Soldier M.I.A.

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Soldier M.I.A.
By Agnus Tam (25th November 2023, English Theatre Berlin)

雄兔腳撲朔,雌兔眼迷離;
雙兔傍地走,安能辨我是雄雌?

The male hares’ feet go hop and skip
And female hares look muddled,
But when they run at a good clip,
How can’t one get befuddled? [1]

The recital of 木蘭辭 (Ballad of Mulan) at the beginning of the »Soldier M.I.A.«  reminded me of the Ballad’s ending, as quoted. From there came the saying of 撲朔迷離, an expression for ambivalence and even enigma and I am always fascinated by the atmosphere conjured by the four words. With that, the Ballad ends in a positive note that celebrates gender fluidity, so I thought. Now prompted by »Soldier M.I.A.«, I realised that all that is fluid channels into the mainstream. Talking about mainstream, Disney’s adaptation of Mulan gives a new bottle to the old wine – as the film song has it »I’ll Make a Man out of You«. The “I” and “You” in the power dynamic/ asymmetry can take various shapes and forms. When power is concerned, it goes beyond gender. Big corps casts “you” in a recognisable and alien enough form in order to stretch the diversity spectrum on their catalogs. So a cultural product is like a prism that refract the bundled social, political and economic factors behind its making-of. »Soldier M.I.A.« dissects the process of re-forming Mulan and accordingly presents the making-of on stage.  

1. Frame of mind
The central question proposed by Dandan the dramaturg is “does she know the consequence”. With “consequence”, the question introduces another party, and with that the collective (a value system the two parties are ringed in), to form the basis of Mulan’s thought process. 

My reaction to the question was a bit of speech-act twist: Yes, she knows. But does that form part of her consideration? We can go on to ask, how does she position herself in relation to the collective. In her role as a dutiful daughter and a citizen, does she want to do the right things or do things right? That involves a choice between – to claim her agency, and to follow the crowd and maintain the status quo. 

For Mulan, it’s a case of me versus collective. Can a collective of “I” overcome “You”? It is a fundamental question that subsequently determines how “I” compose my interface with the world. With facilitation of three other performers/ facilitators, audience participates in shaping the voice, movement and costume for Mulan.   

2. Movement
Beside Ballad of Mulan, another cultural reference of Mulan is Xiqu (Chinese opera).  Mun Wai the choreographer performs a Xiqu excerpt. Amidst the flow of his movements, the movement that signifies 披星戴月 (literally, long hours, usually, of working) struck me as the Pictionary (!) for 頂天立地 (literally, the pillar between heaven and earth). The latter is more often than not reserved for praise for men.  What is the intrinsic meaning of a move? 

In Mun Wai’s monologue, we learned that he served in the military as conscript. During the training, he and his team were to fight against a non-existent enemy. When that fighting was a performance of duty, the patriotism that are presupposed in that chain of movements was a performance.               

We have heard the word patriotism often enough. But there does not seem to be a word that is its reciprocal. If the love is so one-sided, what are the patriots fighting for? Or perhaps against? Country goes to war to preserve territorial integrity. But boundaries also undergo evolution. There can hardly be an intrinsic national border on earth. When it comes to cultural borders, how such territorial integrity is constructed, defended or even becomes the cause to offend?   

3. Sound
Every sound is measurable. As Sum Sum the sound artist demonstrated, we can approach our everyday life scientifically.   

In the Xiqu excerpt, Mulan is alarmed by her own high-pitch and immediately switches back to male tone. As a migrant, I share the same self-consciousness. 

When a migrant-looking person speaks, he is measured. He is judged by his accent (in lingua franca) or the language he speaks. John Berger’s »A Seventh Man« comes to mind:     

He treated the sounds of the unknown language as if they were silence. To break through his silence. He learnt twenty words of the new language. But, to his amazement at first, their meaning changed when he spoke them. He asked for coffee. What the word coffee signified to the barman was that he was asking for coffee in a bar where he should not be asking for coffee. He learnt girl. What the word girl meant, when he used it, was that he was a randy dog. [2]

It doesn’t really matter even if you are not a guest worker as the one depicted above. The “norm” can always find flaws in you. When you speak, your choice of words is ab-normal; when you cook, the smell from your kitchen is strange …        

Coming back to sound. It is not scientific to say that one speaks without an accent. The Queen spoke with an accent – Queen’s English, that is. It is simply a matter of preference: some accents are sought after by the world, and mine is made fun of. In »Blade Runner« (1982), a replicant opera singer speaks “native English” but she has no understanding of things other than what she is programmed to perform.     

That was the future imagined from last century. In the 21st century, migrants are only so visible as the dummy icon as somebody’s or institutional inclusiveness. Politically, as many are non-voters, they are not audible – ohne Stimme.      

“Deutsch? English?”. Most of the time, the question is spared, assuming that you are not capable of this or that. Speechless, but not silent: “Cantonese, please.”. Without any hope to find an interlocutor, it is an utterance of the hopelessness of encountering yet another cognition that cannot perceive dimension outside of dominant confines.  

4. Costume
When the stage was opened for audience participation, I did not hesitate to join the costume group. 

What would Mulan wear – when Menstruating in Action? Would she hide it or just “let it flow” – considering that they are so used to bloodshed on the battlefield. I put the question to Tin, the costume designer. We didn’t have an answer for that.    

It is an unavoidable question. In the reportage »Der Krieg hat kein weibliches Gesicht«, the author interviewed women who joined the Red Army and fought in the Second World War. Many interviewees left home to join the military in their early teens and one interviewee actually turned to her male superior when she had her first period. 

I would assume that, to act like a man, Mulan would hide her period. This invisibility makes her story a one-to-one translation into the modern day workplace. Manufacturers of sanitary products from time to time come up with slimmer and more absorbent products. That is a welcoming trend. However, the “inconvenience” reduced seems to be more for the benefit of the employers. Most women who go to work get their periods every month almost all the way through their work life. A productive body without the need to attend to periods (extra toilet breaks, sick leave, etc) likens a male body. On this point, the Disney tune »I’ll Make a Man Out of You« rings in my ear. That also tells that productivity is defined according to that delivered by male body.   

By no means am I suggesting that menstruation and reproductivity define the female body. But the spans of reproductivity and productivity overlap with each other almost squarely in one body, one must have implication on the other. There are economic factors built around this human biology. As far as biology is concerned, to equalise a female body to a male body, it is itself a hurdle before reaching a level playing field.  

The question of Menstruating in Action is not voyeuristic. By tucking it away from the body of the labour force would mean that the “discount” on the performance has to be absorbed by the workers. The implication is economical. However, studies [3] (my quick search on the internet) done in this area tend to place their focus on absenteeism. Shouldn’t the measures to cope with menstrual-related symptoms put health – and not productivity – in the foreground?             

Chimera
At the end of the audience collaboration, Mulan’s costume, movement and sound are re-formed. The process was open and democratic. The resultant aesthetic is that Mulan re-emerged as a chimera, an abject and a prototype in morphing. With that I want to highlight its state of perpetual motion.   

It is worth reminding ourselves that »Soldier M.I.A.« is set in a suspended time and space where Mulan departs from one archetype (filial piety) and is about to throw herself into another one (patriotism). She is YET TO ARRIVE. Her body is in the making. So should be our social norms and rules, which in turn have impacts on the individuals. The open participation and democratic process embodied by the interim shape of Mulan is exemplary of social evolvement.  En route to where we want to head to, the allyship organically forms. Its organicity allows it to take on changing shape – as I would imagine the re-formed Mulan would look differently at the end of each performance. 

That points us to look at the limits of allegiance. Among the »Soldier M.I.A.« audience, some have their primary Mulan reference from Disney, other from Chinese language class. If that’s where our limits come into contact, it is also where the fraction along those limits that hold the mass together. From these cracks, the swarm pushes boundaries and open up new possibilities.    

[21 English translation : https://classicalpoets.org/2018/09/23/the-ballad-of-mulan-a-rhyming-translation/
[2] Berger, John, Mohr, Jean. A Seventh Man. Ganta Books. 1989. p.118
[3] https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/9/6/e026186, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9761221/