Mulan 2020 – Part 2
Welcome to Chasing Dramas! This is the podcast that discusses Chinese history and culture through historical Chinese dramas. We are your hosts – Karen and Cathy.
Today we will do an in-depth recap of the 2020 Disney version Mulan and give our review at the end. We did a spoiler free recap of Mulan, the ballad’s history, and some we provided some historical context in our previous episode so check that out if you haven’t already.
Oki doke! What are our thoughts from this movie?
Karen – As someone who adores 刘亦菲 and grew up loving the animated Mulan, I really wanted to like this film. I really did. When the announcement came out that she was going to play Mulan, I was ecstatic! I had a blast watching the film because some parts of it are so absurd. In terms of Disney live action remakes, I prefer Aladdin over this version. If the movie kept the songs, kept a digital dragon voiced by Eddie Murphy or an equivalent, that probably would have made this film a better film.
Once again, this movie is available on Disney+ if you want to watch along.
We begin with Hua Zhou, Mulan’s father narrating the story. Hey it’s Tzi Ma! Yay! Right off the bat we hear about Mulan’s unparalleled Chi or Qi. Chi is a fascinating word. With origins dating back all the way back to the Shang Dynasty on oracle bones no less, the word has had different transformations and meanings throughout time. Here, we’ll take it to mean “vital life force”. It’s also such a Chinese movie cliche – like ohh look at this person’s Chi! I feel like Chi in Chinese dramas has fallen out of favor. They are very popular in martial arts dramas but at least from my perspective, seems less prominent now than say 10 years ago. You guys might have heard Chi in Tai Chi but this is not the same word. Let’s separate that out.
We next get a sweeping shot of Mulan’s hometown. We get a nice shot of terrace rice fields and a walled village. This looks to be a Hakka Walled Village or 土楼。The Hakka people are ethnically Han Chinese. The forefathers of the Hakka people lived in the modern day Hubei and Henan but began migrating south starting from the Qin Dynasty. During the Invasion and Rebellion of the Five Barbarians in the early 300s, more and more of the Hakka people fled South of the Yellow River and Chang Jiang.
Rice is the main grain of the South so let’s assume that this walled village is somewhere in Southern China.
Mulan is chasing a chicken in the walled village. Maybe as a callout to the original movie? The chickens were chasing the dog. And look! She wields the staff pretty well. I totally wish I can just fly around like she is doing here. I like this scene showing her practice wushu at a young age because no matter what movies say, being good at martial arts takes years of training. For her to be an exceptional fighter, she must have had some type of training beyond what she learns in the army. Mulan’s mom is worried about Mulan’s prospects for marriage because of her rather rambunctious behavior and asks her father to speak to her.
Hua Zhou finds Mulan outside trying to fix the statue of a phoenix. The phoenix is the emissary of their ancestors. He instructs her to hide away her Chi. She only needs to bring honor to the family, aka, marry well. Like what! Come on – also since when was Chi a gendered term? If you can tell us, please do so. Mulan looks disappointed and we get the title shot of Mulan.
We’re now on the Silk road. A trader is walking with his caravan of camels in the desert and then a creepy looking woman shows up. She straight up merges into his body. What?? The caravan enters a walled city or garrison somewhere in northwest china. The sentries spot riders wearing all black charging to the city. It’s the Rourans! For more information on the Rourans, listen to our earlier episode about Mulan.
It’s quite a cool sequence. The Rourans climb up the walls and start murdering people. The creepy lady also starts attacking soldiers from inside the city. I know this is a movie but man – if the Rourans can just fly up the walls with like 20 people, why don’t they just do that for every city?
News reaches the Imperial City in Central China. My first gut reaction was 长安 or modern day 西安 but since we don’t know which kingdom or empire this is, I can’t be sure. The chancellor is reporting the news to the Emperor. It’s Jet Li! I can barely recognize him – how many layers is he wearing! Bori Khan is the Rouran that leads the armies.
The lone surviving soldier from the attacks suddenly speaks. There’s a witch that assists him! This is why he’s been unstoppable. Her chi is beyond imagination! Both the chancellor and the Emperor dismiss this witch and her powers. I guess that’s a nod to men dismissing women when they can actually pose as real threats? The Emperor issues a decree – every family will supply one man for the Imperial Army. You’ll see the scribes frantically writing away. Yes it is true that scribes were on hand to record decrees from the Emperor.
The soldier exits the Imperial Palace and goes out into the city. He then transforms into the witch. We’ll call her the witch since she doesn’t have a name. At this point, I’m wondering why didn’t she just go murder the Emperor if she got all the way to the Imperial City? The witch transforms into a hawk to deliver the news to Bori Khan.
Bori Khan then goes into some macho talk about destroying the Emperor. She just wants a place where she can be accepted. He’s like, yea yea whatever. The dog will finally have a home once I kill the emperor. She does not look happy at being called a dog.
After all that, we finally see Mulan! She’s riding her horse and two hares are running alongside her. This is a direct homage to the Mulan Ballad! Mulan basically quotes the last two lines of the ballad about the differences between male and female but not seeing the difference when they’re running together when she enters her home. Her mom’s like…we’ve got more important things to talk about. We found you a match!
It’s time to meet the matchmaker! Mulan’s mother dresses and styles her to be very fashionable. There’s a hint of the “Bring Honor to us All” melody in the montage – ahh the memories. We discussed the makeup already in our other episode, it’s pretty accurate of the Northern and Southern Dynasties time period. I’ll just say that I can’t pull that off. Things are going pretty well with the meeting with the matchmaker. There’s no cricket this time to ruin things but a giant spider does the trick. How does no one see the spider! Because Mulan tries to prevent a scene with the spider, she causes a scene. It’s a disastrous meeting. Can I also just say, matchmaker – what is up with your hair?!
Things progress basically the same way as the animated version except there’s no grand solo by Mulan about her reflection showing her true self. The decree comes for each family to supply one man for the army. Hua Zhou has no daughters so he accepts. Mulan decides to take her father’s place in the army. There’s no epic music, just a sad 二胡 tune. We don’t even see Mulan cutting her hair!
Actually it’s correct that they didn’t show that. According to the traditional teachings from Confucius, both men and women were not supposed to cut their hair. That is one of the pillars from 孝经 or the Classic of Filial Piety by Confucius. Your body and your hair come from your parents, you cannot harm yourself as it would mean disrespect to your parents. Throughout Chinese history, men and women kept their long hair without ever cutting it until the Qing Dynasty.
Mulan’s off on her journey to the Imperial Army. I don’t know what route she’s taking. She’s in the mountains, the bamboo forests, the steppes. Regardless, the scenery is quite breathtaking. Mulan wakes up one morning to see a phoenix guide her path. It’s the family guardian! There’s no dragon named mushu this time, just a kitelike cgi phoenix.
I have a hunch as to why the producers/writers decided to do this. Traditionally, dragons symbolized the Emperor or males. The phoenix on the other hand symbolized the Empress or females. In mandarin, phoenix is called 凤凰. Originally, 凤 is the male phoenix and 凰 is the female phoenix but over the years both came to symbolize women. The writers might have wanted to have a symbol that was more feminine for Mulan. Sure no problem, BUT No commoner would have dared to openly flaunt a phoenix as a family symbol. Phoenix have always been a symbol for the women of the Imperial Harem, particularly the Empress. Your family probably would have been killed if you said you had a phoenix as your family symbol.
After traveling many days, Mulan finally makes it to camp. She has no idea what she’s doing and immediately gets into a tussle with another soldier. The fight gets broken up by Donnie Yen’s character General Tung. This time, instead of saying her name is Ping as she did in the animated version, Mulan says her name is Hua Jun. At least the makeup and her lowered voice makes it somewhat convincing that she could be a boy? The word Jun is very interesting. Without seeing the actual word on screen, I cannot tell which character it means. Technically it could mean Soldier or 军 or it could me Handsome or 俊。 Either way, a good choice for a name.
Training camp is hilarious. Here is where we meet her gang. The characters from the animated movie are back – Yang, Ling and Chien Po. Cricket is now a fellow soldier and the handsome Shang is now in the character of Hong Hui played by Yoson An. While training, Mulan doesn’t get her own tent this time. She has to sleep in a large tent with the other soldiers which is more realistic than the animated version where Mushu also feeds her porridge that’s happy to see her. Of course she volunteers for night guard duty because she can’t shower with the guys and it offers her a chance to get away from them. But I guess the guys like to spoon at night? Mulan’s face at night is hilarious when she is constantly dodging the guys next to her who like to spoon. My question is, if Mulan is on night duty all the time, how does she have any time to sleep???
The movie combines the training montage from “I’ll make a man out of you” and “A girl worth fighting for” for the middle part of the movie. I loved it when the guys are like, what’s your ideal woman and when Mulan says she has to be courageous, funny, and smart, everyone starts laughing. Cricket says what does she look like? Mulan’s like that’s not the point! You tell them, girl.
All the male characters constantly tell Mulan that she stinks because obviously she hasn’t showered with them. When she finally does, there’s a shot of her swimming in the water and Magnolia flowers blooming in the branches!
In mandarin, 木兰花 are magnolia flowers! These flowers are literally her blooming! A cool little symbol. The magnolia tree is always next to her during Mulan’s training montage. An instrumental version of “Reflections” from the original Mulan is also heard during this montage. I think it’s on the bamboo flute but I’m not 100% sure.
After all that training, Mulan gets into a sparring match with the Shang equivalent, 宏辉. In this match, she is super badass and kicks his butt. Everyone is shocked to see how good her skills are but she secretly chides herself for allowing her Chi to flow through. Her Chi is noticed by the Commander who tells Mulan to not hide her Chi anymore.
A phrase that pops up a few times during this training is that four ounces can move a 1000 pounds. This phrase, four ounces can move a 1000 pounds refers to daoist teachings and taichi skills where you can use less against more, soft against rigid. THIS is a historical inaccuracy. In chinese, the phrase is 四两拨千斤。 When we were watching the movie, I’ll be pretty honest, I was wondering how Chinese folks would react. Why? Because this phrase actually refers to a taichi skill. And guess what? Tai Chi wasn’t a thing until a thousand years or so after the setting of this movie or during Mulan’s time period. Apparently, this phrase was written in a Tai Chi scripture by a guy named 王宗岳 who lived during the Ming Dynasty born 1526 – 1606. Let’s just say that when we saw this phrase repeatedly referenced in the movie, Cathy and I were nonplussed. The anachronism! Things like this may not be evident for Americans but perhaps this is more obvious for Chinese people. Or, Cathy and I are true geeks because this phrase was discussed in books and dramas about the creation of Wu Tang or 武当, the birth place of 太极，at least, according to the Chinese Martial Arts novel, 倚天屠龙记. So yes, this phrase exists, but should not have been referenced in this movie.
We turn back to the Rourans are planning their attacks. Bori Khan is spending all of his time belittling the witch. He basically called her his slave. She’s pissed. So would I! The Rourans attack another garrison. We see all of the witch’s in her own glory – she has hawk claws, she uses her sleeves, everything. She’s basically a one woman army. Why does she need Bori Khan again?
Commander Tung receives orders to move his troops to the front lines and his 5th battalion prepares for battle. The battle is quite intense. The horsemanship of these Rourans is very impressive. The scenes where the Rourans are almost falling off their horse but then catapulting on the horse but in another direction is a true skill of Mongolian riders. It is incredibly difficult and very dangerous.
The left flank is sent first to fight these men but is literally like 10 people! What? The Rouran’s quickly destroy everyone in the left flank except for Mulan who has superior skills and is able to dodge the arrows coming her way. She gives chase and comes face to face with the Witch. Mulan is of course no match for her. The witch sees right through her armor (haha) and throws a shuriken at Mulan. It would have killed her if not for her chest wrap. When she wakes, Mulan sees the phoenix again. She decides that it’s finally time to be true to herself and fight as who she is, a woma n.
Mulan rushes back into battle to the sweeping orchestral version of Reflections. Without her armor and her hair billowing out, she kicks some Rouran butt. The dirt’s gone and her hair is perfectly flowing. Like. What? I have no idea why this happened. Whatever, I’ll take it. Also, how did she suddenly have a flowing Red robe on? Unless her armor wrapped her sleeves, where did this come from? I thought the uniform would have shorter sleeves.
The battle is pretty dire for the Imperial Army. The movie setting here though makes me think of Lord of the Rings. Did anyone else get that vibe? I feel like I was watching Return of the King especially with the Trebuchet plus the fact that i think some of this was filmed in New Zealand. Mulan once again is able to use her wits to cause an avalanche. I don’t know how the Rourans didn’t spot her but she’s successful. After the snow comes tumbling down, the Rourans seem to be defeated! The Imperial Army is ecstatic but are surprised to see Mulan as a woman. She’s expelled from the army.
Alone on the steppes, Mulan encounters the witch. The Witch tries to woo Mulan to be on her side. Which side is that again? What is her purpose? There’s also some strong lesbian vibes here. Mulan doesn’t fall for it and rushes back to the garrison to try to rally the troops to stop Bori Khan. She persuades Commander Tung and her friends to rush back to the Imperial City.
Now we have some sweeping shots of the Imperial City. We haven’t talked much about where they shot but after watching so many Chinese TV shows am pretty confident that they shot portions of this at 横店. This is a studio location that has multiple palaces built for the different time periods specifically for Chinese costume dramas. Disney did CGI a few of the buildings but you can totally see some of these buildings in other shows.
Let’s just enjoy the final battle. Mulan does some kickass martial arts. She’s climbing up the walls, doing these flips, running on rooftops, the usual, haha.
With the help of her friends, Mulan is able to rush to the throne room to um save the Emperor. Who does she see instead? The witch. This time, Mulan is the one who tries to persuade the witch to the light. The witch says it’s too late for her but leads Mulan to Bori Khan.
Bori Khan is in no mood to entertain the witch. He instead shoots an arrow towards Mulan to rid her as a threat once and for all before turning back to the Emperor, whom he has as a hostage. The witch, not being able to give up her new interest, quickly flies in front of Mulan and takes the arrow for her. She collapses in the arms of Mulan and dies. The lesbian vibes are too much. She just DIES! Like. WHAT? Why? Why would you sacrifice yourself for someone you’ve JUST MET and tried to kill 15 minutes ago?!
Mulan rushes over to the Emperor. He’s currently tied to a pole on top of a palace construction. She puts up a noble fight but still isn’t a match for Bori Kahn and loses her sword. At this point, things are looking pretty dire for Mulan. The Emperor yells at her to rise up like a phoenix. What do you know, the phoenix literally flaps her wings behind Mulan. Is this game of thrones over here?
This is a Disney movie so of course Mulan wins. The final sequence is pretty awesome so go and watch it.
At Imperial Palace after Mulan saves the day, a woman comes to introduce Mulan to the rest of the court. Who is it? It’s Ming-Na Wen! She’s the voice actress for the original Mulan! Such a fun cameo! Check out the work she’s done in Agents of Shield, she’s such a badass in it. I just screamed Agent May when she showed up.
Just as Mulan leaves the Imperial City, HongHui bids her farewell. He asks for her hand, she takes it tentatively, but leaves swiftly nonetheless. Good luck next time buddy.
Mulan returns home to her family. It’s a touching reconciliation. Commander Tung arrives with a small retinue to not discipline Mulan but to reward her. The Emperor gifts her with a sword. The sheath is made of what looks like Jade and the tassel – it’s yellow, the color of the Emperor. This is much more valuable than the original sword.
The movie ends with Mulan gazing at her sword with the Phoenix in the sky.
That was the in-depth recap. Let’s actually review the movie.
Shall I start off with the pros?
Well, the movie is gorgeous to look at. I read that they filmed the movie in New Zealand and China. The scenery really does add to the movie.
The matchmaker was hilarious – probably how I would have envisioned an actual matchmaker. Of course she fainted at the end when Mulan was being decorated at home for what she has done for the kingdom.
The horse riding skills from the Rourans were a treat! I could really tell how skilled these riders were.
I liked that they made a homage to the original Mulan ballad and that there were cool easter eggs sprinkled throughout the film. The chickens, the training montages, her friends, the music. All great reminders of the animated film.
That’s about it for pros. We’ll be honest, we’re quite disappointed with the film.
The movie was kind of all over the place. I think it would have been much better if they stuck to the Aladdin live action formula where they literally copy paste the animated version into a live action version. That would have been very unique.
From my perspective, Disney tried to cater to all audiences but it’s not clear if either western or eastern audiences appreciate the final result. It’s clearly rated PG so there’s no blood but this was such a jarring war movie experience.
From a story perspective – what the heck is up with Gong Li’s character? We have no idea who she is, where she is from, how she got her powers and what her ultimate goal is. In the movie, we never hear what her name is. She’s only referenced as a witch. After turning on subtitles, we see that her name is Xian Niang and then I had to check Baidu for the chinese name. But guess what, 仙娘 actually means fairy or goddess woman! It’s a positive connotation! Not a witch. That confuses me as to what type of character this 仙娘 is supposed to be. I get a feeling that they just wanted to create a character for 巩俐 so she could be badass.
Also, her chemistry with Mulan was through the roof. I don’t fully understand where this chemistry came from but Mulan had the feels when 巩俐 sacrificed herself. An overall comment from the movie was that the homosexual vibes in this movie were strong. Hong Hui showed major interest in Mulan when she was Hua Jun. Maybe he was pleasantly surprised that Hua Jun is actually a woman but you cannot deny he was interested in Hua Jun as a guy.
Another interesting note is Commander Tung – Donnie Yen’s character. Splitting Shang into Commander Tung and HongHui doesn’t impact the story that much but I feel like it was done just to give Donnie Yen a role. In the training montage, you get to see Donnie Yen doing some martial arts which is always a pleasure. Commander Tung presents a small but interesting conflict for the movie. The character for his name is actually Dong in mandarin. But in the movie, he is called Commander Tung. That is the cantonese version of saying the name. Why not streamline all names to be in Mandarin? Mulan, Hong Hui and most everyone else’s name is in Mandarin. Same thing with why they changed Mulan’s last name from Fa to Hua in this movie from the animated version. Fa is the cantonese way of saying Hua, the mandarin version. In English, they could have kept all names in Mandarin because there will be Mandarin and Cantonese dubs for this I’m sure. Americans might not care about this, but Chinese folks will notice it.
A continuation of this, it’s a little jarring for me to hear 刘亦菲, Jet Li and such say proper names like Mulan and Hua Jun etc with an attempted American accent. I understand why they did it but perhaps it’s because I’m so used to seeing Liu Yi Fei speak Mandarin that I found it ridiculously funny. A Chinese person, trying to speak Chinese with an American Accent.
We do also see that Commander Tung’s full name is 董永 which is actually the name of a guy in a well known legend! Obviously many people can be called 董永，but this guy is an integral part of 天仙配, the legend that depicts the famous love story of the cowheard and weaver girl. 董永 is generally the cowheard. We’ve talked about this story in our regular podcast and there are plenty of Chinese dramas that go into this but essentially, 董永，the cowherd, falls in love with a weaver girl, who is actually a goddess or fairy. Through trials and tribulations, they are only allowed to see each other 1 day a year on the 7th of July. My question is, there are a million names that they could have given Donnie Yen’s character. Why give him this one? Is he actually supposed to be a cowherd in some former life that fell in love with a fairy?
刘亦菲 is fine in this movie but I wish she could have done so much more. She showed some spunk in the beginning but that sort of disappeared in the end. Her english accent has improved a lot since the last english movie I saw her in. The problem is that I feel like this movie took away her intellect and replaced that with Chi. In the animated movie, there were more examples of her using her brains to overcome problems. This was true when she had to climb the pole to reach the arrow. When she used the cannon to cause an avalanche against the huns. When she asked her friends to cross-dress to bypass the guards in the imperial palace. When she used lured Shan Yu to the roof and destroyed him with the fireworks. That level of intellect wasn’t fully on display in this live action movie. I think they focused more on her desire to be loyal, brave and true, even her devotion to family, than her intellect. And of course her Chi. To me it felt like her natural Chi, whatever that means, was the reason why she could be the warrior she is. Not because she wanted to protect her family nor because she was smart. I wonder how many young girls will now wonder if they have the same type of chi as Mulan vs learning to use her brain to achieve her goals.
The guys in the army were also fine but they just seemed like normal soldiers without any personality. We got some of the same names as Cricket, Yao, Ling, and Po but I honestly can’t tell who’s who.
This is a movie with a $200M budget. Where did it all go? Costumes? Scenery? I honestly don’t know. Some of the CGI was quite bad. Like the arrows? The Phoenix? It all looked pretty fake.
I need to rant about the martial arts here. You’ve got two of the most famous Chinese martial artists in your movie, Jet Li and Donnie Yen, can you at least allow them to shine? I know for a fact that Donnie Yen can do long fight sequences by himself but all we got were these random camera cuts for the different angles. Come on. Even 刘亦菲 has done amazing work in previous movies or dramas and you barely see a full sequence of her doing any martial arts. The wire work is quite shoddy here too. In other Chinese films, the movements are quite fluid – look at Ip Man but there are several times where you can clearly tell there’s a wire somewhere in this movie.
In conclusion, we are very meh on this film. It’s a good introduction to various aspects of Chinese culture. It’s fine for a bloodless action movie and we probably would have enjoyed it more if this were a story of a different culture. To us, this was clearly a movie about a Chinese story made by non-Chinese people. I’m happy I watched it but I would much prefer rewatching the animated version.
For a really good adaptation of Mulan, watch 花木兰 with Zhao Wei and Chen Kun. It tells the story much more faithfully and disposes of the Disney tropes.
We give it a solid 5/10.