The 2020 version of ‘Mulan’ is a sight to behold, in more ways than one.
Director Niki Caro has done an excellent job striking a beautiful balance between the familiar and the unknown, resulting in a film which feels both breathtakingly fresh, and like a hug from an old friend.
Before we go any further, we should address the two Ms a great deal of ‘Mulan’ purists seem to be concerned with: music and Mushu. Let the record show that this film more than stands on its own two, armoured feet without both of them. In some ways, although it’s, to a degree, necessary to do so, it almost feels wrong to even compare this with its 1998 predecessor. . . It’s just not the same.
For those complaining that the Disney magic has been eliminated with the absence of those two things, I remind you of this one thing: the animated ‘Mulan’ only exists because of an ancient Chinese poem called ‘The Ballad Of Mulan’, written thousands of years ago, in which there are no campy musical numbers or talking dragons. 'Mulan'’s 2020 rebirth is a more faithful telling of a tale ingrained in Chinese culture, which is important to recognise and important to appreciate.
In saying this, there are actually more sneaky references to the 1998 version than one may expect: lyrics woven into spoken-word script; Harry Gregson-Williams’ score drawing on familiar melodies; and perhaps my favourite, a very ‘lucky’ character reimagined in a beautiful way. Long story short, the less-hardcore purists are most likely going to love this.
Liu Yifei is Mulan. She doesn’t just play Mulan, she is Mulan. A brave warrior made to cover up her gift, and her true purpose in life, for the protection and honour of her family. ‘Mulan’ is, of course, a feminist effort. . . But it’s feminism in its finest and most contemporary form. Yifei plays this role so convincingly, her bravery as a warrior pierces through the screen while her vulnerability is just as palpable. Perhaps most importantly and effectively, her masquerade as a man feels truly uncomfortable and as though it may be uncovered at any moment. This actress commands attention throughout the entire film.
Speaking of commanding attention, Gong Li as new character Xian Lang (the witch) is spellbinding and one of the many new elements to this familiar story which is very, very welcome. Jason Scott Lee as main villain Bori Khan is scary, but he could have been a little more of a threatening presence to really raise the stakes to truly dizzying heights.
Meanwhile other notable performances come from Donnie Yen as Commander Tung, Yoson An as soldier Chen Hongui and Tzi Ma as Fa Zou, Mulan’s convincingly ailing father.
We’re in, as you can probably imagine, action sequence heaven with this film. There are flips, twists, and martial arts aplenty, and thanks to some genuinely stunning camerawork and direction, it’s all incredibly satisfying and quite rewarding to witness as a viewer. With the added element of supernatural abilities thanks to Xian Lang, visual boundaries are pushed even further here, and it pays off.
Mulan’s journey is made to feel all the more long and gruelling as we see her traverse through chameleonic landscapes of lush greenery, harsh desert and thick snow to bring honour to her family, each new location and its surroundings somehow impressing more than the last.
So – there are many things which make this film so enchanting: the believability of the characters, the goosebump-inducing fight scenes, the charming yet tasteful callbacks to the original film.
If there’s one thing I’m certain of, it’s that ‘Mulan’ deserved a global cinematic release just as it was meant to – but if you’re willing to fork out the Premier Access price on Disney+, close the curtains, heat up some popcorn and turn off the lights. . . This is the studio’s best live-action remake yet.