The legendary story of Mulan, the girl who went to war and saved a nation. No, not the Disney musical, but China’s live-action epic recalls El Cid, The Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far and the Sands of Iwo Jima in a sweeping tale of nationalistic pride.
When the Wei nation is threatened by the barbarian raiders of the Rouran tribes, the Wei go to war with a nation-wide draft. Let’s skip over the implausible tale of the enlisted volunteer soldier who is really a girl and keeps her gender concealed throughout the whole campaign and rise to the highest rank.
Nobody does historical epic like the Chinese. Casts of thousands, even before the CGI, sets, costumes, weapons, landscapes; China outdoes the golden age of the Hollywood epic by sheer weight of state resources thrown at the film industry in the world’s most populous country. And in return, the patriotic message of personal sacrifice in the name of Chinese unity and progress weighs down the whole enterprise time after time.
Vicki Zhao is never dirty enough, tomboyish enough and certainly not ugly enough to pass as a boy at any time. Just swallow your disbelief every time she addresses the troops and the senior staff, after a couple of early near-reveals, the writers simply ignore it. Instead, as she rises through the ranks, Mulan has to prove herself a soldier; a fighter, a killer, a commander and a strategist, all of which she does while going through the obligatory agonies of ‘war is hell’ and concealing not only her gender, but her love for a fellow officer, Wentai, whom we discover is himself an Imperial prince.
The hidden romance gradually takes centre stage but seldom rises above the central theme of the war and the survival of a nation. You have to admire the sheer scale of the enterprise and tip your hat to the Chinese. This would be a by-the-numbers war movie if it weren’t for the sheer scale and bravado of the battle sequences, all lovingly rendered with much stabbing and slicing; not too much blood, but ever more ridiculous sound effects.
This war is overwhelmingly sentimentalised with every noble death among Mulan’s troops. Sentiment hits its highest (or lowest) point with the song to the captured prisoners just before their slaughter by the Rouran tribes. The Wei are the noble defenders, the Rouran tribes the barbarian horde. Jun Hu makes a credible villain as Modu, the ambitious, unwavering usurper, but there are no surprises in the set-up of black-hats versus white-hats. There are few surprises of any kind, unless you count the inexplicable cameo by Russian pop star Vitas as the Rouran man-servant. Otherwise the cast is made up of stock characters filled out by strong performances. The subtitled dialogue is littered with Chinese philosophy and assorted war-movie clichés. The plot goes through a standard three-act plus epilogue war-movie structure, with Mulan committing grave errors of judgement along the way to a final victory – which is the one real surprise, not the huge action set-piece you expect.
Vicki Zhao as Mulan holds the screen but is let down by the script. The Chinese state remains male dominated so the idea of a woman doing a man’s job is down-played, although the accommodation between Mulan and the Rouran Princess is a neat plot resolver that happens to deliver yet another entry in the list of personal sacrifice.
If International, sub-titled cinema, historical epic and war is not your thing, Mulan is not for you; otherwise, sit back and enjoy the spectacle like it’s the 1940’s and 50’s over again.
Hua Mulan (2009)
Directors: Jingle Ma , Wei Dong
Running time: 114 minutes
Genre: Drama, Action & Adventure, Romance
Cast: Vicki Zhao, Chen Kun, Hu Jun, Jaycee Chan, Vitas, Nicky Lee, Xu Jiao