There is little in Niki Caro's period action film Mulan that feels authentic or original. From the culture it struggles to inhabit to the classic underdog story it attempts to graph, both the emotions at its centre and their setting feel uninspired.
Mulan is the latest in a string of live-action adaptations by Disney of its popular animated films from the '90s. The animated Mulan was a watershed event in Disney's history since it introduced a female protagonist who was not a coy princess but a sword-wielding warrior. Unlike her predecessors such as Ariel (The Little Mermaid) and Princess Jasmine (Aladdin), her conscience and abilities did not allow her to wait for a Prince Charming who could rescue her or ameliorate her situation.
Sure, it was a risky proposition for Disney back then. But now that it is a global conglomerate much amplified in its reach and authority, it sure needs to do much more than merely transforming the medium in which it tells the same story. It is ironic that the 'live-action' movie neither has life nor offers solid action for most part. More unfortunately, it feels terribly dated because the makers failed to come up with what should have been a burning 2020 rendition of a powerful origin story.
Mulan (Yifei Lieu) is the daughter of war veteran Zhou (Tzi Ma), who suffered a permanent leg injury while serving the Chinese Imperial Army years ago. She is a born warrior, and refuses to surrender before the traditional duty of a Chinese girl " to bring honour to her family through matrimony. She feels she is cut out to follow in her father's footsteps, and sneaks out of home to do so when beckoned by the Emperor for an impending war. However, she has to follow her path in the guise of a man, till she ends up embracing her true identity.
Yifei Lieu in Mulan
Thanks to the long period of 22 years between 1998 and 2020, we have been witnesses to umpteen number of feisty, independent, and goal-oriented women in films backed by Disney. Lieu's Mulan comes as no surprise. Though the Chinese star plays it with a fine concoction of endearing vulnerability and transfixing grit, the screenplay, by four writers no less (Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Elizabeth Martin, and Lauren Hynek), is too lean to give her the positioning she merited.
Caro and the writers may have tweaked certain plot points and character traits but they remain unwaveringly faithful to the original film in spirit. In usual cases, that is a good problem to have. But the very idea of Mulan hinges on feminism, the facets, implications, and dynamics of which, have also evolved to a great degree in the past 20 years. I really enjoyed what Disney did with Jasmine in the live-action remake of Aladdin by painting her as an ambitious stateswoman who earns her way to becoming Agrabah's monarch.
Mulan also puts on display commendable ambition and remarkable passion, but chooses to return to her family instead of accepting a military position offered by the emperor. She combats far more insurmountable odds to prove her mettle as the rare woman warrior (labelled a 'witch' by the men because there were no known precedents). Yet she opts for her family over the state after the dust settles. There is nothing wrong with that except her choice does not sit well with how she is projected throughout the film.
Bowing before tradition after having proved her point paints Mulan as a symbol of convenience, rather than that of the "loyal, brave, and true" warrior she is supposed to be, as envisioned by her ancestors. Her conflict with the divine energy within makes the first half of Mulan quite intriguing despite the familiar premise. She proves that she is 'loyal, brave, and true' by pursuing the path chosen for her. But the fact that she does so stealthily, in disguise, restricts her from harnessing the optimum potential of the chi (vital live force in Chinese) within her. As her fellow female warrior Xianniang (Li Gong) points out, "Your deceit weakens you."
But when Mulan drops the sword and reassumes her familial life, is she being loyal, brave, and true? That is a debate left to the Disney gods.
What one can bet on is that in its stance, texture, and depth, Mulan stays true to the staple harmlessly superficial Disney films the brand is known for manufacturing.
With aesthetically unpleasing saturated skies (cinematography by Mindy Walker), synthetic dollhouse-like production design (Grant Major), Kung Fu Panda-like background music (Harry Gregson-Williams), and the let's-play-fancy-dress wardrobe (costume design by Bina Daigeler), Mulan certainly does not seem loyal to the China outside of popular interpretations of the land.
There exist flashes that make the audience conscious of the unique and texturally rich landscape, but those are few and far between. These include a quick montage of Mulan being dressed and pancaked for a matchmaking appointment and a snow avalanche sequence in the midst of a war set piece. But those can be credited more to the technical expertise of editor David Coulson and the special effects team, rather than the writing of the film.
The writing, however, insists Mulan is the same 1998 film, just richer ($). It remains faithful to the animated version; one only wishes it could also be as brave for, and true to, the time it speaks to.
Mulan is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar.
All images from Twitter.