“Mulan” (2020) Review

Dir. Niki Caro; Liu Yifei, Yoson An, Tzi Ma, Gong Li 

[2.5 out of 4 stars]

When crafting a remake, it is difficult to know how much to borrow from the original film. Niki Caro’s Mulan (2020) follows the same basic plot of the 1998 Disney classic of the same name while making a few substantial changes. Some of these adjustments are good. For example, Mulan’s (Lui Yifei’s) potential love interest is another soldier (played by Yoson An), her equal, rather than her powerful commanding officer. But other choices are strange and add little to the story: in this version, Mulan possesses qi, a gift that only the best warriors can cultivate. But it is something that is considered shameful, as it is often associated with witchcraft, and her father (Tzi Ma) encourages her to hide it. I have never heard of qi as something to be suppressed or afraid of. Rather, it is a vital life force in living entities, and the screenwriters’ choice to make it a shameful practice seems inaccurate. The 2020 version also pays homage to the 1998 film by featuring instrumental tracks of several of the original songs, and other lyrics are spoken as lines. While Mulan tries to update the story and bring it into the 21st century, it ultimately falls short of that goal. The result is a film that sacrifices the humor of the original in favor of a far more self-serious and dramatic tone.

Just to recap the plot in case anyone is rusty: the film takes place during the Han dynasty when the Rouran (not the Huns, to be more historically accurate) invade China and threaten the emperor. Every family in the country must send a man to fight in the imperial army, but Mulan’s family has two daughters. Therefore, her father Fa Zhou (Tzi Ma) — a great warrior in his time, but now plagued by a bad leg — must go. His fate is certain; his wife (Rosalind Chao) tells their daughters, “He will not return this time.” Mulan has always been a bit of a troublemaker and possesses the power of qi, but when she was a child, her father convinced her to conceal it, saying, “It is time for you to hide your gift away, to silence its voice.” Now, Mulan, in an effort to save her father’s life and bring honor to her family, steals her father’s sword, armor, and conscription scroll, disguises herself as a man, and heads off to fight in the imperial army and save China. During this adventure, she meets a witch (Gong Li) who also possesses qi but fights for the Rouran after she was exiled from her family as a child. In her, we see what Mulan could have been had she made different choices. 

One of the film’s greatest pitfalls is its script. Each line sounds as if it should be shouted dramatically from the back of a horse (as some of them actually are.) It all feels incredibly staged and intended for dramatic effect. For instance, when a phoenix, representing prosperity and rebirth, appears to guide Mulan on her journey, she looks up at it and breathes, “the phoenix!” We already know what it is, as she has spoken about it with her father many times, and the line is completely unnecessary. Elsewhere, the screenplay relies on certain buzzwords repeated often (loyal, brave, and true come to mind) so as to wallop us over the head with the themes it is evoking. Characters speak to each other in strong pronouncements rather than casual conversation. Additionally, the actors’ accents are all different from one another. While a few have a generalized “Asian” accent, others sound completely American, and there does not appear to be any effort to homogenize their dialects to sound realistic. 

Leading the cast is Liu Yifei, a worthy choice to play the titular role, and she beat out over 1,000 other actresses for the honor. Her manifestation of Mulan is entirely a warrior. She is firm and resolute, rarely smiles, only once cracks a joke. Yifei did nearly all of her own stunts as well, which are impressive and include horseback riding, sword fighting, and martial arts. Her resolve cannot be broken, which is perhaps accurate for such a legendary war hero. However, I found myself wishing for just a bit more emotion to make her seem more human. The original Mulan made mistakes, cracked jokes, and learned to be strong and powerful. This Mulan already has all the power that she needs in her qi; the only decision is whether or not to use it. While her ultimate choice is a turning point in the film, the fact that Mulan has these abilities naturally takes away the character development and growth I would have loved to see to make her a more compelling character. 

Indeed, it is powerful to watch a young Chinese woman tearing across a field on horseback while all her fellow soldiers have retreated (although, I question why the filmmakers felt it was necessary for her hair to be perfectly curled after she had been in battle, but I digress…) Mulan is a brave warrior and a legend for young girls to look up to, and the film strives in some ways to make itself relevant in today’s world. In one scene, the soldiers each pipe up “I believe Hua Mulan!” in a touching ode to the #MeToo movement and believing women. At its core, it’s a story about female power and women succeeding on their own terms despite being exiled from a male-dominated world. But overall, the film’s shortcomings start to overtake these small moments of inspiration and bog it down. It was not necessary for this Mulan to include a cheeky grandmother, dragon sidekick, or classic songs to make the film good, as the original did. But instead, this version feels overly stuffy, underdeveloped, and not as inspiring as it wants to be.

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