MULAN (2020) Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

Home Top Ad

Post Top Ad

MULAN (2020) Review

Tony marches with the army.

Mulan has always been a relatively straightforward story.

Historic army faces threat, girl steps up to save her dad, dresses as a boy, becomes a soldier, kicks ass, reveals she’s a girl, saves kingdom, all is good. Message: girls can kick ass just as much, if not more, than boys, so ya boo sucks to your glass ceilings.

Job done.

The bones of the original are still there in the latest Disney live-action reimagining of its previous glories. And one thing can certainly be said for it – there’s much more logical reason for Mulan to get a live-action do-over than, say, the likes of The Jungle Book, The Lion King or Dumbo.

The human story comes through the 2020 Mulan intact, and Yifei Liu takes on the title role with a combination of compassion, conflict, delicacy and grit. Mulan’s journey from focused but not traditionally ‘girly’ daughter – bringing dishonour to her family with a mishap with the local matchmaker - through life in the army as a man, to revealing her true identity and rising to greatness? All here. All safe – though more edgy than you might remember. There are off-screen communal showers and severe body odour in this movie. So that’s a thing.

Does the new Mulan look good on-screen? Oh HELL yes! It’s an utter symphony of stunning visuals, and for that alone, Niki Caro deserves to be carried shoulder-high round the socially distanced outskirts of Hollywood. Seriously, your eyeballs will thank you for showing them the 2020 Mulan (oh, and stay in your seat through the credits, because they’ve rendered a Bond-titles beauty in an ancient Chinese style there too).

Is it believable? Sure. Bolstering Yifei Liu is a steady cast of heavy-ish hitters, like Jet Li as the Emperor of China, Jason Scott as Bori Khan, the ‘traditional’ big bad, a warrior lord with a bee in his bonnet, Tzi Ma as Mulan’s father and Rosalind Chao as her fretful, ‘What will become of her?’ mother.

It’s also worth giving special mention to Gong Li as Xianniang, the less traditional but far more interesting villain. She’s referred to throughout the film as a ‘witch,’ a ‘sorceress’ and suchlike, but her role in the whole thing is a dark mirror avatar for Mulan herself – a woman of power, finding a way to express that power in a world run by men who want to keep her down. That’s a duality emphasised in visuals throughout the movie – Xianniang spends a considerable part of the movie as a hawk, and some more as a whole bunch of bats, while Mulan’s evolution of self is depicted by the evolving appearance of her family’s spirit-symbol, the phoenix, so there’s an overt correlation between them through their airborne avatars.

The interesting thing about the 2020 Mulan is that it deals with the essential, well-meaning, and personality-forging deception into which she’s forced by the world around her with a grating, believable awkwardness that comes through on screen. While that’s a great translation of the character’s burden into the beats of the film, it does mean the first hour and some of a two-hour movie feels plodding and a little uncomfortable. The camaraderie Mulan builds with her fellow soldiers feels real, despite the fundamental deception she’s forced into, but the stress of that deception is palpable through Liu’s performance and Niki Caro’s direction. As we say, that makes for a great movie in terms of ‘Oh, see what you did there, that’s cool,’ but less of a great experience in terms of actually watching it. It’s like watching potential heartbreak tick its way towards you for an hour and change, mirrored by the advance of an enemy who will probably kill everyone we like.

That said, the last forty minutes or so is positively triumphant. Why’s that?

Because that’s the point at which Mulan and Xianniang have their first real face-off, and it acts as a moment of rebirth. Like women everywhere trying to make their way in what men perceive as a man’s world, from the moment she stops trying to ‘be’ a man, trying to synthesize ‘their’ energy and accept her own, she becomes increasingly powerful. Honesty puts her in danger, but honesty also brings her respect, her chi begins to flow more naturally - and so does the movie.

That feels like the point – the grating of Mulan’s time as a ‘man,’ while necessarily misrepresenting herself, feels like an energy-draining existence, for all she has some triumphs in that role. When she accepts the truth of her nature, she becomes a better person, a spectacular warrior, and the leader that the world would never have let her be if she’d been honest from the start. It’s an evolution, a blossoming, a coming home to the power of herself, and it frees the audience to enjoy the rest of the movie.

And you will, you absolutely will.

The thing is, Mulan’s one of those people who, while young, is instructed to disguise her chi and ‘be a girl.’ It’s not a role in which she’s comfortable. But her personality equally constrained when ‘being a man’ in the army. So the message of the movie will appeal to women determined to be themselves, and might well appeal to non-binary audiences, comfortable in neither of the restrictive gender roles society offers them, but finding their chi, their flow, their sense of best, most effective self doing the things which are natural to them.

Are some things too easy in this movie? Sure – there’s a pure Spartacus moment which, while it will give you shivers of joy, feels like it ushers in too easy an acceptance of the revealed Mulan by the severely patriarchal structures of the army.

But once the movie really frees itself and the audience to enjoy life, it’s a parade of highlights. A second confrontation between Mulan and Xianniang crackles with conflict, but it’s Return of the Jedi conflict – Mulan has been forged in the fire of her journey, and now knows who she is. Xianniang believes her chance of redemption has gone – but maybe, just maybe, get s a Vader moment of turning her back on the Dark Side.

The climactic confrontation is ancient Chinese Bond at its best – Mulan, Bori Khan and the Emperor in a three-way ass-kicking session on lots of levels. Anything you’ve not seen before? Not really, but what you’ve seen before is REALLY well done here.

Oh, one thing – while Mulan’s family avatar, the phoenix, is used to bullet-point Mulan’s own evolution into an energy-flowing creature of wonder throughout the movie, there are also several points where the modern Mulan channels its Hunger Games heart pretty hard. The young woman against the corrupted leader. The emerging phoenix and the girl on fire. Mulan even gains a young sister in this live-action version, so as to add to the emotional tension – if Mulan doesn’t go off to the army and their father gets killed instead, what will happen to little Hua Xiu’s prospects for a match?! You could even, if you wanted, make a case that Mulan ‘volunteers as tribute,’ in her father’s place, but for the sake of her little sister’s life.

May the chi be ever in your favour.

Overall, the new Mulan is a gorgeous feast for the eyes, and once Mulan is tempered by time, experience and a crisis that forces her to be herself at last, when she decides she has no option but to live her authentic life, it’s a blaze of absolute glory.

But be aware there’s a lot of army life to get through before this movie really lets itself soar, and the heaviness of deception that’s on Mulan’s shoulders throughout the first hour and change transfers itself to your shoulders too. If you make it to the last 40 minutes, you’ll have an absolutely ass-kicking time.

But getting that far is harder than it sounds, despite Caro delivering a strong, realistic but stylised movie, and Yifei Liu announcing herself as a talent to watch for the rest of her career.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at

No comments:

Post a Comment

Post Top Ad