Director: Niki Caro
Screenwriters: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Elizabeth Martin, Lauren Hynek
Starring: Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen, Gong Li, Jet Li, Jason Scott Lee, Yoson An, Tzi Ma, Rosalind Chao
After many months of release date-wrangling, Disney’s latest live-action remake/reimagining is finally here. Mulan sees a talented female director given a mega budget and an all-Asian cast to bring a classic story to life once more, and it’s about time all those dominoes lined up.
When her ailing father is conscripted to the Imperial Army to defend China from invaders, Hua Mulan (Yifei Liu) disguises herself as a man and goes to war in his stead. But can an act of deception ever bring her family honor?
Mulan’s father (Tzi Ma) probably wanted a son who turned out just like his eldest daughter did – bold, decisive, prodigiously talented. He still seems very proud of the family he has and profoundly guilty that he can’t let Mulan fly free and fulfill her true potential because of her gender. As he sadly tells her, “Your chi is strong, but chi is for warriors, not daughters… I say this to protect you, that is my job. Your job is to bring honour to the family”.
The main story beats are broadly the same as Disney’s first take on this Chinese legend, but characters and their motivations are altered to better speak to a modern international audience. You can probably put money on a certain section of the internet labeling Mulan as a “Mary Sue”, but it is refreshing to have such a powerful heroine excelling in a stereotypically masculine world.
Quite unlike the original Disney version where Mulan was made to fit the Disney Renaissance clumsy outcast mold and achieved what she did through practice and determination, Mulan here is the best from the start and must hide her born talent to avoid drawing too much attention, which, inevitably, draws even more attention. This could be argued to be more in-keeping with the Chinese folk tale, where Mulan was famed for her fighting prowess.
The most noticeable change from the animated film, aside from the path of Mulan’s character growth, is the portrayal of the villains. Jason Scott-Lee plays the new barbarian warlord Bori Khan, but his secret weapon is Xian Lang (Gong Li), a powerful shape-shifting witch who supports him and his army in order to gain a position “where your powers are not vilified, a place where you are accepted for who you are”. In short, this is the same thing Mulan wants. Both are mistrusted and feared by men because they know they are smarter, more skilled and more dangerous than them, that they will not easily be controlled.
Niki Caro’s direction is incredibly dynamic, from the camera that inverts mid-battle to follow the plane of action, to the delicate little time lapse montage setting out the essentials of Chinese matchmaking etiquette. The fight choreography is slick and the floaty Wuxia wirework stunts are eye-catching as well, it’s just unfortunate the editing is sometimes too choppy to follow everything in frame. The horseback stunts on the other hand are something else, with the camera placed far back enough to process them in full, particularly an eye-catching move where a rider drops and flips around the saddle to allow them to fire backwards at pursuing enemies.
There are some arresting sequences dotted throughout the film, such as when Mulan engages Xian Lang on unstable volcanic sulphur flats, or when she and her allies must use their various unique fighting skills to reach the heart of the occupied Imperial City in the final act. The $200 million budget (making it the most expensive film ever made by a female director) is all up on screen, and the use of locations (New Zealand standing in for Northern China) and massive sets helps everything feel epic.
This isn’t a musical but there are pleasing references to the Disney songs in the score. The most rousing of all is hearing the melody to “Reflection” as Mulan rides to battle, shedding her armour and disguise en route.
The performances, particularly the charismatic born star Liu, shine brightly. Tzi Ma’s turn is poignant, and Donnie Yen and Gong Li bring a little nuance to characters that could have been broad and simplistic. Unfortunately Jet Li doesn’t get to do a lot as the Emperor, sitting on a golden throne for most of the film before getting to dispatch a couple of invaders just prior to being tied up and taken as a beardy damsel in distress.
It is admittedly annoying that the writers seemingly had little faith in their audience to follow the key themes of this story. Explaining what characters are going though using poetic turns of phrase is one thing, but re-stating the same information in increasingly on-the-nose dialogue in successive scenes does grate after a while.
Aside from a few instances of over-explanation and a slightly underwhelming final fight on bamboo scaffolding, Mulan is a triumph. Like Disney’s more successful reimaginings (Pete’s Dragon; The Jungle Book), this is a fairly fresh new take on familiar material and its presentation is truly impressive. It’s just tragic that after all this time a blockbuster so important for diverse representation won’t be seen by a good percentage of the film’s worldwide audiences on a big screen for the foreseeable future. Disney may well be looking at a re-release in cinemas worldwide next year, belated justice for Niki Caro who deserves to use this film as her calling card for making future blockbusters.