I’ve never seen Disney’s 1998 animated Mulan, but my stepdaughter loves it and I trust her judgement, so I’m predisposed to like this live action version of the tale, directed by Niki Caro.
The story is based on an old Chinese folk tale, The Ballad of Mulan, created in the time of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386–534). It tells the tale of the titular Mulan, a young woman who disguises herself as a man so that she can fight in the Imperial Army and save the dynasty from the Rouran warriors.
Mulan has always possessed the chi that marks out the greatest soldiers, but the patriarchal society she lives in demands that both men and women adhere to strict gender roles, and women are definitely not supposed to fight. Mulan wants to bring honour to her family, but she doesn’t want to wear fancy make-up or restrictive clothing; she’s not interested in learning how to pour tea with decorum, nor in acquiring any of the other skills needed to ‘make a match.’ She doesn’t want to be a wife; she wants to rise, phoenix-like, and become a warrior. So, when it looks like her ailing father might be pressed into battle, she steals his call-up papers and his sword, and sets off on her mission.
It’s a charming story, beautifully told. Yifei Liu is luminous as the eponymous heroine, her quiet determination both convincing and impressive. And this is more than just a worn-out, that-old-chestnut, girl-pretends-to-be-a-boy type thing, because – despite its historical origins – this is very much a story for our times, showing clearly how people – all people – need to be allowed to pursue their passions, and to realise their own natures. Indeed, in the form of hawk-witch Xianniang (Li Gong), we are given a very stark (and not very subtle) warning as to how destructive it can be when we are forced to deny our true selves: this is a woman made of fury, doomed to a life as an outcast, and desperate for revenge.
The fight scenes are gorgeously choreographed by Mandy Walker, a brutal ballet of physical perfection. The battle:story ratio seems well-judged: there’s not too much for me (I tend to get bored watching protracted fights), but there’s plenty for martial arts fans. Philip’s especially delighted to see veteran stars given roles with appropriate gravitas, namely Donnie Yen as Commander Tung, Jet Li as the Emperor and Jason Scott Lee as their formidable foe, Böri Khan.
The CGI hawk and phoenix are skilfully rendered, adding an interesting element of mysticism to what is essentially – in this incarnation – a realistic tale. And the relationships between the characters are nuanced and compelling, with almost everyone open to learning and accepting new norms and ideas.
For me, this is a genuine pleasure. I guess I’d better watch the animated version now…