Mulan is at times stirring, and almost always entertaining. It’s not as humorous or as zippily paced, as the 1998 version, but that’s by design. It exists proudly on its own plane.
Niki Caro has done what few other directors have been able to do, make a movie that wasn’t beholden to the original animated version. There are homages to Barry Cook’s and Tony Bancroft’s 1998 Mulan but the movie never stops dead for musical numbers or tries to behave like an animated film. Mulan feels like a movie unto itself. Since almost every other Disney movie in this genre has attempted to do nothing but remind us of its predecessors, refreshingly it allows us to get lost in Caro’s world.
Though a white woman is an odd choice for a director. Disney seems bent on attempting to atone for their past corporate sins of cultural appropriation by diversifying their casting in front of the camera, but keeping it as white as pure driven snow behind it. This is not to say Caro doesn’t overcome this hurdle.
Rick Jaffa’s, Amanda Silver’s Lauren Hynek’s, and Elisabeth Martin’s script do a wonderful job of building a world and breathing new life into the story. The animated Mulan condensed Mulan’s story, the modern version allows for more character shading. Though Caro and her writers fall into the same tropes and cultural pitfalls as white directors do when they try to tell non-white stories.
Liu Yifei’s Mulan is a mostly stoic character sprinkled with enough self-doubt and vulnerability to make her interesting. What sticks out is how much Caro and the script have flushed out Mulan’s family. In particular, the depth of the bond between Mulan and her father Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma) is my favorite relationship of the movie. Though Caro does allow Mulan’s mother Hua Li (Rosalind Chao) more dimensions than she’s previously been allowed to have before.
Granted this could just be Chao. Her face is like a mural of conflicting emotions when it comes to Mulan. It’s obvious that she loves her daughter; she just can’t understand why she insists on going against the grain. Likewise, when Ma’s Zhou volunteers to join the Emperor’s (Jet Li) army Chao is all but destroyed because she knows she will likely never see her husband again.
Mulan is a movie that lives in the unspoken moments. The glances between actors in a scene, or the way Caro and her cinematographer Mandy Walker frame an actor by themself and let us merely observe them as they wrestle with their thoughts and emotions. More than all the talk of “honor” and “family honor” that so many Westerners feel the need to cram into non-Western stories, it’s the moments between the words when Mulan comes alive.
A strange, but welcome, idiosyncratic aspect of the script is the minimalist nature of the dialogue. So many Disney movies are loud, filled to bursting, with songs, and wacky animal sidekicks. Caro wisely tosses all that out and just leaves the story and the characters.
The silence of Mulan is the part that struck me the most effective. The quiet moments of contemplative character introspection mixed with great panoramic scenes of action. Not since the Maleficence movies have these adaptations felt sincere and not as an advertisement to remind you of the original now on DVD.
It helps that the story is not a complicated one. The dastardly Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) is leading a rebellion against the empire. Aided by a shape-shifting witch Xian Lang (Gong Li), who seems to be not just helping him but essentially fighting the war for him in terms of reconnaissance, strategy, and even to some extent fighting the actual fight.
The Emperor calls forth the firstborn son of every family in the country to join his army to defeat the Khans. Zhou is an old man with a bad leg, and though he volunteers, it is all but certain he will not return. So Mulan goes in his place disguised as a man.
The one change that the script makes is both something that makes sense based on the hours of old Shaw Brothers, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh, films I have consumed over my lifetime. Caro and the script give Mulan a strong “chi” which Mulan treats as a sort of enhanced fighting power. If it seems like magic then I should also tell you Li’s Xian also has a powerful chi and is considered a witch.
I couldn’t help but be exasperated with this change. On its own, it feels like a naked attempt to inject some comic book nonsense in order to make the movie palpable to the kids. I know this is not true but as I often say films don’t exist in a vacuum and neither do I.
Still, as I’ve also said it feels right at home in a Kung-Fu, Hong-Kong action film. Except Mulan isn’t any of that and Caro never does any more than a reference or allude to those genres of films, so it feels like the film’s way to try and figure out how to make Mulan special without actually having her be special.
It doesn’t help that Li’s Xang is meant to be a dark mirror version of Yifei’s Mulan. In fact, Xang at one point tries to recruit Mulan by saying the Emperor’s army will never accept her as a woman, only a man. Caro and the script heavily hint that Mulan could be Xang if not for the support of her family and fellow soldiers.
I enjoyed Li’s restrained vamping. She and Yiefei have interesting chemistry the few times they share a scene together. I can’t help but feel as if a more interesting and complex relationship was left either on the editing floor or in another cut out of the final draft of the script.
Still, Caro and Walker do a magnificent job at capturing the desert landscape of China, or at times New Zealand playing China. Landscape cinematography is a style all it’s own that seems deceptively easy. Walker’s camera sweeps and soars so as to give us a sense of the vastness of the land and the scope of the territory. It is a simple but difficult act to pull off in a way that actually emboldens the film as opposed to making it seem like padding.
I can’t deny getting choked up when Mulan’s commander Tung, the ever charismatic Donnie Yen, presents her father with a new sword. Ma is one of those older Dad type of actors, like Kulvinder Ghir, who have this stoic way about them and can just break your heart with just a twitch of their cheek.
At the same time, I couldn’t help but wonder what Mulan would look and feel like if it were told by Chinese storytellers at any step of the way. Caro and her squad of scriptwriters have done a wonderful job delivering an adaptation of a Chinese folk hero that has already been Disney-fied. I don’t mean to take away from the film’s success but I can’t help but think of what the film might look like through the eyes of someone whose culture the story is a part of.
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