Halfway through Disney’s new live-action Mulan, the film’s title character comes to a classic fork in the road. Much as Darth Vader offered Luke Skywalker the opportunity to join him, the so-called witch Xian Lang, who has been aiding the Rouran Khanate’s plan to overthrow the Chinese emperor, offers Mulan the chance to join forces. Naturally, Mulan turns her down.
But that moment isn’t the relief it should be. All of the points Xian Lang makes in her attempt to persuade Mulan to join her cause are valid, to the degree that Mulan’s motivation and righteousness are drawn into question.
[Ed. note: The following contains spoilers for the 2020 Mulan.]
From the beginning of the film, Mulan is told to hide her overflowing chi. Her boundless energy, her father tells her, will keep her from being accepted by society because she’s too rowdy, and feels no reason that she shouldn’t speak her mind and run around with abandon. Xian Lang’s story is similar: her powerful chi made the people around her turn against her. Only the Khanate leader Bori Khan embraces Xian Lang’s power — but even then, he thinks of her as subservient to him, a tool rather than someone he should respect. Each time she crosses paths with Mulan, Xian Lang stresses the parallels between them, telling Mulan that they’re the same. The narrative sets her up as Mulan’s “dark side” equivalent, but if anything, she’s the one who seems to have taken the righteous path.
Xian Lang wants to join forces with Mulan. Together, sans Bori Khan, she thinks they could take down the Emperor and rule together. They could literally overthrow the patriarchy and create a new society where women are allowed to hold positions of power, and aspire to more than arranged marriages. When Mulan rejects that opportunity, she’s putting herself in a strange position. She might not directly be holding other women down, but she is choosing to become the exception to the rule through nationalist loyalty, rather than helping to create a system where other women are allowed to hold any amount of power. If anyone else wants the freedom offered to Mulan, they’ll have to also prove themselves exceptional in some way, rather than having such freedom being a guaranteed right, as it should be.
Mulan’s designated position as a “special” woman who’s allowed to live life as she pleases is underlined by the fate of Xiu, her younger sister. While it’s a universal truth that everyone wants something different out of life, Mulan doesn’t spend enough time on any character but Mulan to fully tease out that theme. Unlike in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, which presents Jo’s desire for independence and Meg’s wish to get married as equally legitimate goals, the moment where Xiu says she’s excited about her arranged marriage feels like a cop-out. The scene is less about saying that everyone’s desires differ, and more about emphasizing yet again that only Mulan is exceptional in wanting, and being allowed to have, more than marriage. Mulan and Xian Lang are the only female characters with a significant amount of screentime, which makes it easy for the film to avoid addressing the issue, inadvertently (or not?) presenting an ancient idea of gender roles as justifiable and correct.
With that in mind, it becomes even harder to see Xian Lang as a villain. If anything, she’s an anti-hero, as she’s allied with an outright villainous character for the sake of what she perceives as the greater good. If Mulan hadn’t joined the army, Xian Lang would have been the only person working to allow her any amount of agency — and the only person capable of saving any other characters stuck within the confines of an oppressively sexist society.
Xian Lang’s ignominious death in the film is salt in the wound of how her desires for a more equal society are dismissed. Even though she has magical powers that make her capable of taking down battalions of men on her own, she’s killed by a single arrow, solely to motivate Mulan in her climactic duel against Bori Khan. “Take your place,” she tells Mulan with her last breath — but the place she’s taking is still in a society that generally shuns and vilifies powerful women.
Mulan’s definition of strength and feminism are flimsy, and part of that flimsiness comes from the fact that the film’s ostensible villain is making a valid point, and the film itself isn’t ever meaningfully engaging with its own central conflict. Though a story about Mulan joining forces with a witch would certainly deviate from the original ballad the film is based on, and be a dramatic act of historical revision, the story as it is now is confounding. Mulan isn’t making things any easier for others in similar predicaments, because the path has been made easy for her. Xian Lang is seeking to even out the playing field for everyone.
Mulan is available now via Premier Access on Disney Plus.