One of the first things I noticed about the new live-action version of Disney’s 1998 animated feature Mulan is that there is a tremendous amount of bloodless death. So much, in fact, that I had to stop the movie and check the rating, which I had assumed was PG (like the original). But no, it’s rated PG-13 for “sequences of violence.” This is in no way a criticism of the movie, but it might be the most death-soaked film on Disney+ since Avengers: Infinity War. Since most of the violence/killing happens during some beautifully choreographed fight sequences—much of which features martial arts—you almost don’t notice it because you’re too busy being impressed by the grace and beauty of the movement. But if you step back, you’ll realize you’re watching the bodies pile up.
In a strange way, that impressed me, because it was an early sign that director Niki Caro (Whale Rider, North Country) and her team weren’t forced to soften the reality of this story of a young Chinese maiden Mulan (Liu Yifei). In ancient times she disguises herself as a male soldier to save her father and spare her family being shamed for not being able to contribute to the war effort. It’s one of many reasons Mulan is so impressive, from its rich color scheme and production design to its other-worldly atmosphere, complete with a hypnotic witch, a prophetic phoenix, and a vague internal magic that allows our heroine to master complex movements that defy gravity and physics and make her one of the most powerful warriors in the emperor’s army.
We meet Mulan as a girl already capable of great feats of balance and movement, and while her parents (Tzi Ma as dad, Rosalind Chao as mom) are somewhat permissive, her action-oriented ways are a bit of an embarrassment to the family, something that grows from annoying to shameful as she gets older and a matchmaker interviews her to see if she is suited for any of the men in their town. When the emperor’s forces come to recruit one male from each family to fight in the upcoming battle against invading hordes led by Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and the witch Xianniang (Gong Li), Mulan’s ailing father volunteers, knowing full well he is not in fighting shape and will die immediately. Instead, Mulan steals his armor and sword and pretends to be a male warrior.
There’s something like boot camp for the new recruits, who are trained by Commander Tung (Donnie Yen), and it doesn’t take long for Mulan to use her special skills to excel among her fellow new soldiers. She makes friends with a few, including Honghui (Yoson An), who becomes her confidante, but she must keep her greatest secret to herself. Considering that the pledge she must make to become a true warrior in the army of the emperor (Jet Li) is to be loyal, brave, and true, lying about her gender isn’t sitting well with her. In fact, it holds her back from being as connected to her power as she needs to be to defeat the enemy.
As someone who has followed Chinese and Hong Kong cinema for decades, it was like a dream come true to see so many formidable actors in one film, but I was especially thrilled to see Gong Li absolutely bite into arguably the coolest role in Mulan. With strategically placed face paint and stunning costumes (designed by Bina Daigeler), Xianniang the witch can easily see through Mulan’s disguise, making her a threat in more ways than one. Mulan is so scared to reveal who she really is to her fellow warriors that it ends up hurting them in battle. But when she finally does, it’s an act of defiance rather than cowardice, and at about that moment one realizes that Mulan is something of a superhero—and that this film is her origin story.
The legend of Hua Mulan is one that has been around for hundreds of years and has been told many ways, and certainly director Caro’s adaptation is one of the more vibrant, spiritual and life affirming. Mulan doesn’t do what she does to defy her family, but to protect it. If she is anything but the finest warrior, she will shame her family and likely be cast out forever for her deception. But her fellow soldiers recognize her greatness and don’t really care that she’s a woman. This may be more progressive than the times the film is set in, but it’s a strong message for the times in which the movie is being released.
Some parts of the film feel more artificial than I liked, and the use of special effects can get a bit overbearing here and there, but neither of these is enough to distract from the overwhelmingly gorgeous visuals and sweeping camera movements from cinematographer Mandy Walker. The real standout here is Liu Yifei herself. She possesses a nobility, humility, and grace that perfectly suit the character, and when you surround her with a veritable royal family of Asian cinema, Mulan is more than just a spectacle; it’s a moving, rousing piece of art.
The film will be available on Disney+ beginning Friday as the streaming platform’s first Premier Access release. It will cost Disney+ subscribers $29.99, then the film will be available—as long as the account remains active—for unlimited viewings. But if you possess patience, it will be available free to all Disney+ subscribers starting December 4.
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