It looks like we have a new 2016 Ghostbusters or Star Wars: The Last Jedi on our hands for 2020; a critically acclaimed movie with a lynch mob and an endless discussion behind it. Back in March, the star of this movie said she stood by Hong Kong police who were caught tear-gassing citizens and protestors, and it was revealed filming took place in a territory subject to numerous human rights violations. Because of these things, I almost didn’t watch the movie, and safe to say, I didn’t pay the $30 to see it. But I guess I was curious, and there have been other movies like Sausage Party and The Shining where there have been horrifying behind-the-scenes stories, so I felt, especially if I acknowledged these scenarios, that a review wouldn’t be a distraction from the controversy.
So for starters, what do I think of the original Mulan? I gotta say…I love it. I forget who said this, but it proved clothes – and little else – make a man. Out of all the Disney renaissance pictures, this Disney princess is undoubtedly top-rank, risking dishonour and death to protect her father and her country, and with enormously hard work, she becomes equal – and soon after superior – to all the testosterone-fueled guys in her battalion. Not once is she saved. She does all the saving.
The “Make a Man out of you” song, especially the reprise near the end, highlights how society expects a man to be big and strong, and becoming one is celebratory. But it never sends the message women are inferior or unqualifiable in this context. It more celebrates people who work hard and don’t give up on their dreams even when they face obstacles. The Mulan in this 2020 remake has felt that desire since a very young age. In her village (er, dome) she was what we’d consider a tomboy, happy risking serious injury as she doesn’t give up on a rogue chicken and like Merida from Brave really doesn’t cherish the idea of a matchmade husband. When she impersonates a man in this version, a few things are different; her forbidden love interest, her lack of sidekicks, her volunteering for night-watch to avoid the showers, and her qi, which isn’t as powerful as it always is but good enough to be quite dangerously conspicuous.
Niki Caro has directed some amazing titles. Her most renowned film is Whale Rider, a movie I haven’t yet seen. But McFarland USA, a more recent entry, was a top-notch sports drama about passion, multiculturalism, community, trust, and the rough effort of the humongously tough sport of cross-country. Caro also directed The Zookeeper’s Wife, a story about a real-life family during the second world war and their struggles to both be heroes and survive, delivered with a similar feeling of satisfaction from a long journey to The Shawshank Redemption. The trailers I saw for Mulan were a little off-putting for me, primarily because I had to get used to the idea, like everyone, of there not being a Mushu, and the fact there’s an action sequence taking place on some rocky terrain with Mulan’s hair down and out. That seemed off.
I’d seen three other Disney remakes before this one, all released in 2019, and Dumbo was the only one I really loved. I gave an A to it. I haven’t yet seen the Beauty and the Beast one. The Lion King remake I gave a C- to because as well-animated and shot as it was, it was too scared to do proper experimentation and went through the ranks. The Aladdin remake I liked a little better and gave a B- to. I found it also not very experimental and some of the performances didn’t seem to always be in the spirit of the story and the tone, but it was a fun two hours with great songs and fun settings.
So suffice it to say, my expectations towards Mulan getting the live-action treatment were mixed to positive. And it starts out really well. I was really impressed with how it was making the story wholly its own. It even chose not to be a musical, deciding if this was going to include some people getting hit with arrows, swords, and maybe even burned, then singing might not seem right this time. The animated version only had about four songs anyway. It switched the love interest, switched Mulan’s origin story, gave her a sister, the new general said to Mulan (whose real name and pseudonym both are even switched) that he recognized her first name and knew her father.
The action sequences were just as dazzling as the scenery. I liked how whenever someone does a flip, the camera often parents the flipper, making everything else around them flip like we’re on a roller coaster doing a loop-de-loop. The places the characters visit look like they’re out of dreams, and something the movie kept is Yao, Ling & Chien Po, and the actors for them give the roles each something of their very own. I wanted more of them in the feature. Honghui and Commander Tung, two new but very important side characters, are both terrifically performed by Yoson An and Donnie Yen.
I was considering a strong B+. Then the second act involving the reincarnation of the famous mountain fight made me scratch my head. Imagine it this way; in a fiction book taking place in Hollywood I once read, the protagonist on the movie set of a new pirate movie realizes the scene they’re filming doesn’t make sense, because why would the lady on the ship bring out her lover’s amulet during a siege only for the antagonist conveniently to see it out? Wasn’t realistic. I felt it was the same for a situation here. The argument the movie makes is disguising, lying and deceiving shortens one’s qi, and maybe it’s got a point, but the event that convinces Mulan to go for broke isn’t convincing to the audience, and makes the after-effects of the scene feel like that pirate scene; a convenient way to keep the story forcefully going. The 1998 movie had a perfectly good and unflawed idea.
And to emphasize that; I applaud Disney for changing up their material, but some of the things they changed or removed could’ve remained, because they were perfectly good, and would’ve really brought the film up.
There’s a lot more during the third act that also isn’t convincing. The men are not stubborn and defiant and they go back too quickly on words they said, and they don’t question how Mulan could possibly know very damning information about their enemy. A secondary antagonist also performs acts that make her seem like a layered character, but the movie doesn’t give her enough screen time or let the actress give her any personality for us to be on the same boat.
I’m recommending Mulan in the end because it was beautiful, well-performed, and even if some changes didn’t hit, it was brave enough, unlike The Lion King, to set its own course and brave enough to be really deviant. At the same time, I’m glad that the comments Yifei Lu made about the Hong Kong protests and the camps of Xinjiang are being addressed, and I hope the conversation can make the world a better place and not a worse one.