Given the continuing popularity of the Chinese costume epic, it’s pretty much inevitable that all manner of legends and enduring tales will be dusted off and brought to the screen as blockbusters. And so up steps director Jingle Ma, known for commercial hits such as the recent “Butterfly Lovers” and “Playboy Cops”, with a new, big budget, all star version of the legend of “Mulan”. The story has certain proved a favourite through the years, having been adapted many times in the past, even enjoying the dubious distinction of having been made into a cartoon over in Hollywood by Disney. Here, Ma offers up a somewhat more grounded take, bringing in top actress and recent “Red Cliff” heroine Vicki Zhao as the fabled girl in general’s clothing.
Taking on the role of the titular Hua Mulan, she plays a young girl who disguises herself as a man to go to war in place of her ailing father, to defend the Wei people against the barbarian hordes of the Rouran. As she finds success on the battlefield, she also develops an unsurprisingly strained romance with a fellow general (played by Aloys Chen, with whom Zhao starred in “Painted Skin”), who comes to realise that in order for her to fulfil her potential, her heart will have to be hardened to the horrors of war. As the new ruthless leader of the Rouran (Hu Jin, recently in “Bodyguards and Assassins”) plans an invasion, the nation’s need grows ever more desperate, and she does indeed find herself faced with increasingly hard decisions and personal sacrifices.
Obviously, the “Mulan” story is likely to be very familiar to most, though it has a classical rather than hackneyed air, with Ma covering the passing of time quite well and giving the proceedings a suitably epic feel. The plot unsurprisingly revolves almost entirely around Hua Mulan and her development, and so Ma is fortunate to have a genuine star in Vicki Zhao, who effectively carries the film on her more than capable shoulders, turning in a performance that strikes just the right balance between tough and vulnerable. Although the premise of her being mistaken for a man isn’t particularly convincing, especially since she never makes much effort to hide her obvious femininity, she does manage to make her character convincing, not playing her as a straight warrior. This turns out to be both the film’s greatest strength and its one real weakness, as whilst it delivers a Mulan who is believable and whose relationships with the rest of the cast give her a certain amount of emotional grounding, on the downside, she does spend a fair amount of the running time moping around or crying – not exactly what some viewers expecting to see an all-action female warrior might have hoped for.
Certainly, the film does get pretty sappy in places, and as a result the pace is a bit variable, though it is at least never dull and there isn’t too much in the way of needless comic relief, Jaycee Chan’s bumbling soldier friend aside. As with “Butterfly Lovers”, Ma seems to be trying to tick too many boxes at once, without ever showing too much skill at melodrama. The film is still engaging enough, though it’s hard not to feel that he might have been better off either focusing more on historical detail, or on fleshing out the central romance between Zhao and Chen to make it more believable. This having been said, the film is never offensive, and benefits from being quite harsh and downbeat in places, with most of the supporting cast being dispatched and with poor Mulan going through some pretty tough times – though Ma certainly milks every one of these moments for all they are worth.
His direction is somewhat more focused than in previous outings, and the film is generally well handled, in a fairly standard, Chinese epic type fashion. Although it leans towards the gritty style of “The Warlords”, it retains a slightly glossier feel, with the obviously high budget having been put to good use, in particular with regards to the impressive looking costumes and armour. Wisely, Ma throws in a good amount of action, with plenty of mass battle scenes, and some nice sweeping camera shots, all of which helps to inject a little excitement, thankfully without too much use of unconvincing CGI. Stephen Tung’s choreography is solid, and though the film is never quite brutal enough to hammer home some of its bleaker moments, it still has enough punch to keep battle fans happy.
As a result of this, and more importantly Zhao’s star turn, “Mulan” is better than expected, and is a perfectly creditable genre entry. Whilst not substantial enough to be the definitive version of the famous story, it does see Ma improving somewhat as a director, and it’s hard to really fault the film as commercial blockbuster fare.
Jingle Ma, Wei Dong (director) / Ting Zhang (screenplay)
CAST: Wei Zhao … Hua Mulan
Jaycee Chan … Fei Xiaohu
Jun Hu … Modu
Kun Chen … Wentai
Rongguang Yu … Hua Hu
Jiao Xu … Young Hua Mulan
Vitas … Wude
Zhou Sun … Emperor
Yuxin Liu … Princess of Rouran