'Mulan' Remake Turns Qi Into Midi-chlorians, Alienates Chinese Viewers

Disney's remake of their 1998 animated movie Mulan premiered on Disney Plus "Premiere Access" ($29.99 in addition to the cost of the streaming service subscription) in September. Since then, it has been criticized for political positions shared by its star Liu Yifei and for filming in China's Xinjiang region, where hundreds of thousands of people from the Uyghur minority ethnic group are held in internment camps. While controversial in the United States for the extent to which Disney worked with the Chinese government, a survey of comments made on Chinese ticketing sites demonstrates that many moviegoers in China also objected to the movie, particularly in a narrative choice involving Mulan's qi.

Describing multiple comments made on the Chinese movie tickets sites Maoyan Entertainment and Tao Piaopiao, Rebecca Davis of Variety outlined some of the responses to the movie from Chinese viewers. The Mulan remake is projected to earn approximately $38.5 million in China, which is only a fraction of the anticipated box office of other major theatrical releases in the country, such as war movie The Eight Hundred, projected to gross $437 million.

Criticisms leveled against the film by Chinese viewers were broad, with one commenter describing the movie as "full of Western stereotypes and conjectures about China."

Liu Yifei as Mulan. The Walt Disney Company

According to Variety, the most common flaw that Chinese viewers saw in the remake was how it employed the Chinese concept of qi, which describes the life force permeating and linking all living entities, and flow of its energy within the body—a core component of traditional Chinese medicine. But rather than a pervasive life force, the Mulan remake treats qi more like superpowers. While commenters noted the seeming cultural misapprehension in the movie's approach to qi, they also objected to it dramatically, since it made Mulan a less dynamic character.

"It feels that this Mulan was born with eight-pack abs," one commented cited by Variety wrote. "She has no shortcomings—and even small shortcomings can be overcome immediately. She's lost the complexity of the animated version of the character, who is both a cute little girl and a powerful heroine. She has no process of gradual growth."

Several critics and journalists writing for English-language publications also noted the narrative disenchantment created by the movie's use, or misuse, of qi.

"Unlike the animation's average teenager, who works hard to succeed as a soldier, the new Mulan is ready made," Jingan Young writes for The Guardian. "The child can already wield a sword like warrior. She can even fly. The fact that she holds Qi is repeated too many times to count, even though the film doesn't explore it in any meaningful way."

Born in Hong Kong, Young also noted the movie's approach to qi was a cultural misinterpretation, or repurposing, writing, "philosophers describe it as a type of energy or living metabolism in all beings – though not a special, individual power."

While substantially compounded by its cross-cultural failings, the dramatic weakness embodied in the Mulan approach to qi has many comparison points in fiction as well, particularly in Star Wars, a Disney-owned series that has never really caught on with Chinese moviegoers. Anyone familiar with Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace and its midi-chlorians might hear its echo in the Mulan approach to qi, with both offloading a crucial component of its characters on to a frustratingly numeric and reductive spirituality.

in The Phantom Menace, under the guise of "checking your blood for infections," the Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn takes a young Anakin Skywalker's blood and has his Padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi analyze it for something called 'midi-chlorians.'

"The reading is off the chart: over 20,000," Obi-Wan confirms. "Even Master Yoda doesn't have a midi-chlorian count that high."

The newly introduced midi-chlorians were microscopic lifeforms living inside of cells, which communicated with the Force. Midi-chlorians made the Jedi both quantifiable, with exacting numbers indicating the potential strength of a Jedi's abilities, and fundamentally elitist, since the access to the Force could only be learned by an elect minority, born with specific endowments. Midi-chlorians were a far cry from the original conception of the Force, even if not technically incompatible.

Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) taking Anakin Skywalker's (Jake Lloyd) blood under false pretenses in 'Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace.' Lucasfilm/The Walt Disney Company

"The Force is what gives a Jedi his power," Obi-Wan says in the original Star Wars. "It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together."

In the 1998 animated Mulan, the titular character must learn to become a warrior, but in the remake she is born one. She can wield a sword as a child and exhibit astounding physical feats. Rather than learning as she grows, the live-action Mulan is a suppressed power, who must hide her light under a bushel because of the sexism in her society.

Not only does the approach reduce spiritual forces to mere human-scale power, but it also externalizes character development, making Mulan's struggles less sympathetic to audiences in the process. By establishing its characters development as the embrace of a power already possessed, both Anakin and Mulan become less narratively satisfying characters.