Mulan going to war
Mulan going to war

Almost everyone grew up watching Disney animations. From ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937), the journey kept going on. And most of these are stories about prince and princesses. Though while many other Disney princesses are mostly internally focused, looking for a prince to marry, Mulan is totally different.

Mulan 1998 is an animated movie about a girl named Hua Mulan who learns that her injured father Hua Jun, an honoured warrior, is to be called up into the army to fight the invading Huns, a mission he would not survive. But she can’t let that happen. Hua Mulan is spirited, determined and quick on her feet. So, she decides to disguise herself as a man and go to battle in her father’s place. But what Mulan doesn’t realise is that this was not an easy thing. But it soon becomes clear that she will not abandon her plan, at least for the sake of keeping her father alive.

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Mulan is the first Disney animated film to focus so thematically and specifically on war and battle. This was definitely hard as it took five years and 700 animators, artists and technicians to finish the whole film. As a result, Mulan was the second-highest grossing family film of the year. It won several Annie Awards including Best Animated Feature while the musical score was also praised. It was nominated for the Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Original Music Score. After all “you don’t come across a girl like that every dynasty”, but the ‘real’ Mulan was even more of a warrior.

Mulan is based on a Chinese folk song, “The Ballad of Mulan” written around the fifth century. The folk song, whose writer is unknown, is believed to have originated in China’s Northern Wei kingdom, which ruled the country’s north during the 4th-6th centuries AD. Throughout its history, the kingdom was engaged in wars against foreign invaders along its northern frontier.

The ballad begins with the principal character, Mulan, worried about a draft that the Northern Wei king has ordered, in which each family is supposed to send a son or brother to join the army. Mulan has no elder brother, and her father, a war veteran, is too old to serve. Mulan then goes on to buy military equipment, and disguises herself as a man to join the draft, taking her father’s place.

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She is then gone “ten thousand miles on the business of war” a journey during which Mulan travels across mountains and passes and survives over a hundred battles, before finally returning to the king’s palace after 10 years. As the king is handing out promotions and prizes, he asks Mulan what she desires. To which the warrior replies she has “no use for a minister’s post”, and only asks for a camel for completing the long journey back to her family. When Mulan packs to go back home, she changes from military wear to her usual feminine clothes. That’s when her comrades are left flabbergasted as they realise for the first time that Mulan is a woman.

After 22 years of the success of Mulan 1998, Disney again decided to remake it to a live-action movie ‘Mulan 2020’ which was one of the best animated movies of this year. Powerful performances and intense battle sequences make this retelling of Mulan a more mature adaptation, stressing the story's themes of female empowerment and family devotion.

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As with all of her movies, director Niki Caro highlights in Mulan the way that women have always had to fight to be taken seriously or to be considered as capable as men. Actress Liu Yifei, who played the role of Hua Mulan is well cast as the young warrior woman in the making who wants, more than anything, to make her father proud.

At the starting of the film, a village matchmaker tells Mulan that a good wife is “composed, graceful, polite” and “when a wife serves her husband, she must be silent, invisible.” Mulan fails to embody all of these long-held virtues of an ideal Chinese girl, and her father also exhorts Mulan to hide her special abilities because in that time everyone used to think that this masculine power has no place in a girl’s life. The only way she can honour her family is through marriage. However, Mulan ultimately brings honor to her family by demonstrating that she is “loyal, brave and true” (qualities engraved on her father’s sword).

After Mulan was first written, over the centuries she’s been celebrated in lays and operas, in musicals and TV series, in picture books and novels and young-adult fiction. On the big screen, she’s starred in silent movies “Hua Mulan Joins the Army” (1927); a gorgeous full-color musical “Lady General Hua Mulan,” (1964); a gritty action-filled war epic “Mulan: Rise of a Warrior,” (2009).

While the gutsy girl Mulan could possibly be real, it’s largely thought the story of Mulan is fictional. The ballads were meant to be inspiring tales rather than a true story. When it comes to Chinese folklore the ballad itself is unusual. There aren’t any supernatural elements in the ballad, which is why people believe that it was true. Scholars generally disagree. There is no historical evidence to prove Mulan’s existence. Passed down orally the tale has a complicated origin. Hua Mulan may not have been real, but that hasn’t stopped her tale inspiring people, whether that’s in the seventh century or today.

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Stories about women bravely going against the cultural and social grain can be delectable catnip, and it’s no different here. Mulan is an insistently attractive character, no matter how differently conceptualised.

One of the lessons of Mulan’s tale is that women and men aren’t simply equals, but are finally indistinguishable when and where it counts: on the move, on the run, in the heat of the battle. Rather than being a story of female empowerment, Mulan promotes the idea that women must put male authority figures before themselves to achieve recognition. As Mulan says, “The flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare and beautiful of them all.”

Rumaiysa M Rahman is a 9th grader at Viqarunnisa Noon School and College, Dhaka.