Walt Disney’s ongoing run of live-action adaptations of their past animated hits reaches a fresh height in creative futility with Niki Caro’s Mulan, a non-musical riff on the company’s 1998 hit. It would be deeply unfair to claim this remake is actively bad. The performances are solid, the production design is attractive, and the camera is always pointing in the right direction. At the same time it is genuinely difficult to justify its existence. One can usually fall back on a minimum justifications of brand recognition and commercial opportunity; I am not sure that it is the case here.
Both films tell versions of the Chinese folk story of Hua Mulan, a young woman who runs away from home to take her father’s place in the Imperial Army. The story originated in the Southern and Northern Dynasties period (4th-6th century CE), and through the 20th and 21st centuries has remained a popular subject for Chinese films and television serials. Disney’s first attempt to mount Mulan in 1998 has been widely seen as an attempt by the company to capitalise on the Chinese film market. For the second attempt the film seems even more aggressive in capturing that audience. The new film removes all elements that were seen as a barrier to mainstream Chinese success – the songs, the comedy dragon sidekick, and so on – and casts key roles with three of the most popular Chinese actors in the world: Donnie Yen, Gong Li, and Jet Li. For Jet Li, who plays the Emperor, it is his first major role in seven years. The film also assiduously casts a Chinese actor in the title role: Liu Yifei, who previously co-starred with Jet Li in Rob Minkoff’s 2008 film The Forbidden Kingdom.
It is worth pausing briefly to remember The Forbidden Kingdom, a flawed but admirable attempt to produce a Chinese-style wuxia picture through a Hollywood lens. It does this by not only sticking to broadly iconic story and character elements, but by presenting them all from the perspective of a white American teenager. It openly admits to being a Hollywood film, albeit with the trimmings and iconography of Chinese cinema. The animated Mulan did much the same thing. The story’s origins were from China, but the film itself was Disney through and through.
This is where the 2020 attempt diverges, and ultimately fails. It tries valiantly to be an authentic wuxia picture. It casts major stars of the genre, and shoots inside China for authenticity (including, controversially, the human rights nightmare that is Xinjiang province). Harry Gregson-Williams’ score is rich with traditional Chinese instrumentation and melody. The costumes are absolutely beautiful, as is much of the photography – but is not shot or edited like Chinese wuxia. The tone of its characters and conflicts cannot help but feel Americanised. Its fight scenes lack the lyrical aesthetic of the films it impersonates. Superficially it is entertaining enough, but the moment it invites comparison to its genre it reveals itself as exactly that: something superficial. Certainly Caro’s film is more accessible to children, but it is paced like a work for adults.
It seems bizarre that Disney would spend so much time and expense making this film. It was never going to capture a Chinese audience to the degree they wanted – and why would it? It apes a style it fundamentally does not understand, and gets actively cringe-worthy when it starts to misunderstand the concept of ‘chi’. It offers a story for Chinese audiences that has been repeatedly filmed in recent years – the 2008 Jingle Ma adaptation is rather enjoyable – and tells it to them in a foreign language.
While it is always pleasurable to watch Donnie, Gong, and Jet – although here the latter sounds painfully dubbed – there are better films in which to view each of them. It is nice to see Tzi Ma (The Farewell) in a larger-than-usual role, and its refreshing to see Rosalind Chao playing her own ethnicity for once (her two most famous roles to date are as a Korean in M*A*S*H and as a Japanese botanist in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine). Liu Yifei does an excellent job of Mulan as well, and even resembles her animated counterpart more than I had expected.
The bottom line for English language viewers is that, unless subtitles are a major obstacle, there are literally dozens of films easily accessible via home video and streaming services that offer a better experience. In retrospect the very things that Disney eliminated – songs, humour, a dancing cricket and an upbeat tiny dragon – are the things that enabled the earlier version to stand out.
Mulan is not a bad film, but that does not mean it is actually worth your time.