Girl interrupted: Mulan and other female-led films endeavour to reach audiences during COVID-19

Melissa Silverstein is frustrated. 

The founder of the Women and Hollywood website was looking forward to enjoying Mulan on the big screen. The live-action remake of the 1998 Disney cartoon is a major release for the studio, a big-budget action film shot by Niki Caro and featuring a cast of Asian stars.

Disney expected big things for Mulan, splurging on a splashy red carpet in Los Angeles in March. Then the coronavirus pandemic set in, and plans for Mulan went into suspended animation. 

Now, after cancelling a theatrical debut planned for July and then August, Mulan is here, but only for Disney+ subscribers who can pay $34.99 for “Premium Access” to watch the movie as many times as they like. Or they can wait until Dec. 4, when the movie will be free for all subscribers.

For Silverstein, having Mulan bypass theatres and go straight to streaming is a missed opportunity. “I had mixed feelings because I was really excited to see it on the big screen, and it is an epic movie.”

At the same time, Silverstein, who was able to watch an early preview of the film online, was quite pleased with what she saw at home. “What I loved about it was that I was able to connect with it. It’s a really great story.” 

No talking dragon, but a new epic vision

Based on a script from four writers, the new Mulan eschews the musical numbers and talking dragon of the ’98 version. Now a symbolic phoenix watches over Mulan, the young woman played by China’s Yifei Liu, caught between society’s traditional views of a woman and her natural talent as a warrior.

Visually the film shares the same soaring quality of other epics set in China, such as Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But the story is still pitched at a younger audience, as Mulan disguises herself as a man to join the emperor’s army. 

Speaking with CBC News, Women and Hollywood founder Melissa Silverstein says she loved the epic quality of Mulan but is disappointed fans will be denied the big-screen experience. (CBC News)

Silverstein said she isn’t surprised by the tone; what excites her is what Mulan represents.

“We girls never had the option to see a movie like this. What this has done is [put] front and centre a girl of colour. There is not a white person in that movie.” Still, she said, “It’s so universal.”

But Silverstein is equally excited about what Mulan means for the industry.  

In the new film, Yifei Liu portrays a young woman caught between her family’s traditional values and her desire to protect them from invading forces. (Walt Disney Studios)

Unprecedented budget

With a budget reported to be more than $200 million US, Mulan is unprecedented, the biggest movie ever directed by a woman.

New Zealand director Caro, who broke through with the film Whale Rider, joins a small but growing group of women — including Kathryn Bigelow, Birds of Prey‘s Cathy Yan and Wonder Woman‘s Patty Jenkins — who have all directed tent-pole pictures, which generate significant revenue for movie studios.

Silverstein pointed to the upcoming Marvel movie The Eternals, directed by Chloé ​​​Zhao — who comes from the world of independent filmmakers and is now shepherding the next phase of Marvel super-hero films.  

“What we’re seeing coming out of the Disney shop, the Marvel shop, is giving women the opportunity,” she said. “Women need to be able to operate at that level.”

A COVID-19 box office casualty

But with the pandemic turning the theatrical movie business on its head, Silverstein said Mulan has been denied the opportunity to soar at the box office. “I want to be able to see it at the end of the year, No. 1, and say look!”

With Tenet, directed by Christopher Nolan, slowly opening in select theatres in the United States while Mulan remains only available to Disney subscribers, the industry is in the middle of a grand experiment on how to release films during a pandemic. 

Before COVID-19 appeared on the scene, 2020 was poised to be the biggest year yet for female directors, with The Eternals, Black Widow, directed by Cate Shortland, and Wonder Woman 1984 all scheduled for release in the summer and fall. 

Now The Eternals is set for February 2021, while the industry waits to see how Tenet and Mulan perform. The results could determine if Wonder Woman 1984 comes to screens in October.

A promotional image from Wonder Woman 1984. The release date for the sequel, directed by Patty Jenkins, was moved from Aug. 14 to Oct. 2. (Warner Bros.)

While Mulan has been denied a box office win, Silverstein said what she’s seen challenges Hollywood’s vision of a hero.  

“What we want to see are stories of the women in our lives [as] heroes — seeing that portrayed on the screen — as important as the male heroes. That’s something we’ve been denied.”

Still scheduled to open in theatres in China​,​​​​​​ Silverstein said Mulan‘s message resonates with girls everywhere. 

“Not being able to fulfil what society puts on girls is a common thing. But breaking out and being true to herself is what liberates all of them.” 

Mulan sneaks away from her fellow soldiers to practise by herself in a scene from the film. (Walt Disney Studios)

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