Should Disney’s new Mulan film be in Mandarin?

Disney’s live-action versions of some of their classic animated films have been very well-received recently. Maleficient, a retelling of the “Mistress of All Evil”, was the first since 101 Dalmatians in 1996 and although it had many people divided on the titular character’s story and background, it was a big box office success. Cinderella, The Jungle Book and Beauty and the Beast followed; all of which did extremely well too.

Next in the pipeline is Dumbo, Aladdin, The Lion King and Maleficient II. But the one I’m most interested in seeing is Mulan, slated for a 2020 release. Of course, with these re-imaginations, the main worry people have is how it will differ from the original, how much of it will be similar or familiar and whether – in the case of those rooted in a different culture – it will be “westernised” or “whitesplained”.

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Liu Yifei will take on the role of Mulan.

Thankfully, Disney has so far been very careful in their handling of their films’ production and casting. Even for animated films such as the original Mulan, The Princess and the Frog and Moana where the main characters are POC, the majority of voice actors and actresses have corresponded with their characters’ ethnic backgrounds. Neel Sethi, who played Mowgli in the live version of The Jungle Book is of Indian descent, the cast of Aladdin are all a mix of South Asian and Middle Eastern actors, and the majority of voice actors for The Lion King are black, African or African-American. And the cast of Mulan will follow suit.

Liu Yifei, a popular actress in China and best known to western audiences from The Forbidden Kingdom alongside Jackie Chan and Jet Li, secured the role of Mulan. Donnie Yen, Jet Li and Gong Li also have major parts and now relative newcomer Yoson An will play Mulan’s love interest, Chen Honghui (one of a few major cast and plot changes from Shang Li in the animated version). What will be interesting to see is if this will be in a similar vein to traditional Chinese wuxia films, since it features two of the biggest martial arts stars of all time. And will it consist of too much CGI like the overly Americanised sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon did, or be more authentic in its effects?

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Jet Li, Donnie Yen and Gong Li will co-star in what will potentially be a really action-packed film.

However, the one big question I’d be most interested in knowing the answer to is, what language will the film be in and which should it be in? Of course, Mulan is a family-friendly film mainly aimed at younger audiences, not to mention western audiences so it might be logical for all the characters to speak in English, as all previous Disney films have been in, even if set in a different country and as the original Mulan was. But if they want to be as ethnically and culturally correct as possible, wouldn’t it be better if this film was in Mandarin? The original Disney film was comedic and lighthearted and helped introduce a lot more people to Chinese culture, history and traditions, especially children, so it can be understood why it was in English. But now, Disney have the chance to do something different for themselves again with what could potentially be their first full foreign language film.

For me personally, watching a (live-action) film set in a different country with actors who can all speak the same language of that country, conversing in English both confuses me and kinda strips away the illusion of an ethnically, culturally and therefore linguistically correct film. Two prime examples of this are The Forbidden Kingdom and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny. With the former, most of the main characters do speak Mandarin to each other, but suddenly when Jackie and Jet both speak to each other, they do so in English bar a couple of lines, as they also do with Liu Yifei. But the question is why? Where is the consistency? It was very bizarre. And technically, considering it was set in ancient, mythological China, the characters would not have known English anyway.

In CTHD2, however, besides the film being extremely underwhelming to say the least, it is entirely in English and dubbed in Mandarin (and I doubt most of the cast did their own dubbing), which looked and sounded annoying and out of place. 90% of the cast are ethnically Chinese or even part-Chinese and therefore can assumedly speak Mandarin or at least Cantonese, but instead of being consistent with the first film by it being in Mandarin, the producers of this instalment decided English would apparently be more appealing to westerners. While that might be partly understandable and seeing as the film was released outside of China on Netflix, the small worry of people not liking it being in English and having to read subtitles should not have been something for them to worry about at all.

Simply put, if you’re going to have a film set in China, based on famous Chinese literature, featuring an ethnically Chinese and Chinese-speaking cast, that incorporates Chinese traditions, cultures and history, and – perhaps most ironically – is directed by a Chinese man (renowned action choreographer Yuen Woo-ping) who barely speaks any English, in English, you are effectively erasing half of the film’s authenticity. And unfortunately for them, both audiences – Chinese and non-Chinese alike – and critics slated the film, with many expressing annoyance and confusion at the choice of English being used.

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Despite its massive hype, the success of its predecessor and having a predominantly Chinese cast, CTHD2 was panned by critics and hated by many for being filmed in English.

The aforementioned erasure of authenticity, I fear, could also happen with Mulan if it is not in Mandarin. And again, people may argue that western audiences will detest the idea of it being in a language other than English and won’t like reading subtitles (particularly children) but guess what, there is life – as this film and many others show – outside of our western world and bubble. It may even be a fantastically innovative way to introduce a whole new generation and the rest of the world outside of China to the importance and reach of Mandarin. Why should a film centred around China and Chinese culture, be in English just for the satisfaction of moviegoers? Disney has no reason to be scared with taking this one risk or the film being less commercially successful than they anticipate considering their track record of box office and critically-acclaimed successes. In fact, I could probably pretty much guess that critics would praise the film more if it was in Mandarin.

Disney would also do well to cater to the Chinese market after the original animated film flopped in China. While it grossed $300m worldwide, the film made a measly $30,000 there. Audience consensus was that Mulan didn’t look Chinese enough… Yes, seriously. But now they’ve cast Chinese actors who are also some of the country’s most profitable stars, surely it’s more likely to be a hit? Well, perhaps, if it’s in Chinese. One can only imagine the uproar there’ll be if it isn’t as they’d find it even stranger or possibly even insulting.

Of course, dubbing would perhaps suit the best of both worlds. Though that could also potentially pose a problem; if it was originally in Chinese and dubbed to English, the western population might find it strange, but the Chinese population might also find it strange seeing Chinese actors clearly speaking English and it being dubbed over in Mandarin when they know they speak the language.

Even if the film is predictably in English, I’m sure it will be just as successful and I can imagine the rest of the film will be still compelling in other ways. However, I can guarantee you, that I and many others – Chinese or not – will also find it weird seeing Chinese actors speaking to each other in English. But it looks like we may have to wait until the first trailer is released, which will probably next year, to know the answer…

Update (29/02/20)

So the full official trailer of the film has since been released… but several fears/suspicions have been confirmed: the film’s in English, there’s no Mushu, there’s no singing and there’s no comedy. So basically it’s an English-language version of the Chinese film from 2009 starring Zhao Wei. That film is a lot more serious take on the original legend and it appears this one is too.

The charm of Mulan and the comic relief of the original animated version seem to have gone, so how Disney believe this will keep younger audiences hooked for nearly 2 hours or older fans of the other one satisfied with some nostalgia I don’t know.

As I said before, the original did not do as well commercially as they had hoped in China, so is this Disney’s attempt to stay more faithful to the story and culture? Because in truthfulness, it didn’t stray too far while also managing to clearly remain a “Disney film”. And as previously said, I can imagine Chinese audiences not being impressed with this one either. Why should they watch a crop of some of the best actors from their country communicate in English and have to read Chinese subtitles? As there is nothing that’s been said that the scenes were filmed twice in both languages. Either way, Disney can only hope it’ll be a success, seeing as it’s cost them a staggering $200 million to make, which probably doesn’t factor in its further millions of marketing costs. I bet this means it’ll need to earn a minimum of $500m at the global box office to at least break even, let alone make a profit.

Reading comments on the YouTube video seem to show a divide in opinion as well. Many are more disappointed that there’s no singing and Mushu, while others think it looks “cool” and that Mulan is more “badass”. What didn’t make her “badass” in the original? She was defiant, brave, a good fighter, witty and clever in that too. Very few people have made mention of the film’s language but those that have echoed the same questions that puzzle me.

Other comments, however, urge people to #BoycottMulan after it was known that lead actress Liu Yifei was a supporter of the Hong Kong police amid the political disruption last summer. This obviously didn’t sit well with some people, but I hardly see this having a huge effect on the numbers who go to see it. What may hinder its performance, especially in Asia, though is the coronavirus outbreak. Will a lot of people be wanting to avoid going to the cinema?

So while the trailer does not fill me with any hope or clear my mind of any doubts I had before, full judgement will of course be saved for the film’s release at the end of March. Because the trailer doesn’t hint that the film is or will be bad, but it certainly doesn’t look like a Reflection (geddit?) of the Disney films we all know and love, including the recent live action versions, which have largely kept the magic, comedy and nostalgia of their original animated counterparts.

In more exciting news regarding the film though, Christina Aguilera has confirmed she is releasing a new version of the song “Reflection” as well as other new material!

6 comments

  1. To the author.
    Nice article. However you should know though, that the theatrical releases of both Mulan and Kung fu panda in HK and China were in their respective languages. Cantonese and Mandarin.

    Like

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