Runtime: 114 mins
Director: Jingle Ma
Writer: Zhang Ting
Stars: Vicki Wei Zhao, Kun Chen, Jaycee Chan
By Stephen Palmer
One of the tentpole releases of 2020 is going to be Disney’s live action remake of it’s popular 1998 Animated musical feature “Mulan”, one of the highlights of the Disney Renaissance of the 1990s. Of course COVID-19 has seriously disrupted the schedule, and I’m not going to discuss the merits of it (at the time of writing) being shifted to on online release via the Disney + platform. What I do want to bring your attention to is to the 2009 Chinese live-action version of the story bought to the screen by Hong Kong director Jingle Ma Cho Sing, starring Zhao Wei (aka Vicki Zhao), and along the way tell you a little something about the origins of the character herself.
The tale of Mulan dates back to the period in what is now China called The Northern and Southern Dynasties (386-589AD), an age of civil war and political wrangling, but also an age of great enlightenment in terms of the progression of arts and sciences. The original “Ballad of Mulan” was first written down at some point in the 5th Century, and continued to be part of various texts and collections over the centuries, eventually inspiring plays, novels, and in the more modern age, plentiful television serials and a number of movie adaptations. It is fairly certain that Hua Mulan (and yes, that is not a typo – the name means Magnolia in Chinese, I am not sure why Disney changed it to Fa for their adaptation) was not an actual historical figure, and belongs to the annuls of folklore, one of a number of female characters that litter the stories of the Chinese peoples, and one that maybe has even more resonance in our more enlightened age than is ever did before.
The broad story seems to be fairly consistent – her family name may be Zhu or Wei, her geographical location might shift, the details of her actions might change, but the fundamentals of a young girl, who secretly takes the place of her father in the Wei army, and who successfully becomes a great military leader before quietly retiring back to her homeland, seems to remain fairly consistent over the years. Disney’s version is not even the only musical version, although it’s the only version I know of with a cheeky little dragon.
“The whole “what if someone finds out she is really a woman” is quickly shoved to the background, mostly because she is just so darn capable.”
So, onto 2009, and Hong Kong action film director Jingle Ma is hired to produce the latest on-screen version of the story. Then, just as now, the casting was a source of great discussion, with popular actresses such as Zhang Ziyi and Michelle Yeoh being overlooked, along with a young Crystal Liu Yifei who would eventually get the part in Disney’s 2020 offering. The part went to Vicki Zhao Wei (“Shaolin Soccer”, “Red Cliff”), which was hardly a surprise – at the time she was considered one of the Four Dan Actresses (along with Xu Jinglei, Zhou Xun and the aforementioned Zhang Ziyi), a huge star not only in China, but the Chinese speaking world.
The film itself rattles along at quite a pace, Hua Mulan has joined the army, been discovered by a few characters and risen up the military chain within the first 25 minutes of the running time. Whilst the costuming is great, this is no “Red Cliff” – Battles are brief and shown mostly in close-up and slo-mo. On the whole, Ma isn’t so interested in telling us what we already know, that war is hell, he’s much more interested in the character of Hua Mulan herself. This Mulan is incredibly capable from the get-go, clearly versed in the martial arts, a capable horsewoman, and coming from a military family, has a decent grasp of army life and battle tactics.
The whole “what if someone finds out she is really a woman” is quickly shoved to the background, mostly because she is just so darn capable. On the other hand, the character is shown as a little overly emotional, especially with regards to a colleague called Wentai (Chen Kun, “Let the Bullets Fly”) with whom she shares both her secret and a close romantic bond. When I say romantic bond, there’s certainly a tension there, and plenty of tears and heartache, but this is the Army, and there won’t be any funny business going on. Which to anyone who has watched a handful of any Chinese melodramatic cinema will know, this is par for the course.
“This Mulan is incredibly capable from the get-go, clearly versed in the martial arts, a capable horsewoman, and coming from a military family, has a decent grasp of army life and battle tactics..”
In fact Wentai might hold Mulan’s heart in his hands, but it doesn’t stop him pulling a couple of dick moves throughout the film, although he does have her best intentions at heart. Personally, I think the film just maintains the right side of suggesting any weakness she shows is not because of her gender, mostly because Wentai seems to have these same potential flaws as well.
The cast is rounded out by a couple of other famous faces. Jaycee Chan (yes, Jackie’s son) plays Mulan’s childhood friend, Tiger, and he brings an element of playfulness and charm to the movie (as you might expect from someone with his lineage), and veteran Hu Jun (“Infernal Affairs II”, “Bodyguards and Assassins”) has a huge amount of pantomime fun as the eventual leader of the Rouran hordes who becomes Mulan’s nemesis.
This version of the story is a solid if frankly unspectacular melodrama, with a strong, photogenic and winning cast. The central story remains strong, but I can’t help thinking that it may have been better served by a more appropriate director (Ma is a decent action director, melodrama in uniform isn’t something I’d associate with him, nor would I say he’s really at home with the requirement of the Epic). The core story remains strong, so if you can live with the dragon, and nothing to sing along to (there is one sort of musical number, but it’s more akin to Cy Endfield’s “Zulu” than Reflection). It’s far from essential viewing, but an interesting comparison piece against Disney’s telling of the same tale.