As an American born Chinese, like may, my first exposure to Mulan was the 90’s Disney animated film. And at the time it was an amazing film. Looking back, some of it is problematic in some of it’s forays into orientalism. but hey, we weren’t used to seeing people that looked like us in anything that came out of Hollywood, let alone Disney in a big role. So Mulan was a major milestone. When I showed it to my mother, in a Cantonese dubbed VCD, she enjoyed it. And of course like all old folks, “back in my day we all knew the story of Mulan.” Funny how I’ve now become like my parents in saying the same thing now.
Flash forward ten years and the Chinese action film Hua Mulan is released in 2009. It is also known as Mulan: Rise of the Warrior, Mulan: Legendary Warrior. I first saw this film on an imported disc from Hong Kong. This review, however will be for the US released Blu-ray disc of Mulan: Rise of a Warrior released by Funimation. It may be out of print or at least difficult to find because of renewed interest in the story and the release of the new live action Disney version. But it is available to stream on Funimation.com.
In 450 AD, the kingdom of Northern Wei (China is not united at this point) suffers multiple invasions by the Rourans, nomadic tribes that raid and pillage, your standard barbarian horde. The call goes out to enlist men to join in the fight to repel the invaders. Retired, and sickly Hua Hu insists that he is able to fight for his country. but in the middle of the night, his daughter, Hua Mulan (Zhao Wei), takes his armor, sword and conscription letter to take his place in the Chinese army.
Hua Mulan disguises herself as a man and joins the army. She is recognized by a Tiger (Jaycee Chan, and yes, he is Jackie Chan’s son) a friend she grew up with, but is sworn to secrecy. One thing leads to another and eventually one of her commanders, Wentai (Chen Kun) discovers that she is a woman too. Things could go badly for except they are conveniently attacked by Rourans. Mulan and Wentai both distinguish themselves in battle and her secret is safe for now. In fact, her secret is safe for the next 12 years.
Over time, the two eventually both become generals and lead successful battles against the invaders. Meanwhile, Prince Mendu, of the Rourans disagrees with his father’s plan to retreat back because of heavy losses. Mendu does some Game of Thrones shit and proclaims himself the ruler and plans to continue the war.
There are some big battles. Well, at least a lot of extras to make their battles look big. And this Mulan was made at a time when Chinese movies still used practical stunts and the fight staging is very well done. Ultimately, it is a war movie and not so much a martial arts film. Though what there is is done well.
As a period war film, it succeeds for the most part, but as a story it suffers from an uninteresting villain that himself prefers to lay on a mat like Jabba the Hutt and let things happen around him. Really, he’s not cool enough to do that. The movie also suffers from several unnecessary melodramatic tropes, such as the obvious romance between Mulan and Wentai, but which, for variou reasons is doomed.
Even though the film says that a dozen years have passed, it certainly does not look it as all the characters look as if they’ve only been fighting for a few weeks together. And even though there are great shots of thousand of extras in formation, the actual battles become more close and appear to be more like perhaps a hundred stunt performers.
Throughout this, though is the heavy weight put on the shoulders of Zhao Wei, who as Vicky Zhao, is perhaps best remembered as the female lead in Stephen Chow’s Shaolin Soccer. Ironically, this is her second role as a crossdressing warrior. She also disguised herself as a man to infiltrate an enemy camp in John Woo’s grander and better period war epic Red Cliff. Zhao Wei is really the standout in the film as she has the most depth of character as time and war takes a toll on her being the witness to death and loss of so many comrades over time. Unfortunately the low hanging fruit of decision to leave, the big reveal to everyone of who she is, and her reunion with her father were done as merely passing scenes that you’d miss if you blinked.
Director Jingle Ma, is a veteran of Hong Kong Cinema, but it seems he may have hedged his bets when given the chance for a sprawling epic. In the end it is a more compact film than it set out t be with a romance angel that is really not needed. But then again, Asian audience love their melodramas and stories about doomed love.
The vast open locations suffer from a purposeful lack of color. The landscape is fifty shades of brown. And costume design leans to drab grays and black, rendering a near monotone cinematography. It falls in line with the more serious and gritty tone that the filmmakers were going through. Perhaps it was conscious decision to not be compared to the Disney Mulan cartoon. Image quality is fairly sharp though. Though there is violence aplenty, it is still very much PG13 violence. To be fair, I don’t think Chinese censors have allowed bloody R rated type movies since their takeover of Hong Kong and their cinemas.
The musical score stands out, and somehow works considering there are five credited composers. There is ample usage of traditional drums and the Chinese erhu.
But it is uneven editing, a clunky script and an unnecessary character hold the film back from being genuinely great. Mulan was made on a $12 million budget. It’s word box office gross was $1.8 million. That is a shame, even though the movie has issues, it is still entertaining.
Though I do advise watching the film in it’s intended language of Mandarin, the English dub is surprisingly serviceable.