COLUMN: Disney’s Mulan without the music misses the point

It was more than just the fangirl in me that was shocked when I heard news that there would, indeed, be no songs in the upcoming live-action remake of Disney’s Mulan. After reading the director’s statement of the vision for the film as “a big, girly martial arts epic,” I couldn’t help it. The first thought I had was: Even Disney’s live-action The Jungle Book was a musical! Is it really harder to imagine Chinese people bursting into song than CGI bears?

Perhaps there is a part of me that is being petty, but consider also the great and ridiculous strides the public conscience had to take to get to this point in the first place.  Remember that collective breath we were all holding when we worried that the Mulan remake — like so many movies set in and starring “Asian” characters before it — would descend into the shameful and tiresome territory of whitewashing? A white Mulan? Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? But hold on, those fears were not unfounded. Let’s not forget the bald-headed Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange, or the raven-haired wig-donning Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell.

I am tired of patting movies on the back for casting Asian characters to play Asian roles. And I am tired of feeling relieved that they choose to acknowledge, in these movies that are so very few and far between, the very existence of Asian people with the media’s unlimited span of imagination. I am startlingly happy that my favorite childhood film — the movie that taught me, a young Asian American girl, to love and find bravery within myself — will now be reimagined in a hopefully bigger and brighter format.

But this happiness is not blind. And if I am to believe Disney’s vision, this superficial hallmark is where the remake’s originality ends. According to the director herself, it’s just another martial arts movie. And how many of those have we seen already?

It’s not just that I loved the music in Mulan. For me, that music demonstrated something much more rare: A second layer inside a movie about Asian characters, a relatable and fun and empathetic strand that ran through this story repeating, with each rhythm, its heartfelt message. That Asian characters can overcome caricatures. That they can laugh and they can sing and dance. That they are not just dragon ladies and wise men swinging swords and leaping into the air.

If we can’t even rise above stereotypes in this supposed triumph for Asian Americans in cinema, how, then, are we to put our visions and goals on bigger feats: God forbid, a fleshed-out, well-developed, original Asian or Asian American character?

Mulan was never strictly about martial arts and stunts and action (except, perhaps, that really cool sequence when the army is training during “We Are Men”). And trust me, Asian Americans everywhere can tell you how we’ve had enough of that: characters boiled down to the bone, defined only by the extreme physical stunts they can pull off with karate. No, the animated Mulan was something else: It was about the fight you have inside you — not the fights that demand physical strength. Mulan was the only movie I had growing up that presented a deep, flawed and yet entirely human presentation of an Asian woman. Mulan is strong, but stronger still in the fact that she had absolutely zero care for what society demanded of her.

I would wager as well that the movie Disney is so intent on producing — one about grit and martial arts — takes just as much choreography and training as if they had thought about making it a musical. And so what I am deriving from Disney’s decision to forge their own path with the Mulan remake is that it was a conscious and deliberate choice to drive the film back into the realm of Asian exoticism and mysticism that Hollywood just cannot seem to shake off. A Mulan without music shaves off an entire section of potential movie-goers (kids and families), but most importantly, presents a tiresome and redundant portrait of Asians that defeats the acclaimed subversiveness of the original film.

Zoe Cheng is a sophomore majoring in writing for screen and television. Her column, “Wide Shot,” runs Wednesdays.