Otherwise known as ‘the one without the red dragon’, Mulan is directed by Jingle Ma (Butterfly Lovers), with Vicki Zhao taking on the role of the gender-bending heroine Hua Mulan, the filial daughter who famously adopts male guise to take her father's place on the battlefield. Mulan grows into a great warrior while working hard to keep her true identity secret; Aloys Chen (Painted Skin) plays the token love interest; Hu Jun brings pantomime sensibilities to the party as a ruthless leader; Jaycee Chan makes up the numbers as a free-spirited soldier, with CJ7 child actress Xu Jiao, Korean-American Mando-pop singer Nicky Lee, and Russian singer Vitas offering diverse support.
I’m a big fan of Vicky Zhao, and she was probably my first choice of leading lady for this 2009 update. Zhao fits the mould perfectly, and if anybody can pull off a role of this nature then she can. Her physical attributes, combined with a shameless use of charm, is more than enough to keep the most jaded of fans glued to their seats. She’s quite handy with a sword too, coping adequately with Stephen Tung Wai’s action sequences. Word of the day I guess, adequate, because Mulan is an adequate action epic that passes for an adequate waste of time. No more, no less. Harmless commercial fodder that gets enough things right but never truly shines; Saturday night escapism in the purest form.
Jingle Ma’s biggest failing is his inability to capitalise on the films most intriguing concept, something about a girl becoming a boy and fooling the entire nation. Vicky Zhao makes for an ideal candidate for gender-bending status but no effort is made to disguise the fact that she’s a woman. It’s just Vicky Zhao wearing armour. She looks, talks and acts like Vicky Zhao, yet nobody suspects her of being a woman. The most interesting element of the movie is glossed over in favour of conventional, commercial Hollywood style action excess, and it’s a real shame.
Jingle Ma has missed a great opportunity to explore daring themes, and instead he took the easy path. I’m sure Mulan will still satisfy the demands of a shallow cinematic demographic, but had he been brave enough to aim higher, he could have made a picture that separates the men from the boys. Girls from the boys. Whatever. His second failing concerns pacing. He wastes absolutely no time out of the blocks, but I would have preferred a more leisurely pace in the opening act, because this for me was the most intriguing chapter of the story. The inconsistent director is in too much of a hurry to reach the second act warfare. Reasoning, back-story and character development are neglected in favour of breakneck speed to the battlefield and beyond.
Performances are strong throughout, but that’s probably because nobody is expected to do anything that we haven’t seen before. Still, the actors perform admirably, and you won't find too many complaints. That said, the action sequences are disappointing for the most part, and Mulan doesn’t really finds its feet until late on in the second act. It’s serviceable stuff, but far from spectacular. In fact, I’m tempted to use the word adequate again, even though we’ve covered that already. A film that's happy to wallow in mildly diverting waters.
Mulan is a fairly entertaining ride, and fans of commercial action epics will find plenty to enjoy. It’s solid action fare that works well up to a point, but only if you enter with low expectations. Much like the character herself, Mulan looks good on the surface, but dig a little deeper and she's not quite what she seems. AW