Mulan

Mulan

05/01/21

Disney+

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…

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield

Tenet

26/08/20

You have to feel a wee bit sorry for Christopher Nolan. He is the first film director of stature to pop his head above the parapet post-lockdown, and so Tenet has the daunting task of being the flag bearer, the film expected to tempt cinema-goers back into the multiplexes en masse. Both the Bond franchise and Disney’s Mulan, have recently baulked at the responsibility and who can blame them?.

Interestingly, it’s a Bond movie that most springs to mind watching Tenet, though it would be 007 On Acid, given that its plot elements are so incomprehensible, I feel singularly unqualified to say much about them. (Sadly, I don’t possess a PHD in quantum physics.) Suffice to say that Nolans’s regular obsession with time (and the manipulation of it) are taken to their ultimate conclusion here. The result is mind bending – and not always in a good way.

The hero of the film, a CIA operative known only as The Protagonist (John David Washington), is first encountered as a member of a team carrying out a (frankly baffling) assignment in the Kiev Opera House. After that, he is recruited for a special assignment, which is referred to only by the palindromic title and a certain hand gesture. It’s all about the reversal of time or, as one character puts it, ‘entropy’. What ensues is a whole series of action set-pieces, where fights, car chases and even explosions can run forwards or backwards – often simultaneously.

The Protagonist soon finds himself teamed with the more modestly monikered Neil (Robert Pattinson) and, shortly after that, becomes increasingly enmeshed in the lives of the enigmatic Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) and her husband, power-mad Russian arms dealer, Andrei (Kenneth Branagh). Andrei, it seems, has the power to end the world as we know it, and The Protagonist has been handed the job of putting a stop to his shenanigans – so, no great pressure there…

There’s no doubting the sheer scale and ambition of this work and there’s certainly plenty of brain-scrambling action on offer, but Nolan doesn’t do himself any great favours with the complexity of the plot and the fact that much of the expository dialogue is obscured by an overly intrusive soundtrack, courtesy of Ludwig Göronsson. Washington doesn’t really have the opportunity to emote enough for us to care what happens to him, while Branagh’s snarling, bellowing Andrei veers dangerously close to caricature. Debicki is good though, and Pattinson manages to exude a suave, laidback charm, which helps no end.

I find myself alternately enjoying parts of this and feeling frustrated by others. While I’m generally the last person to favour ‘easy’ stories, I’m not convinced that this is the kind of material designed to tempt Joe Public back to the cinema – though I also have to add that it did feel wonderful to be back there, even if this isn’t the best Christopher Nolan film ever (that would be The Prestige, by the way. Thanks for asking).

If you’re looking for something big, loud and packed with action, Tenet is probably the logical choice – just don’t expect to understand everything you see.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney