Mulan (2020)

“We’re going to make men out of every single one of you.”

Maybe Mulan is the byproduct of unfair expectations. Maybe the film really is just subpar. Both roads end in an unfortunate and unsatisfying place though, featuring the kinds of beautiful backdrops which honestly inspire critics to hail it as a “dazzling epic.” You must take that with a grain of salt though, because without the necessary substance to keep the conversation interesting and organic those landscapes means nothing. The movies looks stunning, means well, and gets lost in its attempt to translate to American audiences. At the end of the day Mulan is, in the two iterations, both loosely similar to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night as well as an old proverbial tale about unapologetically embracing yourself. I wish the live-action adaptation would have followed suit.

Hailed as legend, Mulan defers from the origin story path of most contemporary films and presents itself as merely another interpretation. A new portrait of a familiar subject. It’s a wise choice, especially early on, as the story introduces Mulan (Crystal Rao as a rambunctious child, gracefully seguing to the incredibly talented Yifei Liu as a young lady). The opening paints the scene, builds the world, and establishes Mulan as a woman repressing her powerful Chi so as to fulfill her predetermined familial destiny. She’s to be matched and married, to bring honor. But with invaders raiding villages, the Imperial City must enlist new forces. Mulan’s father Zhou (Tzi Ma) volunteers because he has no son. Mulan ties back her hair, drops her voice, and secretly takes his place because she knows he wouldn’t come back alive. Perhaps this is the destiny she’s meant to fulfill.

The opening of the film establishes Mulan’s chaotic personality, but then it oddly diverts from the title character for 10+ minutes, solely devoting its time to the antagonist Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee), doing his best to obviously reinvent history’s Genghis Khan. He doesn’t have much depth outside of avenging his father’s death, nor does his co-conspirator Xianniang (Li Gong), a powerful witch who does Khan’s bidding only because they fortuitously accept her while others reject her personhood. She’s a pretty interesting character and Li Gong turns in an intriguing performance, but outside of her and the leading lady, the rest of Mulan is built around clumsy character development and stilted dialogue. It’s hard to feel inspired by something so listless, so grand and lacking intimacy.

The sets and the costuming are outstanding, which they should be given the budget. Everything on the screen looks convincing. What’s hard is trying to figure out what kind of film director Niki Caro was trying to concoct, and I have a feeling the oversight from such a massive studio was of no help. There are Kung Fu elements early on, with a whirling camera performing disorienting moves. Then it gets melodramatic (which feels false). Then there’s slapstick (which doesn’t land), romance (which hardly flirts with reality), the fields of war and even magic (which are somewhat convincing). A shallow script and very poor editing, especially during the initial fight sequences, keep the film from finding any sort of fluidity. It’s like an expensive meal you finish because of the price tag, but it’s nothing you remember, nothing you’ll come back for. What’s the point? Where’s the flavor?

I admired how the film shines a light on traditionalist Chinese culture framed through a modern lens. How it is both harsh and understanding. Vulnerable yet unwavering. It’s all a testament to the strength of Yifei Liu’s performance, who captures your attention whether she’s in battle or staring into the abyss, lost for words. She’s very good in the role and makes it her own. My issues are with the film surrounding her and how the severe tonal inconsistencies act as speed bumps to where the story ultimately wants to go. It’s PG-13 because there is killing but we never see blood. The 1998 version was G because it was an animated musical. And deep down, I truly believe Mulan would have been great as an R rated period drama. Maybe Ang Lee or Zhang Yimou would’ve considered directing it. But, as has been the case with their recent reinventions, Disney continues to be bound by its own family friendly confines. Mulan felt like their chance to take a gamble for once. Too bad they played it safe.

“Your job is to bring honor to the family.”

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

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