"...fairly accessible for American audiences, and it might be a good first quasi Asian action film..."

An Okay Simulation of An Asian Action Film

(121220) 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 Whale Rider.

Mulan was made by Niki Caro, who also directed the decently done,
North Country, 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 wash herself).

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 streaming services.

Directed by:   Niki Caro
Written by:   Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Elizabeth Martin and Lauren Hynek. Suggested by the narrative poem "The Ballad of Mulan" by Anonymous
Starring:   Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen, Tzi Ma
Released:   090420
Length:   115 minutes
Rating:   PG13 for scenes of violence

For more writings by Vittorio Carli go to and His latest book "Tape Worm Salad with Olive Oil for Extra Flavor" is also available.

MULAN © 2020 Walt Disney Pictures
Review © 2020 Alternate Reality, Inc.