Current Issue #488

Film Review:

Kiwi director Niki Caro’s live-action remake of Disney’s 1998 animated epic Mulan, itself drawn from a centuries-old Chinese legend, has spectacular moments but proves too long and a touch, it must be said, smug.

The most expensive movie ever helmed by a woman, it’s one of those epics that couldn’t NOT be controversial for a bunch of reasons, not least of which is the annoyance that, after many cinematic delays due to COVID-19, it’s now finally available to stream on Disney+ instead (but only for subscribers willing to shell out an additional ‘$34.99 for ‘Premier Access’).

Politically, too, there’s much here that’s problematic, including stars with pro-Hong Kong views, unease at Disney conspicuously getting its claws into China, and some heavy #MeToo rethinking – all of which makes this a tricky title to critique.

Auckland mainly stands in for China as we meet the young Hua Mulan (here played by Crystal Rao) in a death-defying if awkward-looking opening scene that demonstrates that she’s never played by the rules and, therefore, has always been an outsider. Later, as an adult, she’s played by Yifei Liu (chosen from a casting call of 1000 hopefuls), and she’s still resisting tradition, something which concerns her loving Dad Zhou (the prolific Tzi Ma, recently seen in Tigertail) but upsets her mother Li (Rosalind Chao) greatly.

Li states that “a daughter brings honor through marriage” and sends Mulan and her sister Xiu (Xana Tang as a character deliberately added to the story) off to the local matchmaker (Pei-Pei Cheng, another veteran) for a contrived comedy sequence that demonstrates that Mulan isn’t exactly the marrying type.

When Rouran invaders headed by the villainous Bori Khan (an overacting Jason Scott Lee) attack and threaten the Emperor (action star Jet Li), the Imperial Army put out an order that one man from each family must fight. And, as Zhou is old and knackered and doesn’t have any sons, Mulan naturally ties her hair back, strikes out and joins up under the name Hua Jun.

Looking decidedly unmanly (in the spirit of other gender-bendering pics like Yentl), she must endure all the tropes of having to wash when the men aren’t looking and struggling with the appropriate sexist banter, all the while knowing full well that stern Commander Tung (Donnie Yen) could execute her if he knew the truth.

Jun/Mulan also goes up against shapeshifting witch Xian Lang (Gong Li), an ally of Khan’s who knows her secret and with whom she shares some common ground, as he uses her magic to his advantage but treats her disrespectfully. And, speaking of magic, there’s some semi-Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon wall-running and roof-leaping as well, much of which looks a tad clunky.

Oh, and speaking of speaking: should they all be conversing in Mandarin?

Mandy Walker’s cinematography is strong enough to make you regret that this couldn’t viably be released in cinemas, and the name Chinese cast is pretty good too, and yet, somehow, it doesn’t quite work, in much the same way that Disney’s rehashing of its own The Lion King faltered.

But at least all that singing is kept to a minimum.

Reviewer Rating

Mulan (PG) is now streaming on Disney+

DM Bradley

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