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Mulan’s witch is the best part of the new movie — and also the most disappointing

Gong Li and the intriguing new character deserved better.

Gong Li in Disney’s new Mulan
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

My biggest takeaways after watching Disney’s live-action Mulan remake are: It’s not very good, and I would like Gong Li to tear me to shreds.

The two aren’t mutually exclusive. The movie is beautifully shot and full of visual wonder and spectacle, but it’s a hollow jewel box of a film because of its lack of logic and emotional groundwork. Li’s performance and character are the epitome of this hollowness: Her terrifyingly beautiful and taloned witch is the only improvement the live-action film makes to the 1998 animated original, and Li plays her to perfection.

But the character is also the movie’s biggest disappointment because of her squandered potential.

The Witch is a magic-wielding juggernaut and the only reason the Rouran army is so fearsome. Without her magic and fighting abilities, the Rourans would have no chance of conquering China. Yet, because of her gender, the Witch isn’t respected. Böri Khan, the leader of Rouran invaders, gets all the glory.

Disney’s addition of the Witch to its live-action version of the original Mulan presents a new spin on gender and feminism that’s more provoking than the animated feature.

The Witch’s villainy is a critique and an allegory of how we view female power: We tell girls to tap into their potential, but not everyone — especially in ancient China where the movie is set, though the issue persists today — is truly comfortable with a woman wielding what’s hers. To earn people’s respect, they have to buy into a system that diminishes them.

The only difference between the Witch and Mulan is the power they wield. The former is vilified for unapologetically being powerful, while Mulan is in the nascent stages of recognizing her own gifts. The Witch’s reputation serves as a warning to Mulan about how female power isn’t tolerated. That’s a blistering worldview.

But unfortunately, there’s no follow-through, no build, no logic paid to this tantalizing idea. Mulan dropping the ball on this twist is one of the movie’s biggest disappointments, because of how great it could have been.

The Witch is a new character that didn’t exist in the 1998 animated Mulan

In adapting the 1998 animated Mulan for a live-action format, Disney cut a lot of original elements. Mushu, the family guardian dragon voiced by Eddie Murphy, did not survive, nor did Mulan’s grandmother or the lucky cricket. Also gone is the movie’s musical status, which means there’s no true reprise of famous songs like “Reflection or “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” (some of the melodies do make appearances in the score). The intent seems to have been to make Mulan more like a war epic than a fantastical animated tale.

But Disney did add one very mystical ingredient: a witch character played by Gong Li.

Though the character is credited as Xianniang, she’s referred to throughout the movie as “the Witch.” I was surprised that the Witch even had a formal name (one of the many accuracy critiques of the new movie is that within Chinese culture, she probably wouldn’t be referred to as a witch, but as more of a malevolent spirit). Her backstory and the extent of her magical abilities are unclear, but aside from Mulan, she’s the movie’s most skilled fighter and possesses powers that allow her to transform into a hawk, or shape-shift as a man to infiltrate bunkered garrisons.

The Witch is arguably the movie’s coolest character, providing supernatural spectacle. But she also exists for a very important thematic reason: She’s the foil, the direct counter to Mulan’s goodness.

From what she tells Mulan after their fight in a sulfur lake, and again after Mulan’s commander expels her from the imperial army, the Witch and Mulan aren’t that different. They both have the same power. If Mulan channeled her chi, the Witch tells her, she could harness the same magic. Mulan could be a force of nature.

But the Witch exists to show Mulan and the audience that these two women are also limited by same inevitable constraint: their gender.

Because they are women, neither one is respected by their peers or their enemies. The Witch represents the endpoint of Mulan’s journey. The Witch has tried to fight alongside men all her life, and yet she is still referred to as Khan’s weapon instead of his peer. The Witch warns Mulan that even if she saves men’s lives, even if she proves herself to be the greatest warrior in China, she will never be respected. She will always need to be subservient or lesser than men to be considered honorable.

In adding this dynamic to the story, the new Mulan proposes something much darker than the original by asserting that there are only two paths for Mulan: to become a witch or to become a wife.

Assume her full potential as a witch, and she’ll be exiled and demonized. Bury her power, and she’ll live a stifled life as someone’s wife. The 1998 animated feature film focused on the latter, with Mulan finding love and settling down into a quiet life after saving China from the Huns. But the new live-action version gives Mulan and the film’s viewers a warning, and allows for a more durable message about power dynamics and sexism that transcend ancient, mythic China and still thrive today. It’s just a shame that the film didn’t deign to explore this further.

Despite Gong Li’s great performance, the Witch is more plot device than character

The most frustrating thing about the new Mulan’s exploration of female power and gender dynamics is that the movie lets an intriguing premise die on the vine. The addition of the Witch could have been a great way to update Mulan’s message for a 2020 audience. Yet she seems to exist merely as a plot device to push Mulan in a specific direction, rather than a fully realized character.

Little attention is paid to the Witch’s motives, leaving us with a lot of unanswered questions.

Does she have some kind of magical agreement with Böri Khan? Why not kill him and run the army herself? Couldn’t she theoretically kill all who oppose her? Since there doesn’t seem to be an upper limit on her power, why does she need to listen to anyone? What aspect of her deal with Khan actually benefits her, and is she smart enough to see it?

The best answer Mulan provides comes in a confrontation between the Witch and Khan toward the beginning of the movie. She tells him she could tear him to pieces in a blink of an eye, and he tells her that if she does, it will automatically nullify all that she desires.

“Remember what you want,” he tells her. “A place where your powers will not be vilified. A place where you will be accepted for who you are.”

Still, Mulan doesn’t reveal why Khan is integral to creating such a place, or how that will come to pass. If Khan and the Rouran army kill the Chinese emperor, one would think all of them — the Witch included — would be vilified for being invaders. If a place to live and be respected without hiding her powers is all she wants, why not start a new land?

Or why bother with China in the first place? If the Witch is as powerful as she seems, couldn’t she take over the world and then come for China?

And if Mulan could be as powerful as her, couldn’t they join forces and rule however they wanted?

These open-ended questions about the Witch’s motivations and limitations weaken her change of heart moment at the end of the movie.

That change of heart happens in the throne room, when Mulan convinces the Witch that Mulan can’t stray from her “noble path” of saving China. The Witch sees that Mulan has friends now and a general who trusts her, and decides to lead her to Khan. And instead of killing Khan herself, the Witch essentially waits for Mulan to arrive and rescue the emperor — an act that leads to the Witch sacrificing herself and catching an arrow in the chest to save Mulan’s life. In the Witch’s eyes, Mulan has earned respect, which leads the Witch to decide that she’s seen all she needs to see — despite a lifetime of experiencing the opposite — to know that she should sacrifice herself for Mulan.

Everything’s solved because Mulan’s not treated like hot garbage in this one moment, I guess? It’s an extremely tidy ending without any extensive work or emotional storytelling to get there.

Granted, this isn’t new territory for Disney movies, which are known for their conflict-free happily-ever-afters. But after all the hullabaloo about the new Mulan being a war epic and considering the feminist action movie marketing Disney did for the film, even the predictability of a too-clean conclusion doesn’t make Mulan’s go at it any less disappointing.

Complicating the whole equation is the ongoing narrative that Disney created this movie to cash in on the ever-growing Chinese box office. Mulan’s lead actress Liu Yifei came under fire last year for supporting the Chinese government in the face of widespread pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, drawing backlash that led to calls for a boycott over the movie’s release (Disney filming in China’s Xinjiang province, the site of mass human rights abuses against Uighur Muslims, has also been criticized).

Given the complicated politics of doing business in China and the country’s well-established views on dissent against the government, perhaps Disney never wanted Mulan to disrupt the status quo and wanted it to remain close to ideologically neutral as possible.

Mulan ends with Mulan defining a life somewhere between witch and wife. Having proven herself and restored honor to her family, she joins a special group of the emperor’s warriors and everyone’s happy. Her village is proud of her. Perhaps there’s even romance in her future.

Happily ever after, it seems.

But the movie also ends with Mulan dimming her own greatness to live in China, given what the Witch told her. She doesn’t know or can’t imagine how to live outside the predefined parameters and systems — country and patriarchy — in her life. Instead of Mulan defining a mode of power on her own terms, she is presented as caring most about the people she lives alongside. Maybe what Disney doesn’t want to say is that being in harmony with her village and her loved ones is more important to Mulan, and is maybe more achievable than creating something new.

And I’d find that bittersweet premise touching if I thought the movie were willing to engage with it.

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