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Review: Mulan

Mulan (2020)
Screening on Disney+

Tonight’s movie was the live action remake of Mulan (streaming on Disney+), and I have THOUGHTS.

Thing is, I don’t know if my thoughts can be pounded out in the time I have before bedtime.

Thing is, I wonder if I don’t do it now, I won’t get another chance. So here goes.

Given the Twitter reaction, I expected this film to be more of a trainwreck of a movie than it was. I had heard various things about it and some of the reasons why people were unhappy with it, and I can sort of see where they’re coming from. I think it’s mainly two camps: one, the people who loved the 1998 animated film and were sorely disappointed because they were expecting something like that, and two, people who love the story of Hua Mulan and who wanted to see it done well as a Hollywood blockbuster in partnership with China, and they ended up disappointed too.

The 2020 Mulan is neither and therefore it’s sort of hard to figure out where it fits. This was symbolised somewhat by the opening credits, which featured the familiar mouse castle in a not-so-familiar Asian landscape with the addition of a great wall.

Firstly, it has some of the trappings of the 1998 film in its characters, storylines and even the music: Hua Mulan is a simple girl who comes from a small village and who struggles to figure out her place in the world that sees her as different. She does not act the way society thinks girls should act, and furthermore, she’s in possession of a very strong qi (which, if I’ve understood this correctly, refers to one’s vital energy or life force—something which is essential to Chinese martial arts). She knows that her role in life is to marry well and better her family’s social standing. But her spirit rails against this, and she somehow can’t help being who she is. (Note that the cricket scene in the original is sort of still there, but now it involves a spider.) Unfortunately being who she is means public shaming.

Meanwhile in the north, Böri Khan is rallying the Rourans and attacking garrisons all along China’s northern border, plotting to avenge his father, who was killed by the current emperor. He is aided by a powerful witch who can shapeshift and disguise herself as anyone she chooses. She is aiding him because she has lived much of her life in exile, rejected by her own people for who she is, and under Böri, she hopes to be somewhere where she can be free.

The emperor, realising that war is unavoidable, sends out a decree that every family must send one male to join the army. As Mulan’s father only has daughters, he consents to go. And as Mulan loves her father and knows he won’t survive a second war, she disguises herself as a man and goes in his place, bearing his sword, which has the characters etched on it “Loyal, brave and true”.

If you were hoping for singing, you will be sorely disappointed: although the music sometimes picks up some of the themes of the 1998 animated film soundtrack and Christina Aguilera belts out “Reflection” over the credits (and Liu Yifei, the actress who plays Mulan also does so in Mandarin), no one in the cast sings about their hopes and dreams, or about how they’ll “make a man out of you” (truly the best song of the original). The soundtrack is mostly instrumental, and I liked that it used a lot of traditional Chinese instruments.

In addition, if you were hoping for Mushu, you also be sorely disappointed: the red dragon has been replaced by a CGI phoenix who answers her father’s prayer and watches over her as the spirit of their ancestors (or some such thing). I rather liked that as Mushu was always a bit of a Jar Jar Binks character for me.

However, no singing, no cricket, no Mushu and even no grandma (who arguably had the best lines in the original) means that the movie is far less child-friendly, lacking much of the comedy and humour of the animated version. Mulan’s army buddies are still there as a bit of light relief (retaining some of the dialogue of their animated counterparts), and I kind of wish we had had a few more scenes with them as I liked the friendship that Mulan develops with them (and more particularly with Chen Honghui, who is the only one in the skinnydipping scene and who sort of slides in the Li Shang role, only he is not a commander). But otherwise, the movie takes itself very seriously (i.e. no cross-dressing in the other direction): the stakes are clear and the cost of Mulan’s choices weight heavily on her as she tries to live up to the creed on her father’s sword.

The last virtue—“true”—gives her trouble, however: how can she be “true” when she is lying to everyone around her? This moral quandary weighs heavily on her and, as the witch points out to her later, it is poisoning her qi and is preventing her from serving the emperor the way she should be. (Commander Tung recognises this in an earlier scene, though of course at that stage, he does not know her secret.) This is interesting as there are plenty of cross-dressing girls in other xanxia dramas I have watched and none of their qi was ever affected. This is also a big change: in the 1998 version, she was just an ordinary girl trying to spare her father and honour her family the only way she could; in this one, she is special.

When she is finally convinced of the value of being herself and is, in a sense, reborn like the phoenix, she suddenly has the power—or the qi—to save her country, her people and even her friends. But of course society is still a step behind, and her shaming and expulsion from the army seems overly harsh for western audiences, who would be more sympathetic towards acts of bravery than eastern audiences who, perhaps, would be more in agreement with values regarding law and virtue. (Something similar came up in the K-Drama Romance is a Bonus Book where one of the main characters is vilified for calling herself a high school graduate on her resumé when she was really a university graduate.)

The final act of the story is, in my humble opinion, where the whole thing gets a bit sloppy. While the action scenes, for the most part, are terrific and exciting, with backwards riding archery, spear fighting, somersaults on horeseback and Donnie Yen being awesome, the characters made some decisions that made no sense to me. Why does Mulan cast off her armour when some of it was clearly instrumental to saving her life? Why does she fight with her hair out? (Wouldn’t that be annoying?) Why do people act like Mulan is the only one who can save the emperor? (Surely she’s not!) And surely jumping onto a plank that’s revolving slowly in mid-air is a bad idea, no matter how awesome it makes you look when you’re doing martial arts on it??

The witch also plays a pivotal role in all of this—both as a foil to Mulan, but also as something of an antagonist in her decision-making. Unfortunately that story thread is given no room to breathe; I imagine that had this been a TV series, the clash of worldviews between her and Mulan would have been developed more over several episodes, not several minutes. As it is, things progress so fast, I had whiplash.

That said, I liked where the film ended—back in Mulan’s village where the opening scenes are book-ended with ones that close out themes of filial duty, honour, and ideas regarding what women can and can‘t do. Although it could be argued that Mulan is a feminist story of empowerment and male recognition of that power, I liked that the ending to this film emphasised honouring one’s family. Perhaps it was a compromise between east and west? For me, it worked. For others, it probably didn’t.

Along with the script, there are many things that could be criticised about this film. The cast was made up of Asian actors, but their delivery of the English dialogue left a lot to be desired and, to me, was jarring after spending so much time watching xanxia dramas in Mandarin. The costumes, props and overall production design was gorgeous and colourful, with nary a synthetic fibre in sight. (I only mention it because that is something that sometimes annoys me about xanxia dramas.) I acknowledge that it probably wasn’t historically accurate; this article notes:

Online reviewers criticized Mulan‘s lack of character development; the actors’ performances; various plot holes; the historical inaccuracy of the makeup and costumes; and confusing, seemingly slapdash references to Chinese culture.

One Douban reviewer laid out a ten-point critique of the movie that included a complaint about one scene in which Mulan’s father sharpens a knife with a piece of jade with “filial piety” engraved on it. “[The jade] is related to military merit,” the reviewer wrote. “Why the hell is it engraved with ‘filial piety’?”

Another Douban reviewer called the film a “car accident” full of famous Chinese actors and “all the features of China that Americans could come up with … it’s full of Western images of China, especially ancient China.”

Also:

Concerns about how faithfully Disney’s latest Mulan hewed to Chinese history and culture started last summer, when Disney released the trailer for the movie. One complaint pointed out that Mulan’s house is a style of architecture that did not emerge in China until several hundred years after Mulan was supposed to have lived and is associated with southern China; the Mulan folk story is set in northern China. The scenes are beautiful, one Douban reviewer wrote, “but it will make any Chinese person who has studied geography go crazy.”

But as it had witches, magic and qi in it, I thought it was like other xanxia dramas I’ve watched that are set in some fantasy version of ancient China, so these things bothered me less.

That article also had this interesting part in it that only further serves to underscore the difficulty of where Mulan sits:

… joint productions between U.S. and Chinese movie makers like The Great Wall and Hollywood movies with Chinese cultural themes like Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell have flopped at the mainland box office. Their failures underscore the difficulty of making a movie with Chinese themes that appeals to U.S. and Chinese audiences and succeeds critically and commercially in both markets.

It seems to me that both Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell come from less of an Asian background and more of an Asian American or Western Asian background, which is not the same thing. (It is interesting, though, that Disney chose a director who isn’t Asian. Was Chloé Zhao unavailable?) In my opinion, Mulan (2020) occupies the same space: it comes from Chinese culture, but its story is more Western in flavour, concerned with ideas surrounding identity, authenticity and the expression of those things in one’s society. So I’m not surprised Chinese audiences didn’t like it. I’m also not surprised that western audiences didn’t like it either. I enjoyed it, but one day, I’d also like to see a couple of the 15 adaptations made in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan if only to understand how others view the story.

Okay, perhaps that’s not the most comfortable place to leave a review. But I am out of time and this will have to do.

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Review: Last Christmas

Emilia Clarke, the mother of dragons herself, plays a down-on-her luck London girl named Kate Andrich. It is Christmas in 2017 and Brexit is dividing the nation. Kate works full-time at a year-round Christmas shop under sharp-eyed dragon lady Michelle Yeoh. She has Fleabag-level dysfunctional family issues—particularly with her mother (Emma Thompson, who also wrote the screenplay), who still behaves as if the war they fled in Yugoslavia has followed them to England. She’s such a hot mess with all the terrible eating and the drinking and the hooking up with random strangers, she just can’t get her life together, and she can’t land an audition even though singing professionally is the thing she most wants to do. By chance one day, she meets a way-too-understanding manic pixie dream boy named Tom Webster (Henry Golding) and begins to form an attachment to him, and that’s kind of where the downward arc of her character starts to swerve.

It is very important to say upfront that the marketing has let this film down: watching the trailer, you’d be forgiven for expecting a romcom dressed up in tinsel and George Michael tunes. It is NOT that (and a part of me wonders if unhelpful expectations led this film to score only 46 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes). It’s more of a journey of a young woman trying to turn her life around and deal with her baggage, and while Tom plays a role in that, the story isn’t about him or even them; it’s about her. Her growth comes about over scenes and days and weeks and things that feel a little repetitious and slow at times, but the overall effect is akin to a novel where small things are changing and a character is growing, just not all at once.

My movie buddy Fiona picked the twist well before it happened—perhaps because she was paying far more attention to the clues than I was (the film’s title is a big one), but also perhaps because she knows more George Michael than I do. (Also, I was still expecting a romcom. Nope!) I was still surprised by it, and while I’m still tossing up whether it was satisfying, there were things about the ending I liked and things that I kind of wished had been better. Overall, I liked where the movie left Kate and the audience. But I think I understand why its reviews have been bad.

Other things I liked: the leads were all engaging: Emilia Clarke made me feel for Kate; Emma Thompson was fantastic as her overbearing over-anxious mother; and if Henry Golding was a little too cardboard and a little too good to be true, well, there was sort of a reason for that. I agree that Michelle Yeoh was under-utilised, though her little character arc was weirdly charming and I liked the interactions between her and Kate. I also liked how many of the minor characters had something to do, and they milked whatever screen time they were given. And I liked that the movie was grounded in a particular time and place—with themes regarding immigration, homelessness and the general anxiety of the British people underscoring everything.

I don’t think this will be a film for everyone. If you’re expecting a Love Actually/Serendipity/The Holiday Christmas romcom, you’ll end up disappointed. If you meet the story on its own terms, I think you might enjoy it.

3 stars. Screening on Netflix.