It is much anticipated. Even before the first trailer aired. A Western studio’s interpretation of a Chinese folklore. Disney, no less. With its 1998 animated version to boot. When was the last time there was such a similar ‘big movie’? Ang Lee’s ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’? There was also Zhang Yimou’s ‘Hero’. Both are decades ago. Zhang directed ‘The Great Wall’ recently.
There is a warm appeal about ‘Mulan’. A Chinese female warrior. The trailers are flavourful aperitif with glimpses of Donnie Yen, Gong Li, gorgeous sets, sweeping actions. And Chinese speaking clear, concise, simple English for all to understand. Something that may not necessarily be an appeal for audiences in the East. Talk about simple. Does it need to be this simple?
Every character is one dimensional. Every acting is one pitch. Of course it is deliberate. Structured. Predictable. It is a life action film with dialogue and storytelling of an animated movie. A Disney animated movie. This ’The Ballad of Mulan’, a 330-word poem about a woman posing as a man to enlist in the military in place of her ailing father, is given a total Disney makeover.
Simplicity is an art. There is art in this film. But the simplicity is simplistic. I let the simplistic portrayals sink in. I went with the flow. I was engaged. I was not bored. But this over simplicity hit me hard when the seemingly invincible villains, when the simple narrative requires it, perish in a flash. They are dealt with simply. And they are gone. No, please, I am not alerting, this is not a spoiler.
Jet Li, Donnie and Gong Li are under-utilised, their over simplistic characters notwithstanding. Gong Li, arguably China’s most talented actress, is destined to play second fiddle, in ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’, then ‘Mulan’, first as a bitch, and now a witch. Jet Li is unrecognisable. Donnie’s role can be played by any actor, even a non martial arts actor. Lui Yifei, admittedly, carries the film well.
This ‘Mulan’ has turned a folklore into a fable of sorts. It is so Disneyed, at one point, I thought the witch was going to offer Mulan an apple, and the generals will be the seven dwarfs to the rescue. Mulan does fall asleep to wake up with a #MeToo mantra, to face up and fight to be accepted as a woman in an army of traditional men. There is honour in this, if dishonourably simplistic.