Monday was absolutely a big day for Mulan fans and fans of Chinese actress Liu Yifei because Disney finally dropped the teaser trailer for the live-action remake of the 1998 animated classic, with Liu playing the title role.
Directed by Niki Caro, the film, based on the narrative poem The Ballad of Mulan, follows the story of Mulan, who masquerades as a man to take her ailing father’s place in the Imperial Army after the threat of the invading Huns requires a man from every family to sign up for compulsory military service.
In its first 24 hours, the first-look logged 175.1 million online views, topping all Disney live action productions save The Lion King, which roared to a record 224 million in its November debut, according to Deadline.com, a US online entertainment magazine.
Of the 175 million global Mulan look-sees, 52 million came from China, Mulan’s home country. Shortly after viewers were blown away by Liu’s marvelous martial skills shown in the action-packed 90-second clip, history-minded social media users began to cast doubt on some of the cultural details in the film, such as the characters’ makeup and the setting.
A screenshot of the trailer, featuring Mulan dressed in splendid attire and wearing heavy makeup for a blind date, soon went viral as many viewers ranted that they were literally flabbergasted by the bold makeup.
In the screenshot, Liu’s face is covered in geisha-like white foundation, with a dusting of light yellow hue on her forehead, a red floral pattern drawn between her eyebrows, and a heavy blush on her cheeks. Many net users even complained that seeing Liu in this makeup sent shivers down their spines.
However, some netizens defended the film by posting ancient paintings from the period of the Wei, Jin, and Southern and Northern dynasties (220-589), showing that makeup in the film is actually an effort to mimic the makeup of that period.
During the Southern and Northern dynasties (420-581), the era in which Hua Mulan lived, women enjoyed sticking Hua Huang on the face. Hua Huang, or yellow flower, was a type of makeup technique used by Chinese ancient women. They cut golden or yellow paper into floral designs, and pasted it on their faces.
In The Ballad of Mulan, the line “I adorn my forehead with Hua Huang before the mirror” is just about this kind of makeup, commented a user on Douban, China’s most popular film review site.
Despite the solid evidence, some viewers insisted that art should evolve with the times, and films are no exception. The makeup artists for a modern film should take into account contemporary aesthetic standards. Moreover, Disney’s film is an entertainment production rather than a historical drama.
The buildings in the film also sparked controversy as the tulou, or earthen houses featured in the trailer, are typical rural dwellings in East China’s Fujian province.
Mulan is a legendary figure whose hometown cannot be precisely confirmed, but the consensus is that she was most likely from Central China due to the fact that she filled her father’s shoes to resist the invasion of the nomadic Huns from Central Asia.
But others argue that maybe tulou were not exclusively built in Fujian province in ancient China, and there is no need to be excessively critical about Disney’s use of Chinese elements. It is good enough as long as audiences, on first seeing one, know it is based from ancient China and appreciate the beauty of Chinese architecture.
Critics also point out that debates on the cultural details in film productions should be celebrated, as they show people’s love for their own culture and care about its integrity.