There are several volumes of sophisticated feminist theory at work in the live-action version of MULAN, but, trust me, they are wholly in the service of a first-rate action-adventure film that puts characters ahead of spectacle. Director Niki Caro has created a film that is intense, compelling, and entirely entertaining, while Liu Yifei as the eponymous woman warrior has genuine grit and a genius for powerful understatement, even when drop-kicking a spear as it zips at her. While on horseback, yet.
Set in the China of 1,500 years ago, this version eschews talking non-human animals (let’s overlook the nod to its animated roots with a character named Cricket) and comedic sidekicks in favor of historical accuracy and a sense that, even with the mystical element of chi that gives Mulan her edge, this is no fairy tale. It also has a PG-13 rating for violence, and, perhaps, for the skinny dipping (though the artful play on moonlight on the water prevents anything from showing that would give Mulan’s gender away to the fellow soldier who joins her for a midnight swim).
Before we get there, though, there is the child Mulan (Crystal Rao), chasing a stray chicken with singular determination. It ends with a broken statue of her family’s totem animal, the phoenix, and an unseemly display of roof climbing followed by an even more unseemly display of chi that allows Mulan to float to the ground rather than experiencing the usual effects of falling from a high place. Chi allows for more than just floating. It’s the making of great warriors, and Mulan, as the female of the species, can never hope to become one. On a more practical level, her mother (Rosalind Chao) is horrified at what this chi, not to mention a generally rambunctious nature, will do to her older daughter’s marriage prospects. Her father (Tzi Ma), who has so far indulged his daughter’s undeniable gifts as an athlete, allowing her freedom most girls are denied, sadly acquiesces to the strictures of Chinese culture. though it visibly breaks his heart when he sternly reins Mulan in, setting the stage for a disastrous meeting with the local matchmaker (Pei-Pei Cheng). Meanwhile, the country’s pending war with Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee), who would like to take over China, sets the stage for Mulan to embrace her destiny.
The script slyly juxtaposes the way Mulan chooses a sensible course of action rather than societal protocols. During tea with the matchmaker, where she should be demonstrating the female virtues of obedience and submissions, Mulan chooses to put a vessel in the best, rather than the ceremonial place, hence preventing her sister’s spider phobia to kick in. When the matchmaker unwittingly releases the spider, and the tea service goes topsy-turvy, Mulan instinctively snatches ceramics from the air rather than let them crash to the ground. The matchmaker’s hissy fit, and the resulting crash may be a fine example of comic timing, but it also damns her idea of feminine as a repression of natural, not to mention useful, gifts. Right away, the time comes for Mulan to save her elderly father from certain death and even more certain humiliation, when the Emperor (Jet Li) demands one man from every family to battle Khan’s massive army. Slipping out in the dead of night dressed as a boy, conscription scroll and family sword in hand, she sets out to take her father’s place, choosing to save him rather than conform.
What ensues is far from the comedy of errors found in the animated version of this story. This Mulan is scorched by the sun as she makes her way across the desert alone to join up, and the phoenix she sees gliding through the sky could almost be a hallucination. The training is brutal, and her attraction to a fellow recruit Honghui (Yoson An), is not the stuff of romance novels, but a meeting of minds with the penalty for having her gender revealed, well, not death as with other infractions, but one worse in the form of exile and disgrace. The possibility of the other kinds of fate worse than death is also present, if not emphasized.
If there is any doubt about the constrictions under which women of that time lived, there is none after watching the spectacle of Mulan being dressed for her first meeting with the matchmaker. Corsets, precariously balanced hair piled inordinately high, tiny uncomfortable shoes, and make-up so thick that Mulan can’t move her face. The freedom of armor, even with a chest-binder underneath, is the obvious choice.
There is also the even more pointed juxtaposition of Mulan with the witch of the piece, Xianniang (Gong Li), Khan’s not so secret weapon of a shape-shifter with more chi in her little finger than in the Khan’s entire army. If the comparison between her and Mulan isn’t subtle, that’s because it shouldn’t be. Xianniang, cast out as a child for her power, finds her only refuge in assisting a man who is obviously her inferior, physically, spiritually, and ethically. Mulan finding her power by blithely side-stepping the system and, for all practical purposes, becoming a man. Neither is the perfect solution, but in the course of some dazzling storytelling, and equally dazzling effects with vistas and battles that cry out for a giant screen, MULAN the film eventually finds a deeply satisfying third way.
There is also the deeply satisfying spectacle of Donnie Yen, as Mulan’s commanding officer, slicing the air with a breathtaking display of swordsmanship, and the most convincing shape-shifting from human to bird and back again yet seen on any screen. The best thing is Liu Yifei, who encompasses the innocence of a village child out in the world for the first time, with an passionately heroic spirit. There is no hesitation once she’s made her fateful decision, but there is still the interior conflict between what she knows is right and what she’s expected to be by her beloved family. When Mulan is commissioned, the pride in her accomplishment and the sadness of not being able to be herself plays almost imperceptibly across her face. This is a person of effortless confidence and an unswerving moral compass. A person to be reckoned with, but one that is also entirely human, inhabiting a slightly magical reality that is, thanks to her, also a reality that is entirely reasonable.
There is only one false moment in the almost two hours of MULAN. After she decides to stop living a lie and present herself to her commander and comrades as a woman, Mulan’s sunburned complexion turns a milky white. Sigh. And never mind. During a significant moment, it’s not a male character who tells those around her that Mulan is not a girl, rather she’s a woman. It’s a statement that brooks no contradiction, and is the final, best accolade that anyone could confer.