by: Ms. Meanne Mabesa Mijares
Yifei Liu as Mulan
Crystal Rao as young Mulan.
Donnie Yen as Commander Tung
Jason Scott Lee as Bori Khan, a Rouran Hun
Yoson An as Chen Honghui,
Gong Li as Xian Lang
Jet Li as The Emperor of China
Tzi Ma as Hua Zhou
Rosalind Chao as Hua Li
Xana Tang as Hua Xiu, Mulan’s younger sister
Ron Yuan as Sergeant Qiang
Jun Yu as Cricket
Jimmy Wong as Ling
Chen Tang as Yao
Doua Moua as Chien-Po
Nelson Lee as The Chancellor
Cheng Pei-pei as The Matchmaker
Director Niki Caro
Distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Back in the late 90’s I watched Mulan’s Disney animated feature and really had a blast. Fast-forward to 2020, I was so excited about the news that Mulan returns to the silver screen in a live-action format. It was supposed to be shown in theaters last March but because of the ongoing pandemic, it did no longer push through. Until one day, I was so glad to watch it online. And here is what I have to say about it:
MULAN is a melodramatic retelling of the original ancient Chinese ballad, not a musical cover version. The film opens in a small village, where a young Hua Mulan causes trouble by performing acrobatics to chase after a chicken, upsetting her mother, who doesn’t want to see her “acting like a boy.” Mulan’s father, Zhou, tells her that he has spoiled her and that she must hide her chi/warrior spirit. Years later, after a matchmaking appointment goes amiss, all hope seems lost for the now adolescent Mulan. But then Imperial Army scouts traverse into the village and demand one male conscript from each family to fight the Rouran Huns, who are led by Böri Khan and the warrior witch Xianniang. Without any sons, Zhou — a proud but wounded war hero — step up, but Mulan resolves to save him by taking his armor and family sword and pretending to be a young man. Under Commander Tung, the masquerading Mulan (who binds her breasts and puts up her hair) and the rest of her troop train to save the emperor’s kingdom from the ruthless invaders.
The film’s messages are about the importance of being true to yourself, sharing, not hiding your gifts, working hard, helping others, being honest, being loyal and devoted to both your family and your country. Other important themes consist of humility, perseverance, teamwork, challenging traditional gender roles and stereotypes.
Positive Role Models & Representations
Mulan is depicted as brave, compassionate, clever, and resourceful. While she is pretending to be a man, she sometimes tries hard to fit in, but also stays true to her beliefs about what’s important in a partner, what truly being a warrior means. She defies her father, ditches her family, betrays her friends and fellow soldiers, but it’s to safeguard her family and help her country. She establishes many important character strengths: courage, perseverance, humility, integrity, teamwork. I notice that most men in the film have outmoded ideas about what women should be like or do but discover they’re wrong. Chen Honghui is observant, a good listener who’s quick to look after Mulan; instead of feeling betrayed or at risk, he helps and supports her. Mulan’s father Fa Zhou is patient, loving, honorable; her mother is caring and concerned; Hua Xiu, her sister is accepting, kind. Even villains like Xian Lang and Bori Khan have understandable motives, humanizing backstories.
There were several big martial arts battles with close combat and so many deaths. Characters are killed, injured in various ways; very little blood shown. Most people are killed with swords. One falls into a fire. Others are put to death by hand and/or buried by avalanche. Bows/arrows, knives, flaming projectiles were used as weapons. Peril and danger; people are taken prisoners, even threatened. Xian Liang, a shape-shifting witch uses her magic to disarm, kill, possess her enemies. Commander Tong declares that the penalty for various offenses (including desertion and stealing) is death, while penalty for dishonesty is expulsion and disgrace. An older conscript with mobility issues falls in a humiliating manner in front of the Imperial guard. (Fa Zhou)
I have observed a few long-drawn-out looks: like there is one scene of brief hand-holding. In a platonic scene, Mulan (who has been masquerading as a young man) disrobes down to take a bath in a river – with bare shoulders, part of back visible. Honghui takes off his shirt; it’s quite clear that he’s undressing to join what he thinks is another man in the water. A funny tête-à-tête ensues between the soldiers as they discuss attributes that they find attractive in a woman (mostly the physical ones).
Serious and hurtful insults such as “you’ve brought dishonor to your family,” “your family has failed to raise a good daughter,” “you bring disgrace to your family, your village, your emperor,” and milder ones such as “you stink,” “you smell bad,” “we’re not friends.” Although, these lines are needed in the film, I am quite alarmed that children might believe that this is proper but it is not.
The powerful enactments and intense battle progressions make this remake of Mulan a more mature adaptation, highlighting the story’s themes of female confidence-building and family devotion. I salute the filmmakers for making sure there was no white-washing in the cast; the assemblage is made up of internationally renowned ethnically Chinese actors from mainland China, Hong Kong, the United States, and New Zealand. Mulan’s director Niki Caro shows the way that women have always had to fight to be taken seriously or to be considered as capable as men. Liu is well cast as the young female warrior and protagonist who wants to make her father proud.
I would like to make a caveat of this film. Mulan fans should know that this isn’t a musical (though instrumental bits of the animated movie’s soundtrack do show up in the score), and there’s no Mushu, the wise-cracking talking dragon sidekick. But there are many small callbacks to the previous film, from the iconic jade comb Mulan wears to the matchmaker’s to the lucky Cri-Kee, here changed into a human character named Cricket who’s still quite lucky. Even Mulan’s original voice, Ming-Na Wen, gets a cameo role. There are many more, but it’s more fun to uncover them while you watch. This version really isn’t for really little children. It has lots of theoretically disturbing action violence, as well as a few scenes in which it looks like beloved characters are injured or near death. There’s no humor in this version, although there are a couple of funny scenes, like Mulan’s catastrophic introduction to her potential match’s mother and, later, a silly conversation between a disguised Mulan and her fellow soldiers about “what a man wants.” A new witch character, Xianniang (expertly played by Gong Li) is terrifying but also fascinating and unabashedly feminist. And this movie makes Mulan’s love interest a colleague, rather than her commanding officer, which is a much healthier dynamic approach. Ultimately, those looking for their favorite movie in live-action form will need to change around their expectations. But viewers open to a more powerful retelling will welcome this adaptation for what it is: a strong tale of a young woman smashing gender stereotypes to lead men in battle and bring honor to her family, village, and dynasty.
Overall, I give the film 4.5 out of 5 stars.