Mulan is a well-made but not totally effective live action cinematic version of
the popular legend which was also the basis of an animated film a few years
back. The film is based on the Chinese literary work, the “Ballad of Mulan,”
which is about a young Asian woman who goes through many trials (she also has to
impersonate a man) before she can become a great warrior. Think Tootsie meets
Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon with much less Tootsie.
The film was released during Covid and it is not surprising that is was a bit of
a box office disappointment. The Disney channel was originally streaming it for
$30 dollars which many probably thought was outrageous. The film cost 200
million to make and so far, it has recouped less than 100 million. But this does
not mean it is a bad film. This visually exciting tale of female empowerment has
many good qualities, but it will probably be best received by teen female
audiences and action film fans (it is a bit violent for pre-teens). It would
make a great triple feature with Bend It Like Beckham and
Mulan was made by Niki Caro, who also directed the decently done,
and the already mentioned near masterpiece,
Whale Rider. This
female director’s movies (at least the ones that I have seen) are always
centered around strong female characters.
Walt Disney made the film, and it was shot in China and New Zealand. New Zealand
was also where the director was born, and it is where the director’s first film,
Whale Rider was
made. Unfortunately, there seems to be a pattern that is being played out here.
Many directors who make great small budget films in their own countries then
they get hired by big studios to make big budget international films and in the
process, the filmmakers lose what made then most distinctive. This happened to
Bruce Beresford, Bernardo Bertolucci among others, and I fear it might be
happening to Caro. Only a few people could have made
Whale Rider, but
this film could have been made by dozens of film makers.
Mulan benefits from its cast which is almost a who’s who of popular Asian actors
including Tzi Ma (as Mulan), action superstars Donnie Yen and Jet Li (as the
emperor), and Gong Li (as a not totally evil warrior witch) who was the lead in
several classic Zhang Yimou films such as Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern.
The character, Mulan faces societal gender restrictions in ancient China and her
father constantly laments that he never had a son. The emperor announces that
every family must send a son in to serve in the imperial army, and her father is
sickly. So, his daughter pretends to be a man so that she can be conscripted
into the imperial army and save her family’s honor. She goes through training
and succeeds beyond expectations, and she has to pretend to be a male all the
while which makes showers difficult (she has to sneak to the lake at night to
Like previous gender flipping films including Some Like it Hot and Tootsie, the
film has a best friend who loves the person pretending to be in a different
gender, but this plot thread does not go anywhere. In the original story she has
an affair with her commanding officer, but the film makers thought that would
not be appropriate in the Me-Too era. It is kind of strange to think that in
Hollywood’s golden age, almost every film that featured a female lead ended up
with her getting married, but now many film makers think that it makes a female
hero weaker to have a permanent love interest.
One of the most interesting characters is her main foe, Xianniang (Gong Li), a
shape shifting mystic who also has some measure of mind control abilities. She
works for Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee) who launches a nasty attack on the Emperor
and his army. Later her role changes and she becomes a mentor to Mulan.
The film differs in some ways from the recent animated version. There is no
dragon this time around. This version adds the supernatural element of Mulan’s
“chi” which makes her a better warrior, but she must learn to channel her chi to
realize her full fighting potential. It is a bit like the force from Star Wars,
but that idea in turn was inspired by Asian mystical concepts.
This film is fairly accessible for American audiences, and it might be a good
first quasi Asian action film for people to see in order to get into the genre
and whet their appetite. But frankly there are dozens of better films in the
genre that go deeper into Asian spirituality or culture with better action
scenes such as: The Seventh Samurai, the 47 Ronin, 13 Assassins, Police Story.
The Naked Killer, Taboo, Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Come Drink with Me, and
Drunken Master II. However, it is not bad, and it would be a worthwhile Covid
rental. It just came out on Redbox and is available for small fees on several