Another At-Home Movie Night.
With theaters remaining closed during the COVID-19 pandemic and the hunger for fresh entertainment more keen than ever, my wife and I decided to check out Disney’s new adaptation of its own 1998 animated feature “Mulan” which, for full disclosure, I have never seen but I was familiar with the broad strokes of the story (the story is an apocryphal tale in Chinese folklore, much like the English legend of Robin Hood). From the previews and trailers, this live-action adaptation directed by New Zealand-born director Niki Caro (“Whale Rider”) looked to be just the sort of colorful, action-filled ticket for the coronavirus doldrums.
Shot in New Zealand-for-Ancient China, “Mulan” (2020) is simply beautiful; from the opulent costume design and lush green landscapes to the digital recreations of the ancient Imperial City. It’s amazing eye-candy. While the dialogue is in English, the action is shot in the traditional Asian style of wireworks-based martial arts/swordplay, popularized in the west by imports and coproductions such as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000) and “Hero” (2002). You’ll see many loving nods to high-end martial arts epics, particularly in the casting (Donnie Yen, Jet Li and others). There is some relevant social messaging as well, run through a PG-13 filter for easily digestible mass consumption.
There are no animated talking dragons, however (but there is a phoenix…).
****INVADING ARMIES OF SPOILERS AHEAD!!****
Mulan (Lifei Yiu) is a young woman growing up in ancient rural China, who is chafing at the restrictions placed upon women of her time. She is very independent, with a knack for the sort of martial arts moves that ‘ladies’ are not supposed to partake. Her father Zhou (Tzi Ma) is encouraging of his daughter’s skills, but not overly so, lest he give her false hope of a life beyond her reach.
Mulan’s mother Li (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s Rosalind Chao) is trying desperately to seek a match for marriage-age Mulan as well as Mulan’s younger sister Xiu (Xana Tang), whose comical fear of spiders becomes a running gag in the film, particularly when Mulan is appointed with the town’s matchmaker (Pei Pei Cheng). It’s in Mulan’s fierce protection of her sister (and family) that her unearthly gifts of reflex and coordination come to play, but they also dash her immediate marriage prospects.
Note: The scene of Mulan facing marriage almost drives the young woman into a near panic. This subtly mirrors the reaction many LGTBQ persons face in cultures when they’re forced to marry straight partners for the sake of their families, reputations or careers. Such nuances are everywhere in the film, even if they are somewhat muted in favor of family-friendly entertainment.
Word of an imminent invasion of Mongols outside of the Imperial City leads government officials to go to every province and village in order to conscript a single male from each family to fight and defend the Emperor (played by martial arts legend Jet Li). While Mulan is easily the best and most spirited fighter in her village, her aged war veteran father Zhou steps up to once again answer the call of his country. Limping badly and barely able to walk without his cane, he is reluctantly conscripted by the government official. The notion of a woman fighting in her father’s place (no matter her skill) is not merely taboo in Mulan’s culture… it would bring dishonor to her entire family.
That night, as her family sleeps in preparation for their patriarch’s departure, Mulan quietly makes off with her father’s battle armor, conscription papers, horse and the cherished sword he used in the last war. She decides to assume a male persona, subtly altering her voice and binding her breasts tightly in order to pass as a young man. The following morning, her family awakens to find she’s left in her father’s stead. Mulan’s family is worried more for her safety than their own dishonor, and they pray at the nearby shrine for her safe return.
The invading army of invading Mongolians is led by Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee, who once portrayed Bruce Lee in the 1993 biopic “Dragon”), who is aided by the dark supernatural gifts of a witch named Xian Lang (Li Gong, in a spellbinding performance), who is pledged to Khan in the hopes she won’t have to live and work in the shadows under his rule. With her shapeshifting abilities and supernatural combat skills, she is far more powerful than Khan, but her gender keeps her under his brutal thumb.
Note: Xian Lang’s plight is very similar to that of certain female politicians in the United Staes who have been historically forced to ally themselves with more ‘establishment’ male figures in order to advance both in their careers and for their own rights as women. In fact, ‘witches’ were traditionally women in various cultures who sought to harness mystical powers from the Earth and the elements in order to hold their own against brutal patriarchal rule. So-called witches (aka Wiccans, or ‘wise ones’) were born of political and social desperation, not darkness.
Mulan assumes the male name of Hua Jun when she reports for duty dressed in her father’s heavy battle armor, which conceals her feminine figure. Her commanding officer during training is Commander Tung (Donnie Yen, of “Ip Man” and “Rogue One”), who once served with her father in the previous war. Tung promises to turn all of the conscripted ‘boys’ into men, and his he trains them with rigorous tests of strength, endurance, and skill. At first, “Mulan/Hua Jun” holds back her innate talents (her ‘chi’, aka life-force, soul, etc) just a bit, in order to better fit in with the others. Tung makes his new troops take an honor pledge (with severe penalties for desertion or disloyalty) which includes oath to never lie–lying equals automatic expulsion and dishonor.
After a while, Mulan/Hua-Jun begins to relax and allow her gifts to surface during training, to the pleased attention of Commander Tung, and her admiring barracks mate Honghui (Yoson An). Finding many excuses to get out of bathing in front of the men, Mulan/Hua-Jun begins to reek, a fact not lost on Honghui. Finally getting a moment all to herself, Mulan/Hua-Jun finds a nearby lake in which to bathe late one night, away from the others. However, Honghui finds her and decides to enjoy the water for himself. Honghui makes overtures of comradeship to the ‘young man,’ but a nervous Mulan/Hua-Jun rebuffs his offers of friendship, desperately trying not to reveal herself both literally and figuratively–as she keeps everything beneath her shoulders submerged. Honghui leaves, and Mulan/Hua-Jun’s cover is maintained.
Note: There is an interesting moment that speaks very poetically to the plight of closeted trans-persons; when Mulan first arrives at the lake, she is dressed in her Hua Jun guise, but she sees her ’true’ feminine self reflected in the lake’s still waters. She is a woman, and proud to be a woman, but she cannot reveal her femininity for fear of violating her oath as well as disgracing her family. It’s a feeling many transgender persons can relate; that feeling of inner and outer selves not ‘matching’ somehow. Growing up overweight, I can relate to a certain level of body dysmorphia (and ridicule for being ‘different’) as well.
Word comes to Tung that the enemy is advancing, and that his trainees will have to go into battle far sooner than expected. Clad in full battle armor, Mulan/Hua-Jun excels in combat, using many of her gifts, but she is still being held back by her own fear of discovery. Going after a retreating squad of enemy forces on horseback, Mulan/Hua-Jun is temporarily separated from the rest of her troops.
In isolation, Mulan/Hua-Jun is met by the witch Xian Lang, who knows of Mulan’s secret identity, and makes an offer to ally herself with the gifted young woman, with the promise of combining their extraordinary powers. Xian Lang tells Mulan that living her life as a lie is poisoning her soul, and that the only way she can save her troops is to let go of the pretense and throw herself, body and soul, into the cause. Xian Lang has great empathy for Mulan, as her own subservience to the barbaric, untrustworthy Khan is mirrored in this young kindred spirit’s life under an oppressive patriarchy.
Taking the witch’s otherwise sound advice, Mulan drops the armor and helmet, letting her long hair flow behind her. Her spirit guide, a beautiful phoenix, flies overhead in support. Taking her bow and a quiver of arrows to a nearby snowy mountain range, she strategically places slain soldiers’ helmets in select spots to appear as ambushing forces. She then takes the bow and begins to slay a few of Khan’s horseback troops with deadly accuracy, making it appear like an ambush from multiple assassins.
Note: The phoenix, a glorious bird that rises majestically from the fiery destruction of its past life, can also be seen as none-too-accidental metaphor for any LGBTQ person who is finally experiencing the life they were meant to have. That Mulan now embraces her true feminine self, knowing the grave risks to her family and to herself shows tremendous courage; as does anyone who decides to experience reality (and their sexuality) on their own terms. Yes, the movie’s positive messages to trans and non-binary persons aren’t necessarily made overt, but the subtexts are definitely there for those who care to observe them.
Khan’s forces fire back, hitting the carefully placed helmets at key points along the snowy mountain, inadvertently triggering a massive avalanche that buries them in snow, allowing Tung’s forces a temporary victory. Elated in their victory, Honghui and the others soon begin to wonder what has happened to Hua Jun…
The fully feminine Mulan then emerges, still in her red soldier’s garments, as she comes clean to Commander Tung and her fellow troops. At first, there is confusion and anger within her regiment, as she has committed a grave cultural taboo. Obeying the letter of the honor code, Tung is forced to expel her from the unit for violating her oath of being truthful. She is sent home on horseback, in disgrace; if she returns, she faces execution. On her journey home, she is met once again by Xian Lang, who confides in Mulan that she was once exiled from her own people, and that she only allied herself with Khan to regain power. Betraying Khan, Xian Lang then tells Mulan that the battle in the mountains was merely a diversionary tactic–that the bulk of Khan’s forces are actually en route to the Imperial City in order to overthrow the Emperor.
Risking execution by returning to her old unit, Mulan tells Tung of Khan’s diversionary tactic, and that the real target of his forces is the Emperor, who killed his father. Tung believes her, realizing that the young woman risked her very life to bring this information to him. He rallies the troops, and they head to the Imperial City…
With the phoenix guiding her way, Mulan leads the charge back into the Imperial City. Xian Lang is once again trying to curry Khan’s favor by assuming the form of the Imperial Chancellor (Nelson Lee), who diverts all of the palace guards, leaving the capitol unprotected for Khan’s invading forces. Honghui and his fellow troops are trapped in close quarters combat with the bulk of Khan’s troops, leaving them unable to protect their Emperor, who is Khan’s real target. Ordered by Honghui to lock both him and her fellow troops into a closed chamber with Khan’s troops, Mulan then sprints off to stop Khan from executing the Emperor. The final showdown between Mulan, Khan and the captured Emperor takes place within construction scaffolding of a new addition to the Imperial City. Khan himself takes his bow and shoots a would-be fatal arrow directly at Mulan… but the arrow is stopped just short of its intended target by an intervening Xian Lang, who has transformed into a bird to stop it, taking the fatal arrow for herself. Unable to fully betray the young warrior woman with whom she so strongly identifies, the mortally wounded Xian Lang succumbs, leaving Mulan to do combat with Khan. During the battle, she loses her father’s sword, but improvises a staff with which she ultimately defeats Khan and saves the Emperor. Miraculously, all of her comrades survived their close-quarters combat with Khan’s forces as well (hey…it’s Disney, what are you gonna do, right?).
Note: I have to admit, I kind of face-palmed a bit when all of Tung’s troops survived their close quarters combat with Khan’s deadly forces. I realize this is a Disney film, but even in a Star Wars movie, characters are allowed to die every now and then. Even just one or two fatalities might’ve given their combat some much needed gravitas. This was one very false note in this otherwise enjoyable fable.
A grateful Emperor rewards Mulan with an offer to join his personal guard, dismissing the Imperial ban on female soldiers. With great reluctance, she declines the offer, choosing instead to make amends with her family, particularly for losing her father’s sword and for risking the entire family’s dishonor by fighting in his stead. All is forgiven as her father apologizes to her, telling Mulan he is very proud of her heroism and bravery. With her family matters settled, Commander Tung arrives in her village with a newly crafted sword, making yet another offer to join the Emperor’s guard. To be continued…?
Summing It Up.
With its strong (and admirable) gender equality messaging, as well as subtextual empathy for LGBTQ persons to live openly within a less-than-accepting society, “Mulan” manages to wrap everything up in a bright, shiny, optimistic bow. A darker adaptation might’ve seen Mulan executed at the end of the story for her ‘transgressions’ against the patriarchy (ala Jeanne d’Arc), but this is a Disney flick, which makes such a dark turn highly unlikely. Starring some legends of the martial arts genre (Jet Li, Donnie Yen and others), “Mulan” is still very palatable to western cinematic sensibilities. Even if one chooses to ignore all of the subtext and watch the film strictly as simple action-adventure, “Mulan” still works as bright, colorful, well-acted pop entertainment. Sadly, the film will probably not receive its due appreciation (fiscal or otherwise), thanks in no small part to the COVID-19 pandemic, which is a real shame. It deserves better.
For more on the ‘real’ legend of Mulan, click here: https://mulanbook.com/pages/northern-wei/ballad-of-mulan
“Mulan” is available for streaming right now on DisneyPlus for $29.99. While this upfront price may seem a little steep, it is for an unlimited rental (not the usual 48 hour viewing window). Not to mention that 30 bucks is roughly equal to the cost of two onetime premium movie tickets (pre-pandemic; they might be higher post-pandemic, to make up for lost revenue). With that price, you also get to pause the movie for bathroom and kitchen breaks (hehe). But for those who can’t afford the upfront rental price, the movie will be available on the regular DisneyPlus streaming service in December.
To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are around 191,000 as of this writing. Meanwhile, there’s no vaccine or even effective treatment for COVID-19 as of yet. Yes, some businesses are reopening, but the overall situation is far from safe. So for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing as often as you can, wear masks in public, and avoid overly crowded outings as much as possible.
Enjoy, and be safe!