Thursday, September 3, 2020

‘Mulan’ scores in a live-action version

     When asked in a Vanity Fair interview why she and not a Chinese director had been chosen to direct Mulan, Niki Caro pointed out that two cultures had to be considered.
     The first, of course, is Chinese culture, which spawned the enduring legend of Mulan. The second, according to Caro, is Disney culture. Any director of a live-action remake of the 1998 Disney animated musical would have to negotiate his or her way through both cultures. 
    I found the comment both interesting and instructive.
    When you see Mulan, you’ll be watching a Disney movie, which means that the Chinese settings are seldom less than picturesque and the movie’s desire to deliver an inspirational message about family loyalty, courage, and girl power couldn’t be more clearly stated.
    If none of that bothers you (and I doubt that it will annoy most of the Mulan audience), you’ll find a strong helping of live action from Caro and an all-Asian cast led by Yifei Liu who plays Mulan. 
     Yifei's Mulan is endowed with extraordinary amounts of Chi, which in this movie might be seen as the equivalent of the Force in the Star Wars universe. Mulan can maximize her use of Chi to defeat enemies in battle -- one-on-one or en masse.
    Sans the songs of the original, Caro tells a story about a  culture-bound young woman who is instructed to hide her Chi and stick to the traditional feminine role that has been proscribed for her; i.e., Mulan's supposed to marry.
      Mulan has other ideas. She rebels by disguising herself as a man, borrowing her warrior father’s sword, and joining the army that’s trying to protect the emperor from northern invaders led by the ruthless Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee).
    To help him in his quest, Bori Khan has enlisted the help of a witch (Gong Li) who has great powers and who, we’ll learn, has more in common with Mulan than we initially expect.
     Martial arts star Jet Li portrays the emperor. Tzi Ma appears as Mulan’s father. Both are warriors, although Tzi's character, disabled by a war wound, long has retired.
    In keeping with the spirit of the original, Caro (Whale Rider) takes a mostly comic approach to Mulan’s integration into the army, where she finds a friendly rival in Chen Hong (Yoson An). 
    The other soldiers serve as a comic chorus, often commenting on Mulan’s overly ripe body odor. She refuses to shower lest her womanhood is discovered. Should Mulan reveal herself to be a woman, the Commander (Donnie Yenwill expel her for dishonesty. 
      The delicacy of Liu’s features could make it difficult for us to accept her male-warrior pose: The movie says otherwise. The rules governing men and women are so ingrained, no one possibly could be expected to see them violated.
    Aside from the lack of musical numbers, Caro and her team have made other alterations. Some may miss Mushu, the motor-mouthed dragon who was voiced by Eddie Murphy.
    It’s probably the right choice. Caro downplays the story’s more cartoonish aspects, although she does employ special effects for a phoenix, a beautiful bird, and Gong Li’s character goes through many shape-shifting transformations. 
   Caro handles large-scale battle sequences well enough. Some of the combat sequences hinted at the work of Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Shadow) although none display Zhang’s flair for devising at least one bit so outrageously original, it becomes a talking point. 
   Then again, Mulan's charge doesn't derive solely from combat; it stems from Mulan’s emergence as a fully realized woman warrior and from the way that she upholds the movie’s trio of virtues: Loyal, brave and true.
    Fans of Chinese spectacle rightly can argue that Caro hasn’t gone far enough in bringing either operatic grandeur or human frailty to the forefront.  Fair to say that Mulan stakes out a middle ground between PG-13 entertainment and the best of Chinese epic moviemaking.
     But back to where we began: This is a Disney movie that’s trying for the broadest possible appeal. 
    Mulan will be shown on Disney+, not in theaters. Still, it qualifies as a movie of impressive scale and clear visual command, an effort that, for my money, far surpasses its animated predecessor. *
*For the record: “My money” probably doesn't even qualify as chump change in the world of Disney resources.

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