Mulan fails as action spectacle and lazily cribs from the vast cinematic legacy it so loosely approximates.
After such massive financial successes as Beauty and the Beast and especially last year’s The Lion King, it was of course highly unlikely that Disney would stop mining their history of beloved animated classics for live-action remakes. And given that they rather shamelessly marketed the former as a feminist re-invention (it wasn’t) and reconfigured the latter as a celebration of Blackness (it isn’t), how surprised should we be that now Mulan has been positioned as both another feminist re-invention and a hallmark of diversity? Also unsurprising is the fact that it’s neither of those things, but instead just another instance of a studio paying some very play-it-safe lip-service to representation in a pretty transparent attempt to secure more market share.
Based, of course, on the fondly-remembered 1998 Mouse House cartoon musical, this new Mulan strips out all of the songs (not to mention the wisecracking dragon and the vaguely queer subtext) in favor of a western audience-friendly wuxia redesign, owing a lot more to something like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon than anything else. Young Hua Mulan (Yiu Lifei) disguises herself as a man to fight in her war-hero father’s place for the Emperor against the Northern invaders. Whereas the original was a chatty, largely comic affair about a young woman’s self-actualization, this Mulan embraces a more earnest story of using innate power (in this case her Qi) to serve the country’s destiny, a rather ooky — and deliberate — concession to nationalism that probably assured Disney’s ability to get this past Chinese censors.
It also probably helped that so many famous Chinese and Chinese-American performers are present here. Li Gong, one of the most beloved actresses in Asia and a staple of (director of Hero and the 2008 Olympics opening ceremonies) Yimou Zhang’s cinema, appears as an enigmatic sorceress. Tzi Ma, who’s had a long supporting career in American films (from Rush Hour to The Farewell), is Mulan’s father. The legendary Donnie Yen is Mulan’s commanding officer, and the equally amazing Jet Li is completely wasted as the Emperor. With all that representation in front of the camera, it’s disheartening to find such a lack behind it. Niki Caro seems to have been chosen as an acceptable compromise — at least this isn’t helmed by another white dude director — but some Chinese or Asian production crew, director, or at least writers might have gone a long way to inject some meaningful cultural insight here instead of the banal Chinese stereotypes of “honor” and “family.”
What’s more, this wuxia-influenced tale of a female knight almost completely disregards the very rich history of Chinese martial arts films about virtuous swordswomen (not to mention concubines or female students or soldiers — watch 1964’s Beyond the Great Wall, a truly tragic, nationalistic, and feminist work of Chinese cinema). Even Chang Pei-pei, star of the seminal martial arts film Come Drink With Me, gets dragged into this mess with a wasted cameo as a grumpy matchmaker, a big come-down from her incredible turn as the villainess of the far more reverent Crouching Tiger.
And while accounting for the film’s disappointments, it must be said that the action here — easily the source of its greatest conceptual promise — is adequate at best. There is no reasonable explanation, other than token representation from Hollywood-familiar faces, to hire athlete/performers like Li or Yen if the visual strategy is to simply indulge in green-screen spectacle and medium shots of characters battling dozens of enemies that are just out of frame. There’s no way a proper stunt team wasn’t available for real wirework or martial arts training; cycling through alternating slow-motion and speed-ramped shots of people walking on walls does not a wuxia make. Mulan merely cribs from its vast cinematic legacy, dilutes it with marketable window-dressing, and then expects to be congratulated for all that half-assed representation.
You can currently stream Niki Caro’s Mulan on Disney+.