Culture, films

Review: ‘Mulan’ (2020)

Liu Yifei in Mulan (dir. Niki Caro)

Rating: 3 out of 5.

After pandemic-related delays, Disney’s live action remake of 1998’s Mulan hit streaming services, and since I’ve been anticipating it ever since the initial teaser trailer dropped, I watched it ASAP. I want to be able to open with a pithy summary of my thoughts, but the best I can do is that they are… mixed. 

The question that always immediately arises with the slew of Disney’s live action reboots is: “was it as good as the original?” and the answer here, is, as it has been with every previous live action reboot, “no”. Whatever you think about the lack of songs/Mushu/Li Shang, the fundamental issue is that, as with every previous live action remake, it simply lacks the warmth and heart of its animated predecessor. This is another live action remake that you can tell was conceived entirely in a boardroom and churned out with corporate efficiency  — Harry Gregson-Williams’ score riffs on the iconic numbers from the original soundtrack to ensure the nostalgia points, there’s as many #girlboss shots as you would expect the suits at the House of Mouse to churn out for some marketable #feminism content, and there are a couple of background characters so achingly archetypal in their function as “““comic””” relief they might as well have been grown in the trope lab. 

That being said, this still ranks among the best of Disney’s live action remakes, at least in my opinion. For one thing, more than perhaps any of the other, this feels like it actually makes an effort to be different. This hasn’t always gone well (think the psychedelic nightmare that was Tim Burton’s Alice Through the Looking Glass), but one of the issues that made the live action The Lion King, for example, such a dull and belaboured viewing experience was that it was essentially a shot-by-shot remake of the original, which only served to provide shot-by-shot comparisons to how much more colourful, vivid and all-round better the original was. Even when changes have been made, such as those in the 2017 reboot of Beauty and the Beast, they feel petty — minor adjustments addressing negligible “plot holes” in the original that feel like cynical misunderstandings of the charm of the animated versions. Like the rebooted Beauty and the Beast, Mulan is visually stunning — as well as dramatic mountain, meadow, and desert landscapes, there are gorgeous sets and costumes that lean into the reds and golds, the silks and marbles that have been used to construct Imperial China. It’s undoubtedly beautiful to watch. Unlike BatB, the departures in plot and tone from the original are significant. For one thing, this film is definitely more sombre than the animated version, and is certainly the grittiest of the live action reboots. Since it’s still Disney, I actually quite liked this tone shift, because it didn’t trip into being relentlessly grimdark and depressing for the sake of it. Rather, it embraced its function as a war movie. 

The film takes a lot of its artistic inspiration from Chinese Wuxia films, and since I’m woefully ill-versed in that genre, I hesitate to make too much commentary on how well or not it worked. I will say the heightened martial arts battle sequences were really dynamic and engaging to watch, and very different in style from most of Disney’s combat sequences. They also fit well with the other major shift in the plot, namely, the fantasy element.

The original does have some fantasy in the shape of Mushu, but here it becomes a central plot thread. The film opens with an explanation of Mulan’s strong ch’i, described in the film as “life force” and meant to be the source for her extraordinary speed and agility. It’s probably the plot element I liked the least — it feels like Mulan meets midi chlorians, and whilst the film tries to shoehorn in some commentary about how she has to hide her the strength of her ch’i because she’s a woman, and then later has to embrace it, ultimately cheapens the meaning of the story. So much of the original film’s substance was in Mulan having to work hard to become a warrior and earn her place among her fellow soldiers; it was during that journey that we got to know and love her character. By introducing this “chosen one” element to the narrative, most of that growth is bypassed and the character is robbed of the opportunity for a lot of depth and development. It feels more like an excuse to just get lead actress — and veteran Wuxia performer — Liu Yifei doing impressive acrobatic sequences and swanky fight scenes as early in the film as possible. The other odd plot discrepancy is Xian Lang, a shape-shifting witch who fights alongside Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), the film’s primary antagonist. The witch functions as a foil to Mulan, and whilst Gong Li has impressive gravitas and screen presence in the role, I kept waiting for the character’s meaning to come to light only to reach the end of the film and realise she was ultimately pointless. There’s also this whole symbolic thing with a phoenix going on that I won’t go into here, mainly because it made me irrationally angry every time it appeared onscreen. The handling of both the phoenix and the ch’i especially bring home the sense that for the dearth of Chinese talent on screen, there seems to be hardly any Asian influence or input behind-the-scenes of this film.

Again, the magic elements do allow for some astonishing visual sequences, and at least by watching them I feel like I am watching a new film and not just putting myself through a worse version of a beloved classic for nothing. But they come at the expense of character development and depth, which is a recurring issue in the film’s writing. For one thing, the screenplay (written by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Laura Hynek, and Elizabeth Martin) feels very corporate Disney in its over-simplicity. Ideas such as “loyalty, honour, truth” and “devotion to family” are repeated in every conceivable way shape or form without really coming across as well as they should in the actual story, and the main reason is the lack of fleshing out of characters’ relationships. Relationships are where character development happens the most clearly, and the film doesn’t give them the time it should. The one dynamic that gets the most focus is the one between Mulan and her father, Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma), and as a result it has the most effective emotional payoff. But it could have been better integrated as a facet of Mulan’s motivation and character in the middle portion of the film without simply repeating lines about “bringing honour to my family.” 

It’s not that there wasn’t the potential for some promising character dynamics. There were scenes that suggested we were supposed to perceive the camaraderie between Mulan and her fellow soldiers, and there was enough warmth and humour to them that they were fun to watch. But there weren’t enough of them. Whether it’s my own bias for all things romantic acting out or not, I’d have liked to see a little more of the dynamic between Mulan and Chen Honghui (Yoson An) — the film’s acting love interest and replacement Li Shang — play out on screen. The glimpses we got of their rivals-to-allies arc were tantalising, largely due to the fact that the actors share both genuine chemistry and undeniable photogenicness, but again, the movie moves through their dynamic sparingly and all-too-quickly, seeming to want to tick off development as efficiently as possible rather than allowing them to unfold naturally. Likewise, there are hints of an intriguing parallelism between Mulan and Xian Lang, but it is tragically underdeveloped and, as mentioned earlier, ultimately pointless.

Still, the film is given weight by a series of all-round stellar performances from its cast, which boasts screen legends such as the aforementioned Jason Scott Lee and Tzi Ma, alongside Jet Li and Donnie Yen in key roles. Each of the main cast members have a unique charisma and sense of gravitas to them which enriches the screen in spite of shallow writing. 

Those of you have been paying attention have probably heard the calls from pro-Democracy protestors to #BoycottMulan, an ongoing campaign in response to Liu Yifei’s comments in support of the police in Hong Kong, despite reports of their brutality against Hong Kong protestors. Whilst garnering widespread support in China on Weibo, where her comments were originally posted, they quickly drew backlash from the rest of the world. It’s the type of situation that begs the question of whether art can be separated from the artist; can the experience of watching Mulan be separated from Liu’s appalling political stance? The thing is, the original film is at its core the story of a girl determined to do what’s right and fight to protect her country. It’s something absolutely resonant with the brave people protesting for their rights and freedom in Hong Kong right now. The most pervasive effect of the corporatised veneer of the remake, the midi chlorian-ising and oversimplifying, is that this central message becomes palpably inverted. For all the film talks about truth and family, to watch it is to watch Mulan determined to protect the emperor simply because he is the emperor. You don’t feel that she is defying society to do what is right, but rather adjusting society so that she is allowed to uphold a status quo and maintain the system of power as a man does. Sure, Bori Khan and his invaders don’t exactly cut sympathetic figures. I, too, would probably feel compelled to swear allegiance to benevolent Emperor Jet Li. But it recasts Mulan as an agent of “the system”, heroic not because of her commitment to what is right but to what is orderly. And against the context of the world today, and — more immediately — Liu’s political position, it feels coldly undemocratic where the 1998 heroine felt bravely patriotic.

I had a fun enough time watching this installment in Disney’s pantheon of take-twos. The visuals and music were refreshingly cinematic in a time when physical cinemas feel like a distant dream; whilst this was no replacement or the original, it made a concerted enough effort to be its own thing that I didn’t feel like I was lumbered with a pale imitation. If you’re planning a low stakes movie night, this will do nicely. But this is a Mulan that lacks genuine emotional resonance and feels, in its thematic overtures, unsettlingly on the wrong side of major political movements which is a shame for a moment when a heroine leading the fight for her country’s freedom is exactly what’s needed.

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