Running tine: 115 minutes
Written by: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek and Elizabeth Martin
Directed by: Niki Caro
Featuring: Yifei Liu , Donnie Yen, Tzi Ma, Jason Scott Lee, Yoson An, Ron Yuan, Gong Li and Jet Li
Xian Lang: [to Mulan] “When they find out who you are, they will show you no mercy.”
Released this week on 4K Blu-ray is the latest Disney remake of one of their animated efforts of the late 1990s, that being the Chinese set “Mulan” (2020). Unlike many of their recent live action remakes this is by no means a shot for shot remake, it instead uses the original story as more of a template losing some of the better elements of the original classic, such as the dragon Mushu, the lack of musical numbers and the fantasy elements, in fact this entire movie feels like one of those Chinese crossover hits from the 2000s such as “House of Flying Daggers” (2004) and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000) but with less originality and a much more formulaic script that has little in the way of true emotion or any real tension, it comes off as what it is, a Chinese martial arts movie with some mysticism thrown in all created by a bunch of white people who dont really know what they are doing.
Unlike many of the live action remakes “Mulan” has much to overcome even before it went into production not counting the fact that the planned released was altered because of the global pandemic. Unlike most of the other potential blockbusters that were to be released into cinemas who postponed completely their releases Disney decided to experiment with the release making this a $30 “Premiere Access” stream in addition to a Disney Plus subscription, a one-time fee for the chance to catch a would-be theatrical release three months before it would stream as a regular Disney Plus offering in December. Internationally it was released in some cinemas so it create some direct revenue almost US$70 million with most coming from China where it was not a resounding success at all, which sums up how the movie was received in most areas of the world. Other hurdles it faced were complicated production issues, economic and cultural expectations, the historical context that it was set within and the people behind the movie.
“Mulan” set in Imperial China concerns Hua Mulan who is an adventurous and active girl, to the disappointment of her parents, who hope that one day she will be wed to a good husband. To the north, an imperial outpost is invaded by Rouran warriors, under the leadership of Böri Khan. They are assisted by the witch Xianniang, who uses her magic to pose as a surviving soldier and report the attack to the Emperor of China; he then issues a conscription decree ordering every family to contribute one man to fight Khan’s forces. Imperial soldiers arrive in Mulan’s village to enlist recruits and her elderly and frail father Hua Zhou is forced to pledge his service as he has no sons. Realising that her father has no chance of survival, Mulan flees with his armour, horse, and sword to join in his place.
Directed by Niki Caro who rose to fame with her excellent adaptation “Whale Rider” (2007) has never really pushed on to become someone to watch, all her efforts since then have ended up like “Mulan”, quite uninspired, too simplistic and pedestrian with little punch which is a shame as I am sure she is a much better filmmaker than the evidence suggests. However where the movie really falls short is the script that has been put together by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek and Elizabeth Martin who have obviously worked on different drafts but have done enough to get credit which illustrates just how confused Disney was in producing this movie which was so obviously made for the Asian market. I cannot help but think that instead of trying to hit some diversity target it would have been more beneficial to actually hire Chinese talent behind the camera as well as in front of it.
“Mulan” is the first Hollywood blockbuster primarily casting Asian rather than Asian American stars in lead roles to appeal to Chinese consumers, yet Chinese viewers rejected the movie as inauthentic and American. Led by the performance of Yifei Liu as Mulan there are hints of a good performance but it feels lifeless like much of the movie, however her co-stars who all have experience in American productions do better knowing how to pitch their performances so as to make at least their parts watchable, it is also pleasing to see Donnie Yen, Tzi Ma, Jason Scott Lee, Gong Li and Jet Li together, like a greatest hits of Chinese actors from the past five decades, I loved seeing them all.
For some reason Mulan has the ability to tap into her ‘Chi’ which seems to exist just so the movie can add a visual element as well as being able to have fantastical fight scenes set in the air, on roof tops and other places that would normally be absent in traditional action movies. This addition also distracts from Mulan herself which to me takes agency away from her, it is more about her Chi, than it is about her.
There is no doubt the movie looks great, there are spectacular battle scenes that are set in a variety of places with large vistas as well as long shots, but despite this it feels formulaic as well as a little dull, with not much tension or a reason for all the action to take place. I found myself wondering who I should side with, the politics looking in from the outside feel dodgy at best. Whilst I sat through the movie and did enjoy it for what it was, I was left feeling that the entire thing was a little hollow, this was a story that deserved more.