate of mostly nomadic tribes that were fearsome on horseback during the 4th to 6th centuries and occupied Mongolia and Northeastern China. They hit their peak in the years 410 – 425 AD. They constantly descended further mainland in skirmishes against the Northern Wei (北魏). In between wars, there were tributary relationships between the Rourans and the Northern Wei empire. The Rourans were completely decimated in 555AD at the hands of Gokturks which effectively dissolved this group in history. In the movie, the leader of the invading Rouran’s is called Bori Khan. I don’t see records of that persome existing.
Let’s talk about the time period that this was set. It’s never clearly said in the movie but based on certain costume choices and the existence of the Rourans, the movie is most likely set during the Southern and Northern Dynasties 南北朝 which also fits in with when the Mulan Ballad first surfaced. This period lasted from 386 to 589AD. There were multiple kingdoms that sprung up during this time period without one unifying dynasty. The Northern Dynasties comprised of 北魏、东魏、西魏、北齐、北周 and the Southern Dynasties comprised of 刘宋、萧齐、萧梁、南陈. It was a dangerous and fragmented time. If you look at maps of this time period the Rourans were a constant threat to all of the Northern Dynasties. There are plenty of records of Rourans attacking Northern Wei and Northern Qi. This time period came to an end with the unification under Emperor Wen, creating the Sui Dynasty. The origins of Mulan are known to have come from this time but it isn’t clear of the exact time so we don’t know which dynasty she’s from.
Time for some sets and costume design! These were all shown in the trailers so no spoilers here. When we first start off with the movie, we get a sweeping scene of Mulan’s home. We see the rice fields and rice paddies along with huts that look very much similar to Hakka huts found in Southern China. Today we can find them in Fujian Province.
As for costumes and makeup, the one that pops into mind is 刘亦菲’s transformation for the matchmaking scene. When I first saw it, I was pretty taken aback. It’s quite different from what we’re used to, especially the yellow powder but after doing a little bit of digging, this makeup is relatively historically accurate.
The specific style for Mulan’s cheeks is called 晚霞妆 or the Evening Sunset style. It was common during the time period. The main point was to powder the cheeks like a red sunset. Now, onto her forehead. The style is called 额黄妆 or literally translated to Forehead Yellow. Women would powder their foreheads yellow or use a yellow paper flower cutout that they would place on their forehead. This style is actually quoted in the Mulan Ballad. When she returns home and changes to women’s clothing, she looks at the mirror to add yellow flowers. In Mandarin the phrase is 对镜贴花黄. Finally, the red flower petals on Mulan’s forehead were also common. It looks to be 3 flower petals. The origins of this actually come around this time during the Song Wu Dynasty in the south. One princess was sleeping and flower petals landed on her forehead. She couldn’t peel them off but after 3 days, they finally washed off but left 5 petal marks on her forehead. Her maids and other ladies in the palace thought it looked lovely and all wanted to mimic the style. The Plum Flower style was born. It was very fashionable to draw flower shapes on one’s forehead and it persisted well into the Tang Dynasty. We actually discuss this in some of our episodes of 甄嬛传 Empresses in the Palace.
That’s it for our discussion and history of Mulan and our brief recap about the film without any spoilers. Go and watch the movie before coming back to listen to our review. We will talk about our overall impressions of the film as well as Easter eggs and historical inaccuracies. Let us know what you thought of the film as well either via social media or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org