Fight Film Friday: Hua Mulan

Posted: August 27, 2010 in fight film friday
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Hua Mulan

China, 2009

Genre: Action, History, War

114 minutes

Jingle Ma directs and Zhao Wei stars in this re-telling of China’s first military heroine, the young girl who posed as a man to take her father’s place in the Imperial army.

A far cry from the Disney movie, Jingle Ma’s vision of Hua Mulan is harsh yet romantic; a heroic tale of war fitting the subject matter much better than fast-talking dragons and singing soldiers (although Ma does manage to fit the latter in, somehow). However, this adaptation of the folk ballad, while arguably the most successful yet, cannot rise about anything more than solidly average in most respects of its production. The actors generally give strong performances, and Zhao really steals the show with her portrayal of the titular heroine, but they are severely limited by the lackluster writing and predictable plot. Ma weaves a tragic love story into the tale, but it falls short due to the poor characterization of the leading lovers. The biggest issue I took with the film was the shoddy editing and pacing of the story, which throws the audience from one set piece to the next with no time to actually catch up and identify with Zhao’s performance. And if I had a dollar for every time the screen faded to white and back, I would have enough money to buy the DVD several times over.

Compared to the 1998 Disney version, Ma’s film hits the same plot points of Mulan’s rise through the army and her fears of being discovered, but moves past it so fast that it hardly has a chance to register that her life is in danger for her gender. In fact, the issue of her femininity is completely glossed over in exchange for battle scenes and montages expositing her ascension in rank. Rather than a lowly footsoldier like in the Disney film, here Mulan does so well that she eventually becomes a general, leading the army alongside her love interest. Another interesting difference is the amount of development they give the Rouran leaders, the barbarian antagonists of the film. It’s somewhat refreshing to see the villains sympathetically, if only for a short while, as opposed to the no-nonsense villain Shan-Yu.

As an action film, Hua Mulan fits right into the historical war dramas of Red Cliff and The Warlords, with very few one-to-one fights and using large scale shield and spear battles as the main medium for violence. The choreography is rather poor for the genre, denying Wuxia fans possibly the one saving grace of the movie. Without a strong tempo or engaging action scenes, the film ends up feeling very bland as a whole, as if someone were to take Saving Private Ryan and convert it into a political drama. Refusing to engage in the social issues central to the story, poorly developing the lead characters into a meaningful relationship, and forgoing any sense of adrenaline-pumping action on screen (including both physical and emotional), Hua Mulan is a mildly entertaining rental at best. I never thought I’d say this, but the Disney version is better.

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