Disney's Mulan was supposed to open in China and the US this week, but it was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Theatres in China and the US are closed. Nobody is going out. Disney has to eat any potential box office revenues from the postponement, but no cinemas are open to show it anyway!
Did you know there's already an epic live action movie about Hua Mulan out there?
China released Mulan: Rise of a Warrior in 2009. It was written, produced and directed by Chinese people, pretty much for an Asian audience. Few people in the West knew about this movie, even though it's available on DVD and Blu-Ray.
The movie's original Chinese title was Hua Mulan. Of course, it was changed to Mulan: Rise of A Warrior to make it more exciting for Western release.
A Brief History of the Original Mulan
Mulan might not have been a real person. She was probably an amalgamation of several real female soldiers of the era. The original ballad, believed to be from the 6th Century, was fairly basic. She went to war disguised as a man in place of her elderly father, became a general who led the army to victory against the invaders, then returned home 12 years later and put on a dress again.
She was enough of a blank slate for subsequent eras to impose different stories to the spaces in her story. Later versions from, say, the Tang Dynasty had her fall in love with a fellow soldier. Another version ended with her committing suicide to escape becoming the emperor's concubine. Some historians speculate that the earliest story of Mulan, told in oral traditions before the ballad, was not even a Chinese tale. She might have been a foreign woman fighting a Chinese invasion. The Chinese co-opted her for their own later.
Now Back to 2009's Mulan Movie
Movies about woman warriors are commonplace in Hong Kong cinema. The earliest WuXia movies from the 1920s featured swordswomen because male martial artists refused to act in movies at the time. Hong Kong movies are the one culture where women warriors were commonplace before any other country featured them. Hong Kong director Jingle Ma directs the 2009 movie without a sense of exoticism about the heroine's gender even as he explores her dilemma in keeping her gender secret in the army. He avoids the "strong female character" trope or the male gaze, thankfully.
Ma's movie is a more adult-oriented tale about the costs of war. Mulan (Zhao Wei) sees her friends die on the battlefield from mistakes she makes before Wentai, the officer who knows her secret, counsels her to temper her rage and emotions. It charts Mulan's rise from soldier to general in the war. The story emphasizes Mulan's burden as a leader who loses men even as she rises to power. It also has a bittersweet love story between Mulan and her fellow soldier Wentai.
Jingle Ma mostly made goofy action comedies for Hong Kong. This is probably his best and most substantial movie.
Some Thoughts About the Disney Version
Niki Caro, director of the Disney movie, said she and the makers looked at every other version of Mulan available before they made their version. You can see that in the trailers. Jason Scott Lee's villainour general is clearly inspired by the invading general played by Hu Jun in this movie. The screenwriters totally made up Gong Li's evil sorceress.
Personally, I think a supernatural villainess is a cheesy and cheap idea that the Mulan story doesn't need. It also feels like the Disney version turns the heroine into a superheroine. There's a Wonder Woman vibe to the trailers, like a woman warrior is still a new and exotic idea in Hollywood movies. I'm also dubious about the need to turn the movie in a wuxia actioner – wire-fu, soldiers leaping in the air higher than humanly possible with superhuman martial arts. The Mulan story is rich enough not to need cheesy and clichéd Oriental mysticism.
These are just my impressions based on the trailers. I hope I'll be pleasantly surprised by the actual movie whenever it finally opens later in the year.
Mulan: Rise of A Warrior is available on Blu-Ray and DVD now.