The Movie Waffler New Release Review [Disney+] - MULAN | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review [Disney+] - MULAN

mulan review
In Imperial China, a teenage girl poses as a boy in order to join the army.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Niki Caro

Starring: Liu Yifei, Donnie Yen, Jason Scott Lee, Yoson An, Gong Li, Jet Li, Tzi Ma, Rosalind Chao

mulan poster

Unlike their recent remake of The Lion King, Disney's live-action update of their 1998 animated feature Mulan is a remake in name only. Gone are the musical numbers and talking animals, replaced by a stoic reach for realism that's somewhat negated by the presence of a shape-shifting witch (played by Gong Li, oozing cool), this film's one concession to fantasy. As we saw with Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella, when you remove the recognisably Disney elements, you're simply left with another version of a tale as old as time.

mulan review

Chinese folklore heroine Hua Mulan has been portrayed on screen countless times, and the folk tale has often been co-opted for propagandistic reasons. This Mulan may be a product of Hollywood, but you're left in no doubt of its desperation to appeal to Chinese audiences, or rather China's censorious and bigoted government. The animated film was very much a by-product of '90s Girl Power, but here its liberal values are constantly clashing with the regressive nature of Chinese propaganda. This Mulan is far from an independent woman, but rather a cog in a vast, militaristic wheel.

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As with the legend, director Niki Caro's film sees its titular heroine (Yifei Liu, who fully convinces as a teen despite being in her thirties) pose as a boy to join the Imperial Army when the Emperor (Jet Li in a stationary role that couldn't be further from the martial arts movies he's known for) decrees that every family should send a male to join the fight against the invading Rouran warriors. Mulan proves herself the bravest and most skilled warrior among the army's ranks, all while concealing her true identity.

mulan review

Caro's Mulan is a strange cultural concoction. It appropriates the Chinese Wuxia genre, but seems to completely misunderstand that movement's appeal. Where Wuxia movies are known for their balletic martial arts sequences filmed in long takes that allow the viewer to bask in the physical talents of their acrobatic performers, Mulan takes the Hollywood approach of attempting to dazzle us with rapid fire editing. Despite the presence of martial arts performers like Donnie Yen, Jason Scott Lee and Jet Li, the film never calls on their particular talents, with the few close quarter combat scenes chopped up to near incomprehensibility. It's like hiring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, only to shoot them in close-up during their dance numbers. Remember when Jackie Chan went to Hollywood and directors were clueless as to how to employ his physicality? It's the same story here, and it's impossible to imagine Chinese audiences being impressed by any of this.

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There is at least a dozen Chinese filmmakers who specialise in this sort of thing, which makes you wonder why Disney didn't hire one of them instead of a director with no experience in action filmmaking. I'll give Caro the benefit of the doubt and assume that, as with the Marvel movies, she was given no say in the construction of the film's action set-pieces. Elsewhere she does create some beautiful images, particularly those involving Gong Li's shape-shifter, and it's refreshing to see a Hollywood movie with this much colour. Kudos also to Caro for wrangling impressive performances from a cast largely performing in a second language - it seems initially odd that this is playing out in English, but you soon forget about this aspect.

mulan review

Mulan is a visually vivid but thematically tedious retelling of the Chinese legend. What's most striking about the film is how regressive it feels in the landscape of 2020. Make no mistake, this is a work of propaganda, and it often plays like Starship Troopers with the irony removed, or Star Wars, if we were asked to root for the Empire rather than the rebels (Harry Gregson-Williams' score owes much to John Williams). I simply couldn't get on board with the Imperial "heroes" here, as the film never does enough to distinguish why we should take their side against the Rouran, whom they vastly outnumber. It's a bit like Zulu, but if the Zulus only had a dozen men while the British invaders had a thousand. The ethnic distinction comes off as particularly tone deaf, with the light-skinned heroes draped in red armour battling the black-clad, dark-skinned villains. Given China's ongoing persecution of the Uighurs, it leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.

Mulan is available on Premium VOD through Disney+ now.

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