The last I've seen of Mulan the Chinese folklore hero, was some 11 years ago when Disney decided to make her all singing and all dancing, gave her a mythical pet dragon who mouths off like Eddie Murphy, and made her fall in love with her commander in the battlefield. What more, the Disney folks never fail to remind you that she's Chinese through the character design of making her extremely slit-eyed. So fast forward to today, out goes that song and dance, the dragon gets thrown out the window as well, and hey, Zhao Wei gets casted in the lead role, and we know how mesmerizing those saucer sized eyes actually are. The romance bit in this Jingle Ma movie, stayed and while there are some quarters who found fault with it, I felt it was still tolerably OK.
We all know how the story of Hua Mulan follows that of other legendary folk heroes in China's rich history, and to date there's only a reference poem which accounted her exploits which stem out of filial piety, at a time in the Northern Wei state centuries ago when the Emperor decreed that all families must contribute to the war effort. Being a military family, the Huas have no male heir to represent their family, which automatically meant the aging father has got to volunteer himself. Rather than send her father to instant death in the battlefield, Mulan disguises herself as a male, and takes her father's place. That's basically the gist of the story, where she spends 12 long years at the war-front to the amazement that she was never found out, before returning to the gratitude of family and country.
This also means that storytellers have almost a full reign at what could have transpired during her tour of duty, and suffice to say this will always mean that there will be elements of hardship during training, attempts or situations at putting her true identity at risk, and given the soft hearted nature of an adolescent female, affairs of the heart will come knocking. The same goes for this film, written by Zhang Ting, which adopted the romantic angle rather heavily, exploring the relationship between Mulan, and General Wentai (Chen Kun), in a love that's quite forbidden since firstly a female cannot be serving in the army, and secondly, face it, two male soldiers, and later on, of general rank, can't be seen behaving lovey-dovey in front of their men. Besides, being romantically involved also served to be a roadblock to Mulan's innate war ability, or so Wentai believes that needs some way to be severed so that she can unleash that beast within.
As Wei soldiers, they're tasked to defend their country from the nomadic invading forces which seek to conquer Wei for their iron, in which to make weapons, and then to plunder some more. There's some gigantic contrast between the troops on both sides, one sans heavy armour, while the other gets more beautifully decked out, and in some ways, better equipped. But what the film is rather all about, is its take on leadership. One can have strength in superior numbers, or to have technology on its side, but without an effective, charismatic leader, it's as good as not being able to harness the multiplier effect that comes with the territory. Imagine having morale, trust and belief so high, that troops will rally behind you, trust your vision, and literally to lay their lives down for the cause. I suppose with any effective leader who walks the reasonable talk, should be able to attest to the respect that they command over their followers.
Then there are the battle scenes, because what's a Mulan film without one. Unfortunately though, most of the scenes were featured in some way in the trailer, so they do not come as a surprise. There's no big-bang action sequence as well, choosing instead to opt for a rather more personal, intimate battle rather than one involving the masses, and also wrapping things up a tad too conveniently, although it tried to redeem itself with a pathos filled finale revisiting the romantic angle once again. The war front scenes were like a quick summary of 12 years of iconic battles that Mulan had led, so those looking for fantastically choreographed battles in the mould of Red Cliff, will be sorely disappointed.
Then there are some rather questionable scenes which comes out of the blue, and somehow marred the enjoyment of the film a little because of their convenience, with that little bit of vampirism which I felt was not quite necessary, and a natural phenomenon which just appears and seem to take sides, again for reasons I am not able to fathom, and speculate only for the showcasing of special effects. Disaster movie, this is not.
But thankfully the performances all round provided that lift to the film, and made it bearable. Zhao Wei is no rookie to period war dramas, since she has Red Cliff to thank for in modifying her role there to become a warring princess. There are too many parallels to be drawn between her characters in Shangxiang and Mulan, such as going forth to the forefront of war to the disapproval of family, her desire to defend her country, her disguises and so on, one can still feel her Mulan here to be distinct and if I may say, quite definitive. Chen Kun also held his own against the veteran actress, although one can feel that since this is a Mulan film then he's playing second fiddle. Supporting roles range from Jaycee Chan to Hu Jun, who seem rather functional than to add any emotional depth to the film.
Mulan is just one version from a folklore open to vast interpretations, and you can bet your last dollar that this isn't going to be the last of Mulan related stories that we'll hear of. While it isn't an instant classic, this version can probably still shout out to be the definitive version for now.