A headache to her mother and a delight to her crippled, war veteran father, Hua Mulan (as played by Yifei Liu) is a talented martial artist running out of time. Growing up in Imperial China, where daughters are solely expected to bring honour to their families by marrying well, tomboy Mulan just doesn’t fit the dutiful mould. Yet when the empire comes under attack from distant Rouran warriors, Mulan decides to steal her father’s sword and secretly join the imperial army in his place. Yet Mulan will find out that there’s more to fight than just prejudice on her path to self-discovery.
You won’t risk “shame, dishonour or exile” by watching this version of Mulan but don’t expect to be rewarded either…
Like its heroine, Disney’s much delayed live-action version of Mulan has found itself moving between two worlds. Whereas Mulan must conceal her true gender from the judgement of men, director Niki Caro’s new version has also had to fend off more than just comparison with its previously animated version. In becoming the subject of several boycotts, ranging from shooting in a province where the Chinese government have forcibly interned 1-2 Muslims to Mulan’s star openly supporting Hong Kong police’s pro-democracy crackdown, and Disney asking audiences to pay an extra $30 on top of a Disney+ joining fee, there’s a lot to contend with.
So having been weighed down by these various controversies, is the film any good? Well, it really depends on what you ask of it. I’ll explain…
Compared to the recent spate of live-action adaptations put out by the Mouse House, Mulan is easily in the better than the better-not-have-bothered category. Far more arresting than Beauty and The Beast or the crash-to-earth that was Tim Burton’s Dumbo, Niki Caro’s version walks a line between indebted fan service, whilst also trying to find its own voice. Deliberately more dramatic and aiming for the epic qualities of House of Flying Daggers, there are some obvious child-friendly casualties early on. Gone are the songs, as is Mushu, Mulan’s comedic dragon sidekick which Chinese audiences found about as appetising as Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars: Episode I. In a country where dragons are seen as symbolic custodian’s of power and strength, to have one deliberately played for laughs, died a cultural death that Disney did not want to repeat this time.
That said, in having deliberately gone for high drama and the vistas of aforementioned Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon et al, the association had a strange effect on me. Twenty minutes in, I was genuinely disappointed that the cast wasn’t speaking in Chinese. Now, I know that Disney will probably have a variety of dubbed versions ready to go but it just felt strange to have such a Chinese flavour to the visuals and yet hear an English voice. Anyway, see what you think about that one.
In the acting stakes, Yifei Liu as Mulan is a fetching piece of casting, Tzi Ma is still the superstar he was in The Farewell and Donnie Yen doesn’t disappoint as Mulan’s gruff yet well-intentioned Commander Tung, who plays an imperial army general. Yet, it’s the surprise inclusions of Jet Li and Jason Scott Lee that will have you scratching your head when the credits roll. Jet Li is wholly unrecognisable as the emperor of China and Jason Scott Lee is similarly masked under a wash of scary prosthetics.
So, is this Mulan “loyal, brave and true”? Or does it deserve the slings and arrows that have been levelled against it? Well, as a story against sexual prejudice and that the idea that marriage is somehow the end of life, it’s still a reasonably progressive film. However, given its controversies and the animated legacy it sought to eclipse, I have to say, I struggle to see how it’s going to justify its $30 surcharge. Aimed squarely at the kids and parents who were both much younger when they saw the 1998 version, this update will only really jumps across rooftops for those unfamiliar with Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon etc..
However, if you’ve come looking for the same breathtaking visuals and operatic flow as in the 1998 original, then I’m sorry to say that caravan has moved on. You won’t risk “shame, dishonour or exile” by watching this version of Mulan but don’t expect to be rewarded either. Simply put, I’d say “keep your money and wait for the price to drop” if you want to see it.