MULAN just opened virtually and it’s too bad you can’t see this on the big screen. It’s an expansively shot and handsomely choreographed epic adventure that will inspire all the women (and the men I hope) in your household; it inspires me still, and I know the story well. Disney’s original animated version came out in 1998 and I watched it many times with my then 4 year-old daughter. Lea Salonga singing the title role and its heroine’s signature song “Reflection” burrowed right into our brains and it’s resurrected here in the new 2020 live action version’s swelling score, propelling us through this story of identity, self discovery, and female empowerment. MULAN stars Yifei Liu who joins an all-star Asian cast in this tale based on the real-life Chinese legend of a young girl who secretly disguises herself as a male warrior and, taking her beloved ailing father’s (Tzi Ma) place, answers the call of the Emperor (Jet Li) to fight against invaders threatening Imperial China.
Mulan already looks like a warrior when we first see her against an expanse of land and sky, a young woman on horseback galloping through the hills, her long black hair trailing in the wind. Shortly we will see her scampering over the rooftops of her tiny village chasing down a chicken and we recognize it as a signature moment, a funny and exciting set of stunts (Liu did most of her own) demonstrating a decidedly unfeminine skill set that will come in handy later. But right now she’s suffering the disdain of the villagers and her mother (Rosalind Chao), who can only see an undisciplined daughter instead of a demure young maiden whose duty is to bring honor to her family by excelling at serving tea (another inventively hilarious scene) and getting married.
Director Niki Caro and a team of writers have doubled down on the tale’s themes of female identity in a man’s world eliminating some characters and adding others. Mulan now has a younger sister (Xana Tang) who cheers her on, and instead of Eddie Murphy’s wise-cracking dragon for comic relief, there’s a less satisfyingly-realized, soaring Phoenix guiding Mulan to inner wisdom and her true self. But in a stroke of casting genius, there is a second additional female character played by the majestic Gong Li who brings her heart-breaking beauty to the role of a dark sorceress, Xianniang, whose powers have been corrupted and held in thrall to the leader of the invading hoards (Jason Scott Lee). Her tragic journey intersecting with that of Mulan’s denotes a transition to a freer, more powerful female path.
Liu is a luminous presence on camera, her calm visage and hyper alert eyes signaling serious chops as she executes a dynamic array of fighting skills that are noticed by Commander Tung (Donnie Yen), and her handsome and unknowing cohort among the ranks of aspiring warriors Honghui (Yoson An). Despite his clearly being drawn to this slight but skilled fellow warrior, and a few close calls where Mulan’s identity is on the verge of being laid bare, romance is nixed– he does NOT complete her. The emphasis is on the action within and without as Mulan comes into her own, soars into a thrillingly choreographed climax, courageously saving the day, her family’s honor, and whatever lies beyond in a world I am still hoping for. SEE MULAN on demand now!