“Joan of Arc, without the religion. Or stake.”
Inspired by the same poem as Disney’s much-loved feature, this has the same basic idea – a young woman impersonates a man in order to save her father from being drafted in the army. However, this takes a rather different approach, being much darker in tone, not that’s this is much of a surprise, I guess. It’s also a lot longer in scope, with Mulan (Zhao, whom you may recognize as the heroine/goalkeeper from Shaolin Soccer), rather than fighting a single campaign, becoming a career soldier and rising through the ranks as a result of her bravery in battle, eventually becoming a general, tasked with defending the Wei nation from the villainous Mendu (Hu). He has killed his own father in order to take control, and has united the nomadic tribes of the Rouran, amassing an army of 200,000 to invade Mulan’s home territory. She comes up with a plan to lure him into a trap, but when she is betrayed by a cowardly commander, things look bleak indeed for Mulan and Wentai (Chen), one of the few who know her secret.
Initially, I was rather unconvinced by Zhao who, being in her mid-30s, is a tad old to be playing the dutiful daughter. But given the longer view taken by the movie, the casting makes sense, and she ends up fitting into the role nicely; there’s a steely determination which develops over the course of the film, and by the end, you can see why she has become a commander. That’s one of the themes of the movie: duty, contrasted with the terrible losses war can inflict on a personal level, Mulan being largely powerless to watch as almost all her friends end up dying in battle. “I’ve fought battle after battle,” she says, “Lost one after another of my brothers, I really don’t want to fight any more.” There’s almost a neo-totalitarian implication to the final message, however, which suggests that everyone – even those who have sacrificed everything already – need to put aside their personal interests for the greater good of the state.
There’s a nice balance between the action and emotional aspects, but Zhao doesn’t actually do much in the latter department after the battle which gets her noticed. She’s broken out of army jail to take part, after confessing to stealing a jade pendant, in order to avoid a strip-search [death before dishonour]. After that, she’s more a leader than an actual fighter: heavy is the head that wears the general’s helmet is the moral here, and it’s driven home effectively enough, thanks mostly to Zhao’s solid performance.
Dir: Jingle Ma
Star: Zhao Wei, Chen Kun, Hu Jun, Jaycee Chan