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What Disney (and the Rest of Us) Can Learn from the Earliest Surviving Mulan Film

October 21 @ 4:00 pm - 5:30 pm


Christopher Rea


Christopher Rea, Professor of Modern Chinese Literature
Department of Asian Studies, University of British Columbia

Film to preview: Hua Mu Lan (Mulan Joins the Army, Mulan Congjun, 木蘭從軍, 1939), directed by Richard Poh (Bu Wancang

Recommended film: Niki Caro, Mulan (2020)


Chinese-language Cinemas: Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan
(Virtual Zoom talks and film screenings)

This weekly series of six virtual lectures and accompanying films is curated by Tanya Shilina-Conte, assistant professor of Global Film Studies in the UB Department of English and curator of the annual riverrun Global Film Series. This virtual series is cosponsored by the UB Confucius Institute and UB Center for Global Film.

To register and obtain links for the lectures and films, please email


Critics gave Disney’s Mulan (2020) mixed reviews, but they didn’t burn it in the streets. That was the fate of not one, but two prints of the live-action Hua Mu Lan (1939) in wartime Chungking. Released during war against Japan, the film’s resistance allegory failed to mollify viewers who considered the filmmakers to be collaborationist traitors. Yet despite the controversy, the Mandarin-language film became a box-office hit across war-torn Asia, and was soon competing in theaters against a Cantonese remake.

This talk discusses the history, aesthetics, and politics of Hua Mu Lan, the earliest-known surviving Mulan film. Christopher Rea argues that the film’s charismatic star and its mix of genre elements, such as comedy, singing, and romance, won over audiences and censors alike. Hua Mu Lan’s reception is a story of artistic talent, political savvy, and producer resourcefulness re-packaging a legend to suit desperate times. Rea will further explore how heritage figures like Mulan are repurposed to suit present commercial and societal/ideological needs, from recent Disney iterations back a century to the 1920s, when the woman warrior was played by both China’s most famous female impersonator (a man playing a woman playing a man), and its first licensed aviatrix.

About the speaker:

Christopher Rea is Professor of Asian Studies and former Director of the Centre for Chinese Research at the University of British Columbia. His latest book, Chinese Film Classics, 1922-1949 (Columbia, 2021), discusses fourteen cinematic masterpieces.  In addition to the book, Rea created a series of online film resources, including and the YouTube channel Modern Chinese Cultural Studies, which features 25+ subtitled films and an online course on Chinese film history. His other books include the Levenson Prize-winning The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China (California, 2015), The Book of Swindles: Selections from a Late Ming Collection (co-translated with Bruce Rusk; Columbia, 2017), and Where Research Begins (co-authored with Tom Mullaney; Chicago, 2022).