Fifteen years ago, Disney got their hands on Hua Mulan, the legendary Chinese heroine, and used her to anchor their decidedly meh-worthy film, Mulan. Disney’s treatment was not the first film attempt to tell the story of this 6th century legend (the first film was made in 1927) nor, thankfully, was it the last.
Mulan: Rise of a Warrior (2009) is a live-action portrayal of the classic story of a young woman who, to save her ailing father, poses as a young man and takes his place in the military during the battles between the nation of Wei and the tribes of the Mongolian steppes. She spends twelve years a soldier, rising through merit, achieving the rank of general. When the war is resolved, she refuses the offices and lauds offered her for her service, and instead returns home to her village.
While no one is going to really mistake Zhao Wei for a man, she is by far the best choice from the other reported candidates under consideration. Moreover, Zhao turns in a strong performance, building layers of nuance and contradictory emotions, melding fury with vulnerability, grief with honor, and showing us through a strong and character-driven script a real character of strength.
Movies from China tend to have three things I dislike. I don’t like “wire” movies, where everyone is unconstrained by the laws of physics. I don’t like the Hong Kong Cinema kung fu movies, where again, physics are optional. And I don’t like the thoroughly predictable and incredibly depressing endings that a lot of movies out of modern Chinese cinema seem to have.
Therefore, this Mulan is a winner on several levels. It is not a “wire” movie, the battles (though many) are fairly earth-bound in their construction and execution, and though the film doesn’t end with a Big Red Bow, it’s a believable and realistic (for the time) outcome to an exceptionally unusual situation. More importantly, it’s a satisfying ending, and that’s too rare in the modern Chinese cinema (in my opinion).
Some of the characters are rather two-dimensional; villains are villainous without reason, and tyrants are tyrannical because it moves the plot along. Secondary characters are generally the same quirky but loyal caricatures of soldiers you’ll find in any film about the military. However, these failings do not pull down the whole movie. The complexity of characters like Mulan, Wentai, Fei, and the Rouran princess keep this film above the norm, and the intricacies of their relationships–the depth of their thoughts and reactions–keep us engaged.
Also worth mention is the exceptional costume design and art direction, which combine to give a verisimilitude to the exteriors, armor, and battles that can only enhance our enjoyment. Nothing stands out, here, as being anachronistic.
Exception to the above: for some reason, the director chose to cast a Russian singer, Vitas, as a servant to the Mongol khan. He seems to be there solely for his talent as a singer (his falsetto voice is remarkable), but he stands out like, well, like an Anglo amidst the Mongol horde. Frankly, I found him a distraction, and totally unnecessary to the tale.
Overall, though, I really enjoyed this movie, and would recommend it for any rainy weekend this winter.