Mulan (2020)



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The 2020 theatrical release of the live-action Mulan was canceled because of Covid-19. The film was released on Disney+, but required members to pay $30. Finally, in December the film became available for free to all Disney+ members. It was a very strange roll out that Disney is not repeating with the Pixar release Soul.


The release schedule was not the only controversy around Mulan. Most of the movie was filmed in New Zealand as a stand-in for Western China. I think Disney should have shown off the beauty of China with this film, but they did not. Portions of the filming took place in Xinjiang, the former home to millions of Uighur Muslims that have been detained and subjected to human rights violations by the Beijing government. The Beijing government has a lot of power over movie releases in China. The 1.5 billion Chinese citizens are a huge market for Disney, so I am sure there were multiple back and forth to get this movie approved for release in China.


This live-action movie shares very little with its animated counterpart. It a good course correction from Aladdin but is not as good of a remake as Beauty and the Beast or The Jungle Book. There is a lot less CGI camera work than Guy Ritchie used in Aladdin. It is just as supersaturated with color though. New Zealand does look pretty. If you are watching in a dark room with a powerful HDR screen, your eyes may feel some strain as there are rapid switches from direct sunlight to dark forests. I’m not sure if the editor had compromised vision or just was not editing on a bright enough screen. There are some perplexing choices to rotate the camera as people storm the various military garrisons. It is jarring at times, but at least it is not time-shifted. It can feel cartoonish but without a payoff for sacrificing reality. This appears to be an effort to make the film feel like a wuxia, like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. It fails pretty hard; it isn’t even the diet version of a wuxia film.


The training montage with the most memorable song from the animated film made it to this remake, though without the song. Mulan starts out hiding her superior abilities, she is not inexperienced in sword fighting like the animated film, instead, she must learn to rediscover the ‘chi’ within her that her father had to stop teaching her about. The avalanche scene is also carried over, which I felt was a welcome nod to the original film, but I have been on an avalanche movie kick recently.


The movie tries to portray female empowerment but fumbles the messaging. Xianniang, Li Gong, is a witch with the ability to shapeshift from a bird to her true form to an exact copy of her victims. She aids Böri Khan, Jason Scott Lee, in his efforts to defeat the Emperor, Jet Li (who is somewhat unrecognizable). Multiple times Khan reminds Xianniang that she works for him while we get a sense that she holds the real power. The payoff of this strong female lead never comes, there is a rapid change in Xianniang’s storyline, and she never uses her power to exert dominance over Khan.


Mulan’s hero’s journey hits a believable stumbling block when she is discovered to be a woman. It is not because of a lack of showering though, which the film points out on multiple occasions for some unknown reason. She lets her hair down during battle to be true to herself, but also to make fighting as hard as possible as her hair is constantly in her face. All military training starts with the elimination of the self to become a part of the larger unit. The first half of Full Metal Jacket is a great exploration of this. It is believable that Mulan is banished for lying despite saving the day, that is how militaries work.


The dialog is incredibly stiff despite many of the actors having a body of work in English already. Yifei Liu, Mulan, is a megastar in China. Her delivery is almost entirely devoid of emotion. I thought that the lions in the remake of Lion King had dead eyes, but they were CGI. There is not much of an excuse for Liu. I have no doubt she is an incredible actress, but director Niki Caro did not get a good performance out of Liu.


The film feels a bit like a Chinese character tattoo. It may have seemed like a good idea at the beginning, a singular word to describe yourself. Mulan’s sword even has 忠勇真 inscribed on it, meaning loyal, brave, and true. There is a heavy emphasis on truth in the movie, and in truth, it is not very good. The movie tried to be too many things and is full of compromises. At least Ming-Na made a cameo and Mulan never kisses Honghui.

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©2019 by Sean Whitehurst