Mulan review: live-action Disney remake feels more retrograde than the original

Niki Caro’s warrior-woman story displays a more antiquated take on gender roles than is found in the wuxia films that inspired it, and the stunts are no substitute for the original songs.

4 September 2020

By Kambole Campbell

Mulan (2020)
Sight and Sound

► Mulan is out now on Disney+.

With all the vast resources afforded to it by its monopolistic hold on the visual entertainment industry, the Walt Disney Company has remade yet another film from its vast history of animation. But if the intention for bringing Mulan, one of the figureheads of the 1990s ‘Disney Renaissance’, into live-action was to give it some extra depth, this was only accomplished in graphic terms; as characters, the flesh-and-blood humans of Niki Caro’s adaptation of the Chinese legend The Ballad of Mulan are far shallower creations than their two-dimensionally animated predecessors.

The basic outline is more or less the same: Hua Mulan is a woman with a gift for combat, but is excluded from the military draft simply because of the idea that a warrior’s ‘ch’i’ belongs only to men – so she disguises herself as a man to fight in her injured father’s stead. Liu Yifei is a formidable presence as Mulan but is given little to work with, as the film’s relentless pacing gives her moments of self-doubt or self-empowerment scarce time to breathe, her supposed struggles robbed of their dramatic stakes. Despite the appearance of numerous Chinese screen legends (Donnie Yen and Jet Li, the latter dubbed for some reason), there’s little in the way of intrigue across its cast of characters.

One notable exception is Xian Lang, a warrior witch played with genuine majesty by Gong Li, drawn to the side of the Rouran Khaganate (who replace the Huns of the original) due to her persecution by the Emperor’s men. Xian Lang speaks aloud the parallels between Mulan and herself, their shared lack of acceptance from their male peers, and makes for a far more interesting screen counterpart than the rest of Mulan’s compatriots.

Most of the anticipation for Caro’s take was focused around its apparent emulation of wuxia, Chinese stories of chivalry and martial arts first introduced into Hollywood with Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. An introspective deconstruction of the Western imagining of China as well as gender roles within the feudal society shown on screen, Lee’s film about warrior women might not have found such success in the West if not for the popularity of Mulan.

With that in mind it’s doubly disappointing just how ideologically opposed Mulan feels to most wuxia films, which often saw their characters stand independently from the very masters that Caro treats with uncomplicated reverence (Mulan is repeatedly told “know your place”, paradoxically as words of encouragement). It’s almost darkly amusing how readily it comes down to a “hire more women guards” school of thinking that even its predecessor managed to avoid.

It’s tempting to at least credit Mulan with being the first big-budget Disney remake to fully embrace live-action and mostly eschew CG backdrops for tactile sets and pretty locations, but that’s setting the bar too low. The songs of the original (save a re-recording of Reflection in the credits) have been left aside so to focus on action, but the results are hardly as rousing. The gravity-defying choreography pays some deference to wuxia, but embodies none of its grace or rhythm. Any elegance in the choreography is thrown off by the film’s often disorientating editing, twitchy camerawork and confusing staging. Caro finds some interesting settings for the more acrobatic fights (such as a large, elaborate scaffolding) but the more large-scale battles only feel inert, especially when held in comparison to the Chinese epics by figures such as Zhang Yimou that Mulan itself purposefully evokes.

While it maintains the original’s push and pull between loyalty to family, traditional gender roles and the warrior’s path, the new Mulan somehow feels less modern in its thinking in a lot of respects – especially with an ending that fully aligns women’s liberation with military service and fealty to hereditary monarchies. Perhaps calling a film about gender roles in ancient China ‘antiquated’ is unfair, but if Mulan isn’t meant to be a re-examining of what the first film embodied, then why is it here at all? The only reason will have a dollar sign in front of it.

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