REVIEW: DVD Release: Mulan

Film: Mulan
Release date: 21st June 2010
Certificate: 15
Running time: 107 mins
Director: Wei Dong
Starring: Wei Zhao, Jaycee Chan, Rongguang Yu, Xu Jiao, Vicki Zhao
Genre: Action/Adventure/Drama/Romance
Studio: Cine Asia/Showbox
Format: DVD & Blu-ray
Country: China

Mulan is based on the famous fable of Hua Mulan, a general who led the Wei dynasty army to victory over raiding northern forces sometime around the 4th century. Director Jingle Ma has tackled this kind of historical story before, most recently in The Assassins Blade, which was also inspired by a legend from Chinese history.

The story will be instantly familiar, both for those who have watched The Assassins Blade, as well as the countless other films and cartoons, and read novels inspired by the Hua Mulan story.

Mulan’s sick father is conscripted to fight the increasingly aggressive Rouran northern army. Mulan takes the place of her father knowing he is too ill to fight, keeping her true identity hidden while at the same time proving her worth on the battlefield.

As the years go by, and the body count continues to rise, Hua Mulan works her way through the ranks to become a powerful General, but she is forced to examine what is truly important to her, while at the same time trying to defend her homeland and make it home to her sick father…

The actual story of Mulan hails from an ancient poem, so there is a fair bit of leeway afforded to the scriptwriters - in this case, the film benefits from centring on the relationships between the main characters and, in particular, the relationship between Hua Mulan and her superior officer Wentai.

With The Assassins Blade, Jingle Ma approached the tale with a light touch, but this caused problems, as the film failed to build any genuine tension towards its supposedly dramatic climax. Lessons have most definitely been learned, and Mulan is a far earthier and grittier proposition.

Casting lessons have also been learned since The Assassins Blade, which was necessary, as both films share a similar plot device, with the female lead playing a character hiding her true identity from those around her. Unlike The Assassins Blade, Jingle Ma creates a believable scenario in Mulan by choosing an actress who carries the part well. There is no doubting Wei Zhao is a beautiful woman, but she is also a good actress, benefitting from good makeup, and a film which is extremely well lit throughout. The Hua Mulan character visibly ages through the twelve year timeline of the story arc, and, as war rages on, becomes evidently more battle weary. This realism makes it easy to buy into the difficult premise, something which The Assassins Blade failed to achieve.

As Hua Mulan’s relationship with Wentai progresses, the film exposes the myths of battle and the flaws inherent within human nature; every set piece and death is played out over a background of political intrigue, betrayal and the love for family, friends and the country, which the soldiers serve and the Rourans covet. The way in which the Wei Army and the Rourans treat their fathers acts as a brilliant wider metaphor for how they also see the land they are fighting for; one side shows no respect while the other must serve to bring honour.

Visually, Mulan is quite ridiculously beautiful, but the China we see on screen is a harsh place. The fear evident in the soldier’s actions is reflected by the harsh realities of the surrounding landscapes, in which browns and greys are mixed to provide ominous and unsettling vistas. This is in stark contrast to the village scene at the beginning of the film, and highlights the pointlessness of the ongoing war, as the opposing armies fight over a land which is completely unforgiving. The desert scenes near the end of the film are particularly cruel, and every parched lip and flaked piece of skin can be felt.

There is a brilliantly ‘old-school’ feel to the battle scenes were everything is shot realistically using plenty of stunts and some incredible horse riding. The scenes are fast paced and brief but well positioned throughout the film. CGI is kept to a bare minimum, and this all adds to the look and feel - Mulan has far more in common with the work of David Lean or Kurosawa than Yimou Zhang. The score from Li Si Song is perfectly balanced with the onscreen action and is never obtrusive.

Mulan is an exhaustive, detailed take on a classic tale. It is beautifully crafted and carries a high emotional impact. SM

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