When Mongol invaders threaten pre-Tang Dynasty China the call goes out to every able bodied warrior across the allied kingdoms. Plucky, eighteen year old Hua Mulan (Vicky Zhao Wei) replaces her ailing father (Yu Rong-Guang) and joins the army disguised as a man. Though her childhood friend Tiger (Jaycee Chan) immediately sees through her disguise, she swears him to secrecy along with the handsome Weitan (Chen Kun), for whom she develops strong feelings. By battling bullies and overbearing officers, Mulan earns respect from her fellow warriors. Her bravery, martial arts skills and keen tactical mind lead to a string of victories as she rises up the ranks to become a great general. Meanwhile, psychotic Rouran Prince Mendu (Hu Jun) murders his father to become Mongol chief with aim of marrying his sister, the Rouran Princess (Angel Liu Yu-Xin) and leading his hordes to conquer all of China.
Most westerners are familiar with the figure of Hua Mulan through Disney’s animated feature Mulan (1998), although that version has its origins in the 1975 text The Woman Warrior written by Maxine Hong Kingston. This literary retelling popularised the story across the west although some Chinese scholars criticised certain changes made to the tale. Hua Mulan remains among the most enduring heroes in Chinese folk lore, embodying not only all the virtues of a great warrior but crucially also those of a dutiful daughter. A daughter who lays her life on the line to serve not just her father but her brother soldiers and the Chinese nation. There have been Mulan movies going back to the silent era, most notably the Shaw Brothers musical Lady General Hua Mulan (1964) starring celebrated Huangmei Opera star Ivy Ling Po, a high-profile miniseries in 1999 starring superstar Anita Yuen, and a new version in the works by Jan De Bont starring Zhang Zhiyi.
Although not without its merits, this big-budget Hong Kong/Chinese co-production proves a curious viewing experience given cinematographer-turned director Jingle Ma trudges through some scenes and rushes others leaving little time for the drama to hit home. A notable exception is the scene where Mulan and her troops are cornered by the enemy and forced to watch their captive comrades being executed in a bid to draw them out. As the condemned men are despatched one by one, they join their comrades singing a song of defiance. In the past, Jingle Ma’s films have been flashy and frivolous: e.g. heist thriller Tokyo Raiders (2000) and the Michelle Yeoh superhero movie Silver Hawk (2004), but since his period romance Butterfly Lovers (2008) (also based on an oft-told folk tale), his work has grown more ambitious. Where he succeeds with Mulan is in refusing to glorify war. Though the film has its share of grandiose set-pieces, including a spectacular sandstorm that engulfs the good guys, the emphasis is on loss, sacrifice and the agony of seeing friends suffer and die.
Unlike the Disney version, Mulan’s heroism actually earns her the enmity of her superiors. She observes the inequities at camp where officers lord it over ordinary soldiers yet expect them to lay down their lives. One young comrade-in-arms sold himself into the army to replace a rich man’s son and raise money for his own sick mother. Using the cruel figure of Prince Mendu, the film highlights the difference between being a fierce warrior and a strong and righteous leader, as Mulan rallies her troops by restoring their sense of self-worth. Nevertheless, aside from Mendu, the Rouran enemy are noticably not caricatured villains, but instead a warm and caring tribe who just happen to be the antagonists in this story. Indeed, the Rouran Princess’ dream of achieving lasting peace for her people plays a crucial role in the conclusion.
The film takes a strange misstep when Wentai fakes his death so as to purge Mulan of her “womanly” emotional attachments and thus drive her to greatness. Chen Kun makes a bland love interest but Jaycee Chan, the son of Jackie Chan and whose performances have been steadily improving since his lacklustre debut, shows more spirit and delivers stalwart support. Elsewhere, child star Xu Jiao of CJ7 (2008) and Future X-Cops (2010) cameos as the young Mulan and Russian pop star Vitas appears in a strange role as an adopted Rouran servant named Gude. There was a time when Vicky Zhao Wei was widely derided in the Hong Kong press as someone only famous for being famous. All that changed after Shaolin Soccer (2001) and she has since proven herself an actress of considerable merit. She excels in the lead but while some Chinese critics claimed Mulan marks her career-best performance, one would argue her role as the feisty Princess Sun in Red Cliff (2008) was even better.
Hong Kong director and cinematographer. Ma has worked as a director of photography on such films as Stephen Chow's God of Cookery and Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master II and Rumble in the Bronx, and directed flashy action films like the hit Tokyo Raiders, Goodbye, Mr. Cool and Silver Hawk.