Foreign Objects travels the world of international cinema each week to look for films worth visiting. So renew your passport, get your shots, and brush up on the local age of legal consent, this week we’re heading to…
Mulan isn’t necessarily a great movie, but it’s definitely a good one. Fans of recent period action epics like An Empress And the Warriors and Red Cliff should find much to enjoy here. There’s drama, romance, laughs, and some impressive battle scenes filled with swordplay and those “sky filled with arrows” shots apparently required by law to be in every period action film. For me though the movie is worth seeking out and importing for one main reason, and her name is Vicki Zhao Wei. She’s a fantastic actress as adept at comedy as she is action, and between that talent and her big, beautiful eyes she’s capable of conveying loss and sadness with real emotion and power. And she’s gorgeous too which is never a bad thing. Which is why it pains me to say that she’s also the movie’s biggest weakness…
“If you want to fight, be a man in your next life…”
Every nation has its own legends and folklore, but those tales don’t always reach an audience beyond their borders. One of the most famous stories in China however has done just that. Mulan tells the legend of a young woman (Vickie Zhao Wei) who volunteers herself for mandatory military duty to spare her ailing father from the hardship. Women can’t serve of course, so she’s forced to conceal her sex and pretend to be a man. Over a period of many years, as warring tribes and factions fought their way across China, Mulan proves herself time and again eventually moving up through the ranks to become a general. Her sole weakness throughout a decade of violent conflict is her love for a fellow soldier named Wentai (Chen Kun), and that emotion may be her downfall.
Mulan’s heart and soul rests on the very capable shoulders of Wei and she handles the job with charisma and strength. The opening scenes of her tending to the men and to her father show a sweet emotion that she must then fight to conceal for much of the remainder, but that becomes difficult as she’s forced to endure loss and love and to accept responsibility for her own deadly mistakes on the battlefield. The times when emotion does break through are believable and well-acted but lead to a problem highlighted below.
If Wei isn’t enough of a reason for you to seek out a copy of Mulan (what the hell’s wrong with you!) then you’ll be happy to hear the film has plenty of well choreographed action and combat scenes too. Fast hand to hand fights are mixed in with sword and spear action highlighting the brutality of blade combat. There are plenty of one-on-one fights interspersed throughout, but the film does a great job with its larger scale battles as well. One highlight begins around the one hour mark and features an outnumbered Mulan defeating the enemy with both strategy and skill as her units move in coordinated unison to defeat the enemy.
Director Jingle Ma hasn’t made the next Red Cliff or Hero, but his resume (Silver Hawk, Seoul Raiders) shouldn’t have you expect any such thing in the first place. What he has done is create probably the most complete and full film of his career. He juggles the action and drama well and accomplishes some solid scenes of both in the process. The scene where Mulan reunites with Wentai is powerful and filled with more heart and love than all his other films combined. The supporting cast are fine if undistinguished for the most part, but special mention should go to Jaycee Chan. He provides most of the film’s comedic bits via dialogue and performance, and he adds a light touch to the surrounding chaos. He’s given a couple dramatic scenes as well, and handles them equally well.
There are a few minor issues with the film… for all the mass slaughter on display there’s very little blood, and of that very little blood too much of it is done digitally. There are also some pacing issues in the film’s final third, but these are small quibbles within an otherwise entertaining movie. There is one pretty big Chinese elephant in the room that can’t be ignored so easily however. The character of Mulan is a woman who fools just about everyone over the course of a decade into believing she’s a man. That woman is played by the beautiful, soft-skinned, and saucer-eyed Vickie Zhao. A blind double-amputee wouldn’t even fall for that one. It’s worth noting that Disney has announced a big-budget, live-action, English language version of the Mulan tale bound to suffer the same problem… Zhang Ziyi will be playing the title role.
Like I said above, Mulan isn’t necessarily a great film… but it is a solid one worth watching especially for fans of Zhao. Fans of recent period epics will enjoy the action, combat, and grand battles, while long-time Asian cinema fans should be happy seeing Wei finally get a lead role in such a large production. And if all else fails you can marvel at how similar Jaycee Chan’s comedic expressions are to his father’s.
Mulan isn’t currently available in the US, but it is available on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK. The Blu-ray (and DVD) from CineAsia also features extras including interviews, a making-of, a behind the scenes segment, and the UK trailer. Like all of their Blu-ray releases that I’ve come across so far, Mulan is region-free and will play on any domestic Blu-ray player. But all of the extra features (aside from the trailer) are in SD/PAL so you’ll either need an all-region player that converts PAL to NTSC or a TV that can receive PAL signals.
The Upside: Vickie Zhao Wei; solid action scenes both big and small; Vickie Zhao Wei; a surprisingly good turn from Jaycee Chan; Vickie Zhao Wei
The Downside: Wei does not make a convincing man; the pacing slows to a crawl in the final third when it should be showing more energy; CGI blood never looks good