Movies

Movie Review: Mulan

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Like the dreamy “Cinderella,” enchanting “Beauty and the Beast” and fantastical “Aladdin,” everyone knows “Mulan” from the Disney animation.  The difference between this Disney “princess,” however, is that this a story of a true warrior.  It was one of the most anticipated cinematic events of the year, unpredictably sidelined by the pandemic, and ended up on the Disney Plus streaming after postponing and rescheduling multiple times.  

As a child, Hua Mulan (Liu Yifei) is precocious.  She’s a tomboy, easily chasing chicken across rooftop, nearly falling down but landing on the ground without a sweat.  She worries her parents, as a girl is destined to be a woman whose primary duty is to bring honor to the family through marriage.  When Mulan is at suitable age for marriage, she causes a hilarious mess during a matchmaker ceremony.  

Mulan’s relationship with her father (Tzi Ma) is more complicated.  Bound by traditional societal norms and family values, even her father, a war veteran, knows that his daughter is special and he’s torn with holding her back or supporting her to the fullest.  The only thing that keeps her from living up to her potential is her gender.  In this period of ancient China, everyone is born with a ‘chi’ or life force, but only the strongest could connect with and channel it outward.  Like Mulan.  Mulan grows up to be a spirited force.  

When the palace is facing a major threat from an invading Northern army, every family is called upon to spare a son to be trained as a soldier to help defend the country.  Realizing that her father, who is disabled from the wounds of the war, would walk into a certain death, a determined Mulan takes up her father’s sword and armor and leaves everyone behind to join the Imperial Army.  She knew that she would put herself in mortal danger, dishonor herself and her family, but she would do anything to carry the family’s duty and save her father.  

With a noble heart and indomitable will, Mulan masquerades as a man, reaches the camp and introduces herself as Hua Jun.  Her talent and spirit quickly catch the eyes of Commander Tung (Donnie Yen) and a fellow royal guard, Honghui (Yoson An).  Her relationship with Hongshui, an eventual love interest, is handled subtly and respectfully.  Mulan integrates quickly into the all-male squad, going through a soldier bootcamp, such as spear-fighting, arrow-shooting, heavy-lifting and balance endurance training.  While her transformation into a leading warrior is too swift, it looks impressively seamless. 

The enemies are fast approaching, led by Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) and accompanied by a witch, Xianniang (Gong Li).  Xianniang can shape-shift and also turn into a bird, which is proven to useful in penetrating the palace’s protection.  The irony about Xianniang is that she and Mulan are cut from the same outcast cloth; they’re too powerful as women and she, who exercises her power, lives in exile because of it.  When she comes to face-to-face with Mulan, she takes her fate into her own hands and it’s not what you think it is.  

Battles wage across an open landscape.  Armored soldiers riding in horses charging into war, armed with arrows, swords and shields.  Casualties are on both sides.  When her comrades are cornered, Mulan, a quick thinker and light on her feet, strategizes on the spot, camouflaging and utilizing the opponents’ weapon to turn on them.  

Mulan could no longer hide who she really is.  The frightful grip of her true identity being found out is suppressing her strength.  In order for her to uphold the values of the sword – loyal, brave and true – she must be true to herself to unleash the powers within, save her fellow soldiers and the emperor (Jet Li), even at the risk of dishonor, exile or execution.  Inside the palace walls, Mulan leads the royal guards in and fights her way through.  She has a dynasty to protect.  

Chocked-full of martial arts and large-scale battles on panoramic setting, this is a movie that is meant to be seen at the theaters.  There’s nothing quite like a collective experience of seeing a sprawling epic on the big screen with a grand surround system, feeling immersed in the make-believe world.  

If Disney decides to release “Mulan” into theaters at some point, I would absolutely go see it again.  But even when seen on the small screen at home, where the experience was a lot more muted, there’s a sense of grandeur.  The Wuxia-style martial arts, swordplay, rooftop-and-wall gliding are graceful to behold.  The sceneries and vibrant and colorful, majestic in nature and lavish when manmade.  The songs by Christina Aguilera, “Loyal, Brave and True” and “Reflection,” are strong and soulfully appropriate.

“Mulan” is a grown-up adaptation of the animation.  Amid the sumptuous sets and willowy display of martial arts, it deals with the traditional core values of family, duty, honor and country, and that freedom isn’t free.  At the same time, it is ahead of its period and progressively empowering.  It speaks to the full potential of an individual when being true to oneself, even in the face of fear, and for a society to take a hard look of its norms and make necessary changes for the greater good.

There is “no courage without fear.”  Indeed.

Copyright (c) 2020. Nathalia Aryani

Nathalia Aryani

Nathalia Aryani is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic (rottentomatoes.com/critic/nathalia-aryani). She has a movie blog, The MovieMaven (sdmoviemaven.blogspot.com). Twitter: @the_moviemaven. She can be reached at indotransserv@gmail.com.

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