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What Becomes a Legend Most?

Commentary: Yes, Disney takes plenty of poetic license with its free-spirited heroine in 'Mulan.' But its bolder view of Asian women is liberating.

June 14, 1998|Gish Jen | Gish Jen is the author of "Mona in the Promised Land." Her new book, "The Fortune-Telling Pineapple," will be published next year

For years it seemed that Asian women were doomed to be portrayed in American popular culture as dragon ladies, whores or as ever-suffering, submissive Madame Butterflies. But now, lo and behold, multiculturalism has spread out of the academy and brought us a new breed of startlingly smart, fiery, independent Asian women.

Already this year has seen a groundbreaking James Bond movie in "Tomorrow Never Dies," which features Hong Kong Kung Fu star Michelle Yeoh as a Chinese spy who is working toward the same end as 007 and is every bit his match. She is brave, savvy and unflappable, not to say a spectacularly skilled athlete who is, perhaps most significantly of all, not easily seduced. And now we have Disney's new movie, "Mulan" (opening Friday), a marvel of progress vis-a-vis issues of representation such as should make many people cheer, even as it raises the ever-thorny question of authenticity.

Ethnic political correctness was clearly on the minds of the producers in the making of the movie, which is based on a well-known ancient Chinese legend about a woman who, to keep her aging father from being drafted, disguises herself as a man and goes to war in his place. For example, Ruben Aquino, an animator of half-Filipino, half-Japanese descent, spoke explicitly of wanting to make the lead Chinese male, Shang, a "good Asian role model," and actor B.D. Wong, who supplied the voice of Shang, has praised Disney's decision to cast Asian American talent for the main roles.

It is true that the invading Hun troops, led by arch-bad guy Shan-Yu, are portrayed as wholly inhuman; if there are any Hun American campus groups, we are sure to hear from them. But in general the movie has a refreshingly enlightened air on the ethnic front, and is sensitive to other issues of our time as well. As a parent, I could not help but applaud the fact that the violence in the movie is held to a minimum, and that "Mulan" is one of the few Disney movies featuring a young woman that is primarily a coming-of-age story rather than a romance. (Though she does earn Shang's love in the end, the emphasis through most of the movie is on becoming a person who could "look in a mirror and see someone worthwhile.")

Moreover, the extended scenes of Mulan learning what it means to be a man, compounded with ironic songs about what constitutes "a girl worth fighting for," naturally raise the topic of gender roles in a helpful way. And, as co-director Tony Bancroft notes, this is a story not only about how Mulan changes, but "how she changes society and their way of seeing her."

All of this made me delighted to have my 6-year-old see "Mulan"--which he judged to be "awesome"--and I suspect millions of American parents will feel the same way. But what are we to make of the fact that an ancient story of filial piety has been remade into a free spirit's quest for acceptance and self-esteem? Does authenticity matter? And who has license to elaborate on a legend? It is worth noting that when, some 20-odd years ago, Maxine Hong Kingston made free with the Mulan legend in her classic memoir, "The Woman Warrior," she precipitated a storm of controversy that has yet to abate. Is "Mulan" likely to do the same? May we expect pickets?

The earliest written version of the Mulan story is in a relatively short Northern Wei (386-534 A.D.) or Tang Dynasty (618-907) ballad that opens with a girl at her weaving loom. In this poem, her concerns are altogether with her father; the stanzas devoted to her 10 years at war focus largely, movingly, on how far she is from home:

At sunset she camped by the Yellow River

She couldn't hear her parents calling her,

She heard only the Yellow River's flow surge and splash.

. . . Evening she was atop the Black Mountains;

She couldn't hear her parents calling her,

She heard only the Tartar Horse on Swallow Mountain

whinny and blow.

Correspondingly, the scene of greatest emotional weight is the one in which Mulan is welcomed home. Yet even in this old ballad, the ostensible message is mixed with another one, the message Kingston and now Disney make much more of than filial piety. For the poem does not end with the straightforward vignette of preparation for a feast, but with the image of two rabbits, which, though male and female, cannot be told apart. Mulan's successful crossing of the gender boundary is finally what fascinated even the earliest chronicler of the tale.

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