Mulan review: Gorgeous and exhilarating, it’s the best of the Disney remakes so far

Dir: Niki Caro. Starring: Liu Yifei, Donnie Yen, Jason Scott Lee, Yoson An, Gong Li, Jet Li. 12A cert, 115 mins

Mulan deserved a chance to be seen on the big screen. Out of pure luck and privilege, I was one of a relatively small sample of people who saw the film in cinemas before the Covid-19 pandemic quashed its release plans. After its European premiere – an affair clouded in solemnity, fear, and fragile joy all at once – the news broke that Disney had pulled the film from its schedule. Its future was uncertain. As someone whose entire life revolves around sitting in the dark, watching films, I felt the world turn on its head at that moment.

There’s no roadmap here. Disney has already lost $4.7bn this year. Cinemas in the US are still danger zones. Every decision now feels historic or unprecedented – including the move to put Mulan on Disney+, bar a premium price tag. But as I watched the film for a second time, at home on my distinctly average-sized TV, I started to play back the memories from six months ago. I thought of the jade-tinted hot springs, the cascade of steps into the Imperial City, and the sun rising over the cliffs. I thought of the way Harry Gregson-Williams’s score washed over the audience, a soothing wall of flutes and violins. Mulan will still look great at home. But, on the big screen, it sang.

Mulan isn’t what we’ve come to expect from Disney’s live-action remakes – it’s far more sober, meditative, and refined than the likes of Aladdin or Beauty and the Beast. It’s indebted as much to the work of Zhang Yimou, known for Hero and House of Flying Daggers, as it is to the original 1998 animation. That small spark of originality makes it the best of the Disney remakes so far (unless you count David Lowery’s winsome take on Pete’s Dragon). It draws more directly from its source material, the Chinese folklore “The Ballad of Mulan”, and keeps its nods to the previous film slight and relatively subtle.

Its story is simple: a father (Tzi Ma) discovers that his daughter, Hua Mulan (Liu Yifei), has qi, the powerful life force, “speaking through her every motion”. It’s what great warriors strive to cultivate. But qi is for young men – women are expected to wait at home, gentle and subservient brides-to-be. Mulan is told to silence the qi, her innate power, or risk dishonouring her family. The task becomes impossible when her father, already weakened, is called upon to serve in the Imperial Army in the fight against Northern invaders. She takes his sword, his armour, and his place as a soldier, disguised as a man.

There will be inevitable (and already brewing) complaints about what’s missing – the songs, Mushu, Li Shang. But it’s strange to see Mulan scorned for its originality. Its differences are its triumphs – take the simple pleasure of watching a $200m Hollywood that features, for the time in forever, a cavalry battle, as real-life stunt riders from Mongolia and Kazakhstan perform jaw-dropping tricks on camera. Mulan may have its fair share of CGI, but it’s far less bombastic than what we’re used to.

Director Niki Caro has made a career out of studious, respectful portraits of other cultures – take 2002’s Whale Rider and its depiction of Māori village life. Her approach is no different here. Mushu was more a parody of Chinese culture than an invocation of it. Here, his closest representative is the phoenix that appears as a silent guide, a more appropriate symbol for Mulan as the female warrior. But the sentiment can feel forced. The film’s greatest failing is knowing the kind of personal, intimate film that could have been made if the reins had been handed over to a filmmaker of Chinese descent – someone who could speak from the heart, not from the bottom of a pile of research books.

Xian Lang (Gong Li) is a shapeshifter who most often takes the form of a hungry-eyed hawk (Disney)
Xian Lang (Gong Li) is a shapeshifter who most often takes the form of a hungry-eyed hawk (Disney)

At face value, Mulan is simply another Disney-branded story of female empowerment, but Caro finds a richness in the details. Mulan’s family fears that, if the world truly knew how powerful she was, she’d be branded a witch. Such was the fate of Xian Lang (Gong Li), a shapeshifter who most often takes the form of a hungry-eyed hawk. If Hua Mulan offers aspirational womanhood, Xian Lang is truth reflected in a shattered mirror. She’s magnetic, lethal – but with a wounded pride. Though she’s allied herself with the leader of the invading tribes, Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), who speaks of freedom, he treats her as if she were a slave.

The only thing these women desire is basic respect. And Caro knows how evocative a phrase like “I believe in Hua Mulan” sounds in today’s world. The film’s refigured romance, with Yoson An’s Chen Honghui replacing Li Shang, is far less prominent than in the 1998 film (though the implied bisexuality of the original is often overblown). A relationship between them can only blossom once they see themselves as true equals.

Liu’s presence here is controversial, due to her vocal support of the Hong Kong police, even as they brutalise protestors. But it’s hard to ignore the pure grit of her performance – she draws from the frazzled naivety of Ming-Na Wen’s original take on the character, but lets it cement into fiery determination whenever battle calls. When she fights, it’s as if we’re watching the qi take hold of their limbs, imbued with equal grace and power. She’s a formidable fighter. Caro’s camera twists into vertiginous angles to follow the flow of the action. Mulan remains a gorgeous, exhilarating experience – whatever the size of the screen.

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