Mulan is a Chinese folklore character, originating from a poem written a Century and a half ago. The story went that she was the daughter of a poorly man who was drafted into the war, and that - because of her father's ill health - she concealed her sex and enlisted on his behalf, going on to become a great warrior. Her tale has often been used to both show the sexism within China's history and as just an example of a strong female character in general. Most people these days know her from the popular Disney cartoon by the same name, which featured the likes of Eddie Murphy on the vocal cast. Probably big enough to warrant a live action film charting her folk tale, I'm surprised Hollywood didn't get its hands on this material in some way or another, and instead left it up to the Chinese to do. Surely that's a good thing though? Finally we can get a decent, respectful interpretation of the story...so I hoped.
With the imminent threat of invasion from the Rouran Army, the Northern Wei Dynasty compels every family from its nation to put forward a man to enlist. Hua Mulan's father knows that it is his duty to enlist, and also knows that he has no male heirs to take his place. He is severely ill, however, and his daughter Mulan knows that he would never survive going to war once again, having served his duty for the Northern Wei Dynasty several decades before. Without hesitation, she takes his armour and his sword and steals away in the night to take his place in the war. Pretending to be a man, she has to endure the hardship of the training and pressure within the Army camp - with only the support of a friend from her village, who helps her with her pretence - before facing the horrors of the War itself. Matters are further complicated when her true identity is discovered by one of the other soldiers, and they fall in love. But it is not long before he is made General and she is made his second-in-Command, further postponing the potential of their already elicit relationship. Mulan learns, the hard way, the sacrifices that have to be made in battle, and the lengths that she must go to in order to keep her country safe.
The Mulan story, being little more than an elaborate fairy-tale, offers up a great deal of room for interpretation and use of imagination - as was apparent with the Disney adaptation. Fans would have been yearning for a decent live-action version of the story, however. But this is not it. 2009's Mulan takes the same classic story, with all the trademark focal points, and simply misses the opportunity to paint a portrait of this great female icon. Eschewing the standard characteristics of a 'classic' war story - a la Red Cliff - it instead tries to take us on a point-of-view journey through Mulan's life, with bite-sized diary chunks of her 12 year campaign peppered through its far-from-epic under-2 hour runtime. This perpetual montage-style approach may have worked extremely well had the sacrifice of style and action been made in order to favour character development. But, indeed, there is zero character development. Mulan is only Mulan because we recognise the name from the Disney cartoon, and know her character from that. In this movie, she simply has no depth - we never really get to know her.
As I've said, the lacklustre action sequences could have been forgiven had the characters been more interesting and better developed, but - as is - we don't even get the thrills of powerful battle set-pieces to keep us going. Every time Mulan goes into battle we don't feel for the character, or believe in her abilities - she just goes from promotion to promotion until she's leading the whole damn Army. And I couldn't, for the life of me, understand how or why.
Perhaps one of the biggest problems is the fact that Vicki Zhao (aka Zhao Wei), who plays the titular character, just could not possibly be a man. She neither has that natural Zhang Ziyi youth which could - if dressed down - probably be used to portray an effeminate-looking man, nor does she sincerely adopt any male traits in order to keep up the pretence. Really, she is only a man because the audience is told that she has to be: there is no way anybody with eyes or ears could believe this to be anything other than a very female woman indeed. I know that the end attempts to explain away this massive plot-hole, but it is simply not enough to rectify the sentiments felt throughout the previous two hours. Surely the whole point of the movie is that Mulan has to imitate a man otherwise she could risk being executed? It's forbidden, and the consequences may have even passed on to the soldiers within her unit too. Simply tying your hair back (really badly as well - she does not even cut it like she did in the cartoon) and putting on a helmet doesn't work as a disguise. She would have been better off sticking on a fake moustache and wearing a bowler hat. I heard Zhang Ziyi (amidst others) was considered for the role and, aside from the fact that she would have also made for a more convincing fighter, I think that (despite her being one sexy chica) she could have been 'made up' to convince as a woman pretending to be a man for this story.
Of course it would have been infinitely more forgivable for the film to lack punch and not have a convincing female/male pretence going on, had the lead actually been able to carry the movie on performance alone. Unfortunately, at least for me, she had no spark, no charisma and very little in the way of acting talent that I could see, although perhaps this was not all Zhao's fault.
Most of the blame for this disappointing production should squarely sit on the shoulders of the Director, as it was definitely his choice to give us this mish-mash collage-style representation of Mulan's story rather than tell it with a well-paced narrative. This is the polar opposite to the Terrence Malick school of direction: rather than establish characters through actions or even dialogue as you would in a standard movie, here Jingle Ma just gives us unending bullet points. It's as if the Director needed to establish the fact that certain things happened in order to get to the conclusion of the film, so rather than imply them, show the build-up, fall-out, consequences or anything, he just gives us his 40 second 'take' on that milestone event. 'Um, we'll have 40 seconds of her stroking her horse where she meets a potential love interest. He likes horses too. Thus we have set the foundation for their love.' Sorry, but the scenes are just not long enough to get anywhere with the characters. Honestly, if they rerecorded the soundtrack and set most of these scenes to music they would have made sense, because at least then you would know they're just montage material and not really supposed to be followed.
After an hour of 'montage' we get a few more protracted scenes, but with just as many odd twists and turns punctuating the narrative (Where did that guy - presumed dead - come from halfway through the movie? And why did he think Mulan needed to drink blood from his wrist?) it is difficult to follow the film through to fruition without asking questions about how you can care about the fate of key characters when you don't even know them.
Mulan, unfortunately, is the only 'serious' interpretation of a classic Chinese folkstory currently available. The Disney adaptation, however enjoyable, does not really count (after all, it's got singing in it) and Hollywood still hasn't got its dirty paws on this ripe material. The iconic female heroine has an epic story to tell, and this recent Chinese live-action version just does not succeed in telling it - epic or otherwise. Lazily edited, disjointed and miscast, it eschews style in favour of substance, but actually has nothing substantive to it, instead coming across as more of an appetiser than a main course. Give us some sweeping cinematography, some brutal battles, some quiet, contemplative moments and formative times with the characters. All of that would have made this a decent interpretation of a classic tale. Frankly, even giving us a shedload of arty style for entertainments' sake would have at least made this a more watchable flick. Ah well, there is another 'Mulan' title entry on Imdb-Pro so, who knows, maybe she'll one day get the treatment she deserves.
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