In Mandarin with Chinese and English Subtitles
Director: Jingle Ma
Cast: Vicki Zhao, Chen Kun, Hu Jun, Jaycee
Chan, Vitas, Nicky Lee, Xu Jiao
RunTime: 1 hr 53 mins
Released By: Shaw
Opening Day: 26 November 2009
China 450AD, the dynasty was under constant threat from ruthless Rouran tribe. With such a major security threat at hand, the Chinese army conducted a nation wide draft.
A retired soldier named Hua Hu insisted on enlisting again to serve his country. Mulan (starring Vicki Zhao Wei), his young daughter was intelligent and skilled in martial arts. But as a girl, she couldn’t be enlisted. Unable to bear the thought of her father suffering, Mulan got her father drunk, dressed as a boy and entered the army to take his father’s place.
Through the harsh military training, Mulan proved to be a courageous and unstoppable, and always helped others to fend off the army bully. She gained the attention of Wentai (starring Chen Kun), the battalion’s Vice Commander. They soon developed a mutual admiration.
However, Mulan was in constant danger of revealing her gender. When Wentai ran into her bathing by accident, Mulan was fortunate enough to escape without exposing her identity, but Wentai was determined to uncover the woman hiding among the troops. To make things worse, the army bully had lost a jade pendant and a strip-search was ordered. Terrified to reveal herself and tarnish her father’s reputation, Mulan admitted the theft and was sentenced to death. In prison, she told Wentai the truth and he promised to keep this secret till the end.
When Rourans launched a surprise attack, Wentai released Mulan from jail to let her flee. But Mulan stayed for a battle and decapitated the Rouran General. Her life was spared of this merit and even promoted to be Vice commander. Together, Mulan and Wentai fought through various battles, and their friendship gradually turns into romance.
However, the Rourans were getting stronger as their Prince Mudan murdered his father and seized the throne. Facing an unprecedented scale of attack, Mulan was vastly outnumbered, and both her love and brevity were put to the ultimate test. Would she sacrifice true love for the peace of her nation?
The thundering of hooves, the clashing of swords, the battle cries of thousands… Ah, the war epic has taken root in Chinese cinema in recent years with films like "The Warlords", "An Empress and the Warriors" and of course, the seminal "Red Cliff". Pardon us if any new additions to this genre is no longer greeted with the same level of anticipation and enthusiasm- the glut of such films has diluted our excitement over any future "Red Cliff"-wannabes.
Jingle Ma’s take on the classic heroine "Mulan" arrives at such an inopportune time- even more so considering how its lead star Vicki Zhao Wei looks like she had just walked off the set of "Red Cliff" and into that of “Mulan”. Yes, there are uncanny similarities in the costume and production design of both films, though Jingle Ma has come forth to say that it is only coincidental. But no matter- while both films have something to say about war, their stories are quite different from each other.
The story of "Mulan" begins with a lesson on filial piety- Hua Mulan, the daughter of a retired soldier, takes her ailing father’s place when he is conscripted to fight in the Wei army following the invasion of the Rouran tribal people. War however turns out to be much more terrifying to Mulan than she thought, and it is through this lens that “Mulan” contemplates on the costs of war, as well as the value of patriotism.
In between, Mulan will fall in love with her battalion’s Vice Commander, General Wentai (Chen Kun) despite her father’s advice that feelings have no place on the battlefield. Of course, anyone who has watched a Jingle Ma film will know that Ma is not a subtle filmmaker- and "Mulan" is no exception. What scenes of romance between the two follow a decidedly consistent approach for emphasis- a firm hug, cue melodramatic music, and then a tear trickling down the cheeks.
Unlike other Jingle Ma films however, "Mulan" is not sunk by his perennial heavy-handed approach. The canvas Ma paints on this time is much broader and that extra breadth affords him to paint a much more complex picture of love. Against the backdrop of war, Mulan’s expression of love for Wentai becomes more than mere sweet-nothings, but sacrifice, the sacrifice of one’s life for someone you love. Love too comes with choice, as Mulan is made to choose between her love for someone, and her love for her country. Indeed, this rich backdrop lends much gravitas to Ma’s portrait of love- no doubt one of the favourite subjects of his films.
That’s not to say that "Mulan" is without its missteps- in fact, it takes the almost 2-hour long movie about an hour to find its footing. Mulan’s act of piety for her father is at a mere ten minutes of screen time too quickly glossed over, leaving Jingle Ma to focus its first half on Mulan’s gang of friends in the army- among them Fei Xiaohu played by Jaycee Chan. Unfortunately, his attempt to inject some form of humour into the story at this point falls flat, and gets tiresome after a while. But perhaps the most baffling choice he has made is to cast Russian singer Vitas as the rival army’s servant boy- the blond-haired boy completely out-of-place in the film.
Thankfully, Ma doesn’t make a wrong casting choice for his lead actress. "Mulan" is anchored by a strong performance by Vicki Zhao Wei, the wide-eyed expressive star vividly portraying her character’s sorrow, anguish, fear and terror. One can’t say the same about her physicality though, judging from the number of cutaway shots in the film during the battle scenes. This too is not director Jingle Ma’s forte, and audiences who have seen "Red Cliff" will likely be unimpressed. But one would do well to remember that Ma’s breakout film was the tearjerker "Fly Me to Polaris"- and his perpetual subject of love in his films since finds a more than comfortable home in the story of "Mulan".
(Jingle Ma’s war epic is a touching portrait of love in the time of war)
Review by Gabriel Chong