In 1998, Disney released the animated film Mulan, a Disney-fied tale of a young girl who risks it all to join the Chinese army in an effort to save her father from dying on the field. It was one of Disney’s better girl-power movies—there was no prince, no clock strike at midnight, no magic. Granted, a statue did come to life and act as Mulan’s guide, but that was ancestral, not magical, two very different signifiers in the Disney canon.
The magic-free aspect of Mulan was one of the things that made it so endearing and which made Mulan the character so aspirational in the ’90s. She did everything on her own and only required a single talking animal friend to aid her in her adventures. The Disney+ reboot of Mulan, which aimed to tell the same story almost frame-for-frame but with a post-MeToo twist (wherein Mulan’s superior officer is not her love interest), decided the best thing to do would be to completely undermine all of the original Mulan’s hard work and bring in a little bippity boppity.
Multiple spoilers ahead.
Thus enters Xian Lang (Gong Li), the witch who aids the nomadic army as it moves to the empirical city to kill the emperor, played by Jet Li. While Xian Lang is written as a villain and does villainous things like wear black and kill soldiers without mercy (or blood), it turns out she’s the real hero of the story, without whom Mulan could not have saved all of China. Again.
The new Mulan film is, overall, a disappointment plagued by the shadow of the original film, poor set design, and the current unrest in China and Hong Kong. Many of the sets appear to be recycled from the Aladdin reboot, and Mulan’s home village looks like the lobby of a Great Wolf Lodge. The film also opted to be subtly racist, in the true spirit of Disney, by casting darker-skinned actors as villains and lighter-skinned actors as heroes. This version of the story opted to forgo any of the original film’s excellent musical numbers and replaced them with a score built on instrumental hintings at the classics like I’ll Make a Man Out of You and Honor to Us All. The virtual opening weekend was meanwhile bogged down by news of China’s human rights violations against the Uighur Muslims, which was part of the reason the hashtag #BoycottMulan was trending on Friday and Saturday. Originally, fans intended to boycott the film’s theatrical release after its star, Liu Yifei tweeted in support of police officers brutalizing protestors in Hong Kong.
Knowing all of this ahead of time, I still chose to fork over 30 bucks to Disney with the hopes that they did right by a film that played a pivotal role in my youth. I have no one to blame but myself. While Liu Yifei’s portrayal of Mulan is at best flat and at worst the most uninspired hour of acting I have ever seen, Gong Lia absolutely devours the few scenes she’s given in the film, making me wonder if instead of a sequel, Disney could recoup their losses by making a Mulan prequel that focuses on Xian Lang.
In the movie, Mulan’s father narrates her story to the ancestors and talks about her qi, her life force, the thing that makes her good at kung-fu and swordplay. Because Mulan is a girl, she’s told numerous times that she must hide her qi from the world. When she poses as a man and joins the army, her superiors encourage her to unleash her qi fully, to really knock the viewer over the head with the unfairness of gender roles.
Like Mulan, Xian Lang was also said to be a woman who possessed a great amount of qi, which she was told to contain. Instead, Xian somehow manifests her qi into a power that allows her to shapeshift into different people and a swarm of birds to claw people to death with her hark talons. Her journey from being a little girl with too much qi to becoming a full-grown hated witch is never explained, but Mulan is warned several times throughout the film that she will be called a witch if she doesn’t keep her qi in check.
Naturally, Xian Lang and Mulan cross paths in an epic one-on-one fight, which Mulan loses because, as Xian Lang makes clear through fight scene exposition, lying and suppressing her qi makes Mulan weak. After Mulan saves her battalion and reveals herself as a woman, she is exiled by the army and finds herself alone on a cliff, where Xian Lang finds her and asks her to join her girl gang and become a witch.
Mulan tries to convince Xian Lang that she can follow the “noble path” and not aid in killing the emperor. But Xian Lang has seen too much and knows that she will never be accepted for who she truly is: a badass witch with a sense of style better than anyone in China.
The entire thesis of all three Mulan films (there was a trash sequel in 2004) is that anyone, even a woman, could be accepted for who they truly are as long as they stick to their convictions. Xian Lang wasn’t a bad witch; she was just looking for a place to belong and was being manipulated by the real villains of the movie: the nomadic army. She could have easily saved China herself and been accepted, or Mulan could have at least put in a good word with all her newfound clout.
Had Xian Lang been treated better by the film, as a person rather than an evil version of Mulan, there’d be at least one positive thing to say about the film. But just like in the story, Xian Lang is treated by the filmmakers as a disposable muppet, even though she was the most interesting addition to a deflated story that wanted to be so many different things and ended up being a pro-imperialist vehicle.