This film brings dishonour to the cartoon… and your cow.
Here be spoilers…
What we like
From the august golden interior of the Imperial Palace to the snowcapped mountains that meet the clouded sky, the film is visually beautiful. You'll be enthralled by the spectacle that's a-plenty: quaint villages occupied with happy-go-lucky denizens, wrapped in hues of the rainbow; the shadowy yurt filled with grim moustachioed soldiers; the army campsite dotted with white tents, a battalion of scarlet-clad soldiers at attention—there is much to marvel.
There are other aspects of Mulan that improved upon its animated predecessor. For example, the antagonist has been updated. Instead of Shan Yu, we get Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), who has a more fleshed out backstory (revenge for his father!) and agency of his quest for vengeance. He is the leader of the Rouran (the tribal confederation replaces the Huns; given the timeline that Mulan is set in, the Rouran is an apt rival).
Bori Khan is joined by Xianniang (Gong Li), an outcast with shapeshifting powers, who is often marginalised by the Rouran. The lives of Xianniang and Mulan are similar—both women are ostracised for their qi; victims of casual sexism—and yet they are opposite sides of the coin. Xianniang's presence adds complexity to the narrative.
You know what's great casting? Tzi Ma as Mulan's dad… in fact, Tzi Ma is every Asian kid's dad. That thin-lipped smile of pride, that far-off look of concern—growing up under that shade of our parents, we are familiar with these paternal traits and Ma conveys it succinctly. Even the withering stare of disappointment when Mulan goes against his wishes, that cuts you to the bone.
Here, I make a meme to celebrate the man.
And give it up to Jet Li (who plays the emperor) for his delivery in English. It is tough to enunciate a language that isn't his common tongue. The lessons paid off.
Eh, never mind. We were told that Li's role was dubbed. Dishonour on us for assuming otherwise.
What we didn't like
Are you seated? Because I've much to unload.
Man, it's weird to watch a Chinese period film, where the cast converse in English. It's just… odd. After a while, you don't notice it but it takes a long while into the movie before you're comfortable with it.
The film's notion of 'qi'… that's just all kinds of wrong, no? There are four screenwriters attached to this project and none of them could get 'qi' right. Was there an Asian person consulted in the writing of this? It's not tokenism, it's just prudence to get someone who knows this shit. What used to be about a person's energy flow, qi is now a magical crutch for Mulan's ability to rise above her peers. It diminishes this Mary Sue's attempts in proving herself to her male peers; her bravery and strength are only due to her overabundance of qi.
And is qi only given to a certain few? Isn't qi suppose to be commonplace? Especially in China?
The screenplay is also giving me problems. Lemme get this straight: Bori Khan's planned to assassinate the emperor, right? So, when Xianniang disguises herself as the sole survivor of a Rouran raid and manages to get an audience with the EMPEROR HIMSELF, why didn't she just kill him and shorten the film by an hour-and-a-half? It doesn't make any sense. The woman has witchy powers and plenty of opportunities. Xianniang actually turned into a colony of bats and managed to overpower the imperial troops while the Rouran rain hot messy deaths with their trebuchets. (I'm still flummoxed that Xianniang didn't attack Mulan in her bat cloud form to prevent her from causing the avalanche.)
And it's heavy-handed in the symbolism. Mulan's father talks to her about the phoenix, about how its fire consumes the creature but from the ashes, a new phoenix is born. We see the phoenix appear in key moments of Mulan's journey. We get it. At least, the animated film had a fast-talking mythical beast, in this version, it's just silent.
The worst use of the phoenix occurs in the climactic fight with Bori Khan, where the bird flies up behind Mulan and it looks like she has wings of fire and… oh my God, the last time something that cliché happened, many people hated the way she turned out.
I could kvetch about the lack of finesse in shooting the action scenes or the absence of Captain Li Shang or the clumsy editing or that Gong Li's character could have political overtones of the film being shot in Xinjiang, where THE UIGURS ARE STILL KEPT IN INTERNMENT CAMPS but it's the weekend and I'm supposed to be practising something called work-life balance so there.
This is a film that ultimately ended up to be a Panda Express—on the surface it's chocked full of Asian representation but, ultimately, whoever made this doesn't know shit about Asian people.
What to look out for
In a brilliant nod to the source material, the Ballad of Hua Mulan, ended with a metaphor: "The male hare has heavy front paws. The female hare tends to squint. But when they are running side-by-side close to the ground, who can tell me which is male or female?" It's a beautiful cap to the topic of equality and the film had Mulan mentioning that she spotted two hares running in a field and how you couldn’t tell the male from the female.
There's also a cameo by Ming-Na Wen, who voiced Mulan in the animated movie. She is the esteemed guest who introduces Yifei's character to the emperor.
Mulan is now out in theatres.