Well, another film from the pile that I was warned was not quite up to scratch, but with a new version of the legend potentially out this year, I thought it might be worth some investigation. I was actually aware of the legend through the Disney film of the same name, but this is a somewhat different beast, drawing on the same legend, but in a different way. Hua Mulan is a legend that has its roots in a poem from some 1500-2000 years ago, and has been the inspiration for Novels and more recently many film adaptations. You could think of it as some kind of Chinese Joan of Arc – a young girl who dresses as a man to fight in a war, stripped of religious fervour and probable historical fact. I doubt the character actually existed, but I am sure that there were women in this age that did attempt to fight and probably did have to disclose their gender. It also is quite possibly the root of something that is touched upon quite a lot in Asian cinema – the attractive woman attempting to pass herself of as a male – and more on this later.
“Mulan” stars the ever-watchable Vicki Zhao as our titular heroine. Already versed in combat from a young age, she decides to take her sick Father’s place when a Draft is imposed in her Wei dynasty village against the nomadic Rouran hordes. Of course, women are not allowed to serve, so she has to hide her identity. Her initial attempts are not good, as she is immediately recognised by a friend from her village, Fei Xiaohu (Jaycee Chan), and then by Wentai (Kun Chen), the son of the Wei Emperor. They both keep her secret, initially out of friendship, and then out of respect for her abilities in the field. In fact Mulan is so good she speedily is promoted until she and Wentai both become Generals in the Army. For 12 years she hides her secret, as well as a secret love and heartbreak, until her final battle against the usurping leader of the Roarans, Mendu (Hu Jun).
I’ll start with the bad. This film is horribly paced. It is in a crazy rush to get to a certain point in the story, which means Mulan goes from villager to General in about 20 minutes of screen time, without the viewer ever really getting the sense she is much more than quite a hot-headed, if talented, young lady. Moreover, it spends far too long with her moping about over a specific loss, at which point it seems the Wei Army has no chain of command. It really does not add up. Basically the film is determined to concentrate on two emotional and rather down points of her life, without giving us a solid foundation to show her actual capabilities.
Most of the male leads are also unexceptional. I have been a big booster of Jaycee Chan here at ThingsFallApart, but I am afraid his cheeky friendly persona really does not work here. He appears miscast and frankly out of place. Even worse is Kun Chen, who once again shows all the charisma of a block of wood. He is a handsome fellow for sure, but I just don’t buy him as a warrior, a leader of men, or a love interest. Luckily, Hu Jun decides to have a lot of fun as a pantomime villain, which maybe a little two-dimensional, but at least he looked like he was enjoying himself. We also get one of the oddest bits of casting in Vitas, a rather eccentric Russian celebrity who is playing some kind of adopted white man. My guess is this was just to get him on the soundtrack and widen the film’s appeal. That is just well…. odd.
The good? In a word, Vicki Zhao. Sure, I can’t buy the fact that for 12 years no-one else noticed she was actually a very attractive female. But she saves the film from being a total bust. Whilst the film is uneven, she does everything the script demands of her and more. She has screen presence that belies her small stature, and she has an ability to act with her eyes – you get joy, sadness, regret, disappointment from just watching her.
To be fair, the battle scenes are quite well done, and I might have liked to have seen a little more of these. I really wanted to see her as a great and tactical leader – to be honest the attempts at tactics on display seem to be either “have more men than the other side” or “lead the other side into an ambush”.
So, unless you are really desperate to have another Mulan film in your collection, or you really really like Vicki Zhao, I think the rating is not recommended, move along please. Next up, I promise I will cover something better. It’s just been one of those months.