REVIEW: MULAN

THE STORY

A young Chinese maiden disguises herself as a male warrior in order to save her father.

THE GOOD

Disney loves a lot of things – making families and children happy, animation, filmmaking, theme parks. But more than anything else, Disney loves money.

Which is why in 2010, after Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland grossed $1.25 Billion dollars, the studio saw a perfect opportunity to get one step closer to their plan for world domination and announced a live action remake of nearly every one of their animated films, with 12 released and another 14 in development.

Therefore it was expected from the start that a remake would soon come of one their most popular and beloved original classics; 1998’s Mulan, based on the old Chinese folklore “The Ballad of Mulan”, an adventure set in the Han Dynasty of a young Chinese girl who must impersonate a man in order to fight in the Imperial army and save her father. It was officially announced in 2015.

And the controversies followed soon after.

As Hollywood had been facing heavy public scrutiny due to whitewashing – which is to say, white actors in non-white roles -, Disney had to be extra careful when it came to casting the heroine and surrounding characters. Thankfully, in November 2017, Chinese-American actress Yifei Liu was unveiled as the new Mulan, next to an all Chinese (or of Chinese descent) supporting cast which included stars Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Gong Li, Tzi Ma and Jason Scott Lee.

Although an Asian director was considered for directing duties, the role ultimately went to New Zealander Niki Caro (Whale Rider), making her only the second woman to helm a Disney film and a budget of $200 million, the most expensive one directed by a female. However, criticism was thrown at the project as some people believed only an Asian director could be in charge of the production, a sentiment Caro disagreed with as she mentioned, “I resist the idea that you tell somebody who can tell what story. That sounds a little bit like censorship to me.

Production took place in late 2018 in New Zealand and a small part in China, a decision which would also be seen in a harsh light after it was revealed that filming took place in the province of Xinjiang, where internment camps containing up to a million ethnically Turkic citizens are located. Special thanks being given to the now-sanctioned Xinjiang Public Security Bureau (which operates the camps) in the end credits did not help matters.

Then, in early 2019, during Hong Kong protests against the governments plans to allow extradition to mainland China where protesters were assaulted by police, Yifei Liu tweeted “I support Hong Kong police. You can beat me now. What a shame for Hong Kong.” sparking #BoycottMulan, a movement which continued after its release, claiming the star supported police brutality.

All of this is before even touching the actual content of the movie where fans (as fans do nowadays) were less than happy with the changes made.

As it was written and devised to be a slightly more adult oriented war wuxia epic that would combine the animated film with the original ballad, Disney and the screenwriters decided to cut several elements that were deemed iconic by western audiences such as Mushu the Dragon, eliminating the romantic subplot with Captain Li Shang in favor of a romance with a fellow soldier named Chen Honghui and the removal of songs for an instrumental score.

Fans had their pitchforks ready for its release date on November 2nd, 2018 but were sadly informed they had to wait to spew their anger until a later date of March 27th, 2020… and then to July 24th… and finally to August 21 of the same year due to the worldwide pandemic of COVID-19 which forced theaters to shut down.

Audiences were left disappointed one last time when Disney revealed Mulan would no longer be released theatrically in the USA, Canada, New Zealand and other countries, opting instead for a premiere on Disney+ with a price of around $30 USD (plus subscription fee, of course).

Whether this proved to be a good or bad idea remains to be seen at the moment of this writing, as there have been both claims of the studio being disappointed with its sales figures in Disney+ while others report its been a massive hit on the streaming platform. Disney has not released any information, comments or numbers.

However, online piracy, its many controversies and the displeasure of fans from the original cartoon will most likely end up hurting its reputation and – more importantly for the Mouse House – financial gross.

We still have other 14 live action remakes to look forward to though!

THE GOOD

MULAN A LA WUXIA

In order to differentiate this version of Mulan with its animated counterpart while also hewing closer to its cultural roots, one of the first (and smartest) decisions made was to incorporate the Wuxia genre into its action choreography.

For those who may not know, Wuxia is a centuries old Chinese genre of literature which tells of the adventures of “martial heroes”. It is basically the superhero genre in China. But unlike Kung-Fu films, Wuxia always lean on the fantastical, with our protagonists performing impossible feats like flying through the air such as in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Hero.

The technique ensures respects are being paid to its culture while also giving us some elegant and entertaining action scenes. After all, this would like making a Mexican Luchador film where the heroes use guns. Dishonor on you indeed.

It’s also a nice bonus to see Wuxia legends Donnie Yen and Jet Li incorporated into the cast, honoring those who brought worldwide acclaim to this genre.

BEAUTIFUL PHOTOGRAPHY

From start to finish, Mulan is one of the most gorgeous looking films Disney has recently produced.

Shot on location mostly in New Zealand and partly in China, every cent of its robust $200 million dollar budget is present on the screen with massive sets, beautiful (mostly) natural locations – with very well hidden CGI – and hundreds of actual, real human extras adorning each frame.

Also, as is the case with all of these remakes, it’s not afraid to visually remind us of the 1998 animated classic with its use of color and gorgeously vibrant costumes. This was a wildly expensive movie and it shows, yet doesn’t make the mistake of becoming a caricature or feel overtly fake like some other remakes (*ahem* Beauty & The Beast *ahem*).

If there’s any complaints to be had is the shame of it being released on Disney+, as this is a movie that deserved to be seen on the biggest screen possible.

WOMEN OF POWER AND POWERFUL WOMEN

Let’s face it, Mulan‘s original villain (Shan Yu, now named Bori Khan and played by the underrated Jason Scott Lee) is one of the more bland and uninteresting Disney villains and honestly, so is this new one.

But to make up for that, the filmmakers decided to include a secondary antagonist in the sorceress Xianniang (Gong Li), whose powers forced her down a villainous path after being shun by a society afraid of powerful women and proves to be a much more fascinating counterpart to our heroine.

By acting as a direct mirror for our protagonist, the movie is able to reinforce and enhance Mulan’s emotional arc while also commenting on the need for minorities to support each other, even if the conclusion given to the character is a little muddy, but at least the attempt to build a more complex villain is appreciated after the cookie cutter one we got in the original.

ADAPTING A CLASSIC

Remakes rarely go well with their fanbase. Change too much and be considered sacrilegious or change too little and be considered unoriginal. Very few have gotten that balance to be considered superior and even then, many fans will still hate the new version.

And I get it, change is hard to accept. And it feels like there were three which faced the most hate from fans.

First, there’s the songs. I feel losing that aspect works as this is ultimately a live-action war epic akin to The Last Samurai, and having the characters sing would have robbed it of some of the verisimilitude they were going for. Also, to be honest, I really don’t like musicals so I was ok with that.

In regards to Mushu, well, this was done because that figure was always seen as highly disrespectful to the Chinese, so it was changed to something that actually does belong to that culture, namely, a phoenix. And seeing and hearing a CGI dragon would have been quite silly within the context of this version of Mulan.

Third, I’ve seen criticisms on the more “realistic” tone which is seen as incongruous due to the Wuxia fighting style given as well as the appearance of the Phoenix among other details, but people seem to have mistaken realistic with grounded in a heightened sense of reality.

Besides these there are many other differences which upset the fanbase and I’ll also certainly admit that not all the changes done work here but after being highly disappointed in the copy/paste work done on The Lion King, I understand why many were made and I’ll take a remake which tries to do something different any day of the week.

I only hope that the backlash seen by this movie doesn’t lead to more uninspired and bland remakes that made no effort to provide audiences with a fresh or different take on their classics such as in The Lion King or The Beauty & The Beast.

THE MUSIC

Harry Gregson-Williams replaces the late Jerry Goldsmith as the composer for this new version and like most of Williams work, it’s neither very memorable nor is it terrible.

Having lost all the songs, Gregson-Williams imbues the whole score with new instrumental versions in order to honor the music from the original and it works quite well, particularly in tracks like “Four Ounces Can Move A Thousand Pounds” and “Mulan Rides Into Battle“.

On the other hand, it’s sad that Gregson-Williams isn’t fully able to escape clichés with lots of “Chinese” sounds with drums, flutes and strings. Perhaps I just wish that composers could move away from those as its the easy way out for audiences to recognize an Asian story.

Christina Aguilera once again returns to sing a new version of her classic “Reflections” song as well as recording the new track “Loyal, Brave & True“, which like most Disney songs is a powerful and catchy song and should keep fans of the original happy.

  • Four Ounces Can Move A Thousand Pounds – Harry Gregson Williams
  • Christina Aguilera – Loyal, Brave & True
  • Reflection – Christina Aguilera

THE DIALOGUE

MULAN
When employed correctly, four ounces can move a thousand pounds.

YAO
 I like my women buxom. With strong, wide hips.
CRICKET
I like kissing women with cherry red lips.
PO
I don’t care what she looks like.
MULAN
I agree.
PO
I care what she cooks like.

THE BETWEEN

  • Attempts to remake Mulan go back to 2010, when there were reports that actress Zhang Ziyi (Memoirs of A Geisha) and director Jan de Bont (Speed, Twister) had procured financing for a new version from Disney, where she would star as the eponymous hero, but the project was never heard from again.
  • In the animated film, as part of her disguise and transformation to join the military, Mulan cut off most of her waist length hair. This scene wasn’t adapted to the live-action film because it was considered redundant. Historically speaking, long hair on men was very common in imperial China, so Mulan having long hair at the military camp would not have been considered unusual.
  • Yifei Liu performs 90% of all her stunts as Mulan: horse riding, sword fighting, martial arts, and battle scenes.
  • ‘Mulan’ Director and Cast Break Down a Fight Scene

THE CONCLUSION

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