China, Drama, Films, Reviews, USA, Wuxia / Swordplay

Mulan

The lovely Vicky Zhao stars in this fine live-action version of the famous Mulan legend – so why is there such an overwhelming feeling of Déjà vu…?

Thanks to the 1998 Walt Disney film of the same name everyone knows the Chinese folktale of Mulan, right? The young maiden who takes her poorly father’s place in the Chinese army and ends up becoming one of China’s greatest heroes in the process. Go on, girl power!

Directors Jingle Ma’s (Tokyo Raiders, Silver Hawk, Seoul Raiders) and Wei Dong’s take on the legend takes a different slightly direction to the Disney film, as you would hope in an adult film. As with the earlier film, Hua Mulan (Vicki Zhao, Red Cliff, Shaolin Soccer, Painted Skin) takes her father’s (Rongguang Yu, New Police Story, The Storm Riders, The East Is Red) place in the Wei army when she realises he is too old and weak to survive the conflict with the invading Rouran hordes.

In the encampment keeping her identity is paramount, particularly as women aren’t allowed there even as girlfriends, let alone as soldiers, but Mulan soon shows herself to be an exceptional warrior. Her remarkable courage and knowledge of the art of war quickly propel her through the ranks to the position of General. Her fellow comrade Wentei (Chen Kun, Painted Skin, Let the Bullets Fly) recognises just how great she could, if she can just leave behind her one weakness on the battlefield – her affection for him.

As seems to be the trend nowadays, the style of Mulan follows the rough and rugged look pioneered by Musa: The Warrior and the highly successful The Warlords, if somewhat less plausibly. Sure, it’s all a bit grimy, but never quite as dark as Peter Chan’s film. Unsurprisingly the early training sequence is played much for laughs, which brings co-star Jaycee Chan (Invisible Target, 2 Young) as close the sort of comedic performance we’d expect from his father Jackie yet.

But about half an hour in or so, I suddenly have a feeling I’ve seen all this before. It takes me a little while to place, then I realise I have – in the first part of John Woo’s Red Cliff II when Zhao’s character goes undercover in the enemy’s army! (Admittedly, Woo was in turn no doubt inspired by Mulan in the first place.)

This casting (Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi and Liu Yifei were allegedly also up for the role) brings other unfortunate comparisons: the action through most of the film does not compare to other recent historical dramas, even the otherwise terrible Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon, despite action director Stephen Tung Wai’s other recent work on Bodyguards And Assassins. When it finally comes down to showing Mulan’s tactical genius, director Ma rather fudges it – instead showing a rather vague montage sequence (much like Three Kingdoms did).

What I’d really like to seen, at least once, is a finely orchestrated battle sequence in line with those in Red Cliff, something that proves just how clever she is.

Vicki Zhao, once again, gives a solid performance in the lead, though oddly decides to play the role in quite a feminine way. Perhaps this is too avoid overplayed, Yentel style deep voices, but it’s hard to imagine anyone being fooled into believing this very (very, very) attractive and somewhat emotional woman being anything but? Personally I still find Zhao a little incongruous when cast in historical roles, even though that seems to have been all she’s done lately. As with Red Cliff I’m happy to overlook that, but perhaps it’s time for Zhao to find a more up to date part?

There’s sturdy support from the cast, including Rongguang Yu, but once again it’s Hu Jun (Bodyguards And Assassins, Infernal Affairs II, Red Cliff) who excels at the villainous of the Rouran Dayan, Mendu, relishing evey minute of screen time as a thoroughly unlikable and dishonourable leader.

It’s obvious that it doesn’t take itself as seriously as many other recent efforts, and in doing so (as is obvious from behind the scenes footage included on the DVD/Blu-Ray) greatly enjoyed themselves on the set while making the film. This shines through, making Mulan a surprisingly enjoyable historical romp, and more enjoyable that many of its peers.

And hell, it’s Vicki Zhao. ‘Nuff said!

Mulan was released on 21 June by Cine Asia on DVD and Blu-ray.

Home media details

Distributor: Cine Asia (UK)

A strong master of the film, looks good even on DVD. On first appearance the bonus features don't really make for a great two-disc edition, a short, polished 'making of' and interview gallery. However, it's in the undersold 'behind the scenes' series of featurettes we get a revealing look into the filmmaking process, and the high spirits that seemed to be on set.

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Andrew Heskins
Founder of easternKicks.com, which he's been running since 2002. And it's all thanks to Monkey, Water Margin and those damn fantastic 80s Hong Kong action movies! Andy works as a graphic designer in London... More »
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