-Some characters are referred to by their subtitled names.
-The original Mulan story dates back to 6th century China, for those unfamiliar with the source material.
-Gude is played by Russian singer Vitas whom you might know for his song “Opera #2” which went viral on YouTube given how crazy high-pitched his voice goes during the chorus.
-Jingle Ma (the director) intentionally made this movie to be different than the Disney version. Don’t expect any magic, spontaneous musical numbers, or dragons that sound like Eddie Murphy. Sorry.
It has been a while since I had watched Chinese films. Sure, I’ve seen some wuxia, some John Woo films, and the occasional drama when I was younger, so I thought I would give that film scene another chance. I happened to stumble upon this 2009 adaptation of the Mulan story. There was some snarkiness on my part since I originally thought about the Disney version which was my first exposure to that tale as it was for many an American.
Once I started watching it, I forgot about that nineties animated film.
This version of the old Chinese folktale is structured like a period piece war drama. With the exception of the title character looking at the sky to see the image of someone for a few seconds, the situations are mostly realistic. There’s some intense fighting, military strategy, people bleed, and there are a lot of casualties going on.
I’m sure you know the basics by now. There’s a war going on between China and a nomadic Mongolian tribe (the Rourans and not the Huns in this case). Hua Mulan’s father is drafted, but she goes in his place while being disguised as a man. That’s where the similarity in your head ends. You see, this version of the Mulan character had some martial arts training for years and she joins the army barely even five minutes into the movie, so it goes straight into the military aspect fairly early. Her friend Tiger (or Xiaohu if you prefer the Mandarin name) is there and recognizes her, but promises to keep her identity secret lest she is executed by her superiors. There’s also the sub-commander Wentai who sees Mulan’s worth as a soldier despite being very by-the-book and rigid towards others. The villains in the Rouran tribe are mostly standard fare. The main villain is Mendu is a typical greedy and power-hungry villain who wants to take over the wealthier provinces. Sure, he’s calm about it most of the time, but I didn’t find him to be special. His subjects are decently threatening since they do score some victories against Mulan’s forces in the middle of the film and torture various captives, but they aren’t too special. However, I do think the Rouran Princess was a complex character. She initially agrees with her father and Mendu, but her main goal is for there to be unity between the Rouran and the rest of the Chinese. Yes, her face turn was obvious from the get-go, but at least it added more tension between this faction of the war.
The cinematography is great and feels epic. You see hundreds of soldiers on each side taking on these massive battles throughout the movie. The fight scenes are well choreographed with a mix of full-scale battles to the occasional close-combat martial arts scene straight out of the wuxia playbook albeit more realistic. The only minor gripe I have with the visual element was the sometimes dodgy CGI with the barrage of arrows and the aforementioned “spirit in the sky” scene which looked incongruous and was cheesy. The good does outweigh as far as the presentation goes.
I did have some worries about this iteration of Mulan. I thought it was great that she had prior martial arts training, but earlier battles made her look like Wonder Woman cleaning up the competition with the Rouran and even some scuffles with her fellow soldiers. However, she does make a huge mistake later on in the film which does hurt her and the army. She gets called out on this and does eventually develop. I say eventually develop because there were a few minutes where she straight up mopes about it after a major scene before returning to train the rest of the soldiers after (minor spoiler alert) she gets a commanding position in the army.
The music is serviceable in this movie. There are a lot of orchestral pieces mixed in with traditional Chinese instrumentation which works. Unfortunately, some Hollywood soundtrack tropes reared their ugly head when some dramatic scenes use the mysterious singer cliche with the typical melodramatic glossolalia to heighten the tension or emotional essence. That annoyed me so much how they incorporated it which hampered the sound editing and composition aspect of the film.
If you’re in the mood to see some good action or military movies, then I’d recommend Mulan: Rise of a Warrior. Despite some cheesy aspects and some predictable plot points, it was worth watching. I’ve seen better war dramas, but Mulan: Rise of a Warrior certainly isn’t a disappointing watch or possibly a rude awakening if one only knows that other adaptation.
Add 1-2 points if you prefer adaptations of stories from their home countries.
Add 1 point if you like action movies.
Subtract 1 point if you don’t like romances involved in military-based movies.
Subtract 1-2 points if you want this to be like the Disney version.
-Solid acting, and good character development
Final Score: 7/10 points
Content Warnings: Teens and up. Since this is a war drama, expect there to be lots of deaths and some gore in a lot of the fights. There is also one scene where a character lets Mulan taste his blood to sustain her when they run out of supplies which can definitely raise some eyebrows.
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