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. 

 

PROS

 

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. 

 

Cons – 

 

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.

 

Mulan 2020 Part 1

 

[Karen]

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. 

 

We’re pausing today on our discussion of Empresses in the Palace to discuss a more recent film. Mulan.  We recently watched the new Mulan movie that is available on Disney +. It stars the beautiful 刘亦菲 in the titular role as Mulan and has some other notable stars such as 巩俐 who plays 仙娘, a witch, and Donnie Yen, as General Tung. After watching this movie we just had so many thoughts that we just had to do research and discuss it here! Karen and I grew up watching the Disney version of Mulan. We basically know it by heart. Not even that, we’ve watched the mandarin dub and the Cantonese dub. Fun fact, the mandarin and Cantonese dubs include Jackie Chan as Shang and yes he does the singing in it! We’re excited to share our thoughts and the history and culture that we see on the screen.

 

Following our general podcast format, we will go over a high level summary of the movie and then some in depth analysis on the history of Mulan. This episode is SPOILER FREE of the movie. We reference the beginning and what’s widely available in plot summaries or trailers. We will have a separate episode where we go in depth on our thoughts of the movie. For this podcast, we will be discussing the movie primarily in English but pronounce proper nouns in Mandarin Chinese.

 

If you are new to our podcast, please check out our intro to the podcast episode to get an understanding of what our podcast episodes are generally about. Follow us on instagram and twitter.

 

[Cathy]

Alright, with that? Let’s get started.

 

Summary – 

 

This movie depicts the tale of 花木兰, a young woman who takes her father’s place in the Imperial Army and her epic battles to save the emperor from northern invaders. The movie starts with Mulan meeting the matchmaker in hopes of a good match. It doesn’t go so well. As Mulan is being told off for bringing dishonor to her family, her village hears news that the Emperor is conscripting men from every family to fight the RouRans. Wanting to protect her injured and elderly father, Mulan steals his armor, sword and conscription notice and takes his place in the army. We follow Mulan’s journey as she becomes a warrior,

 

The storyline is similar to the 1998 Disney animated version but they have made it slightly more historically accurate, at least in terms of the enemy they’re facing. Instead of huns invading China, it is actually the RouRans or 柔然。Who are these people? We’ll discuss that in our historical analysis. 

 

[Karen]

Let’s talk about the cast! This cast is quite fun as it includes a few very prominent names in Chinese entertainment. 

 

刘亦菲 plays 花木兰. She is primarily a mainland Chinese actress but has had a foray into Hollywood with the 2008 film, The Forbidden Kingdom. That film also starred Jackie Chan and Jet Li. I remember going to the theater to see that film with my friends. It’s a fun time but mixes a lot of Chinese lore/legends together which was a little jarring. Not my favorite film overall but entertaining.

 

she has been one of our favorite Chinese actresses for about the last 15 years. I was ecstatic to hear that she would play 木兰。 She started in the industry at a young age and is deemed as one of the most beautiful women in China. Her nickname is called 神仙姐姐 which means Goddess older sister. This is derived from her role as 小龙女 in a Martial Arts, 武侠 Drama called 神雕侠侣 that came out in 2006. She plays an ethereal martial arts master who only wears white. Seriously, look at her photos from this drama, I’ve posted some to twitter. She is stunning.  Her background was in ballet but since she’s been in so many martial arts dramas, she’s very adept with various weapons. You’ll see in the movie that she generally is very comfortable with her sword and is doing many of her own stunts. I feel that many people who have watched her dramas growing up will be happy to see her in this film.

 

[Cathy]

Gong Li is the witch 仙娘. She is considered one of the greatest Chinese actresses living today. She debuted in 张艺谋’s Red Sorghum or 红高粱 in 1987 and has been in numerous award winning movies over the decades including Farewell my Concubine, Flirting Scholar, 2046,  Western audiences will know her from Memoirs of a Geisha and Miami Vice. There are quite a few movies that are available to stream if you want to catch up on her filmography. I really did enjoy Farewell my Concubine. I don’t know about her makeup here in Mulan but she does look great!

 

Jet Li is the Emperor. Who doesn’t know Jet Li? The Chinese action star for the 90s and 2000s. Born in Beijing, Jet Li was a Wushu champion before becoming an actor. For those of you that don’t know, WuShu is Chinese martial arts. He was in the fantastic film 2002 film called Hero or 英雄 by 张艺谋 and then in the 2006 film Fearless or 霍元甲。He broke into the international market with Lethal Weapons 4 in 1998. He’s also been in the Expendables franchise with Sylvester Stallone among various other films. He’s now retired from being an action star but can still be an emperor in Mulan! I was shocked to see how much he aged in this film. Maybe it’s the make up or this is a reflection of reality but I was quite surprised.

 

Donnie Yen is Commander Tung. Donnie Yen or in Mandarin, 甄子丹, is a popular Hong Kong action star that starred in many popular movies including the Ip Man movies and was also in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. He is known for doing most of his own stunts. If you’re interested in seeing some of his work, definitely start with the Ip Man movies. He is fantastic at various forms of martial arts. The character he plays in this movie is Commander Tung who trains the soldiers before heading off to battle. 

 

郑佩佩 – She is the matchmaker. This is a small role but guess what!? 郑佩佩 played 刘亦菲’s Grandma in 刘亦菲’s classic drama, 仙剑奇侠传 or Chinese Paladin, that came out in early 2000s. It’s heartwarming to see them in this film even though they don’t have many scenes together. 郑佩佩 has been in many many movies and dramas in China, Hong Kong, and the US including Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon

 

The rest of the cast include Yoson An as Chen Honghui and Tzi Ma as Hua Zhou and a fun cameo that we won’t spoil now.

 

[Karen]

Now that we’ve geeked out about the cast, let’s get on with some history.

 

木兰辞

 

The story of Mulan was first recorded as a folk ballad in the latter end of the 北朝 era or the Northern Dynasty era, so around the 6th century AD.  There is no definitive author of this ballad nor are we certain of Mulan’s existence. Her birth, where she’s from, her last name are all a mystery. It is widely accepted that her last name is 花 or Hua which means flower but it is never mentioned in the ballad. Interestingly, if you move this last name behind Mulan, as 木兰花, it’s actually the magnolia flower. She is generally thought to have been from the 河南 Province but again, there is no definitive answer. 

 

The ballad, or poem, isn’t very long. On the whole it’s similar to what the Disney movies have depicted though there are a few differences. Here’s my rough English translation:

 

Mulan is weaving cloth but is thinking about the conscription notice that arrived yesterday. The ruler is drafting men for war. Every notice or document has her father’s name on it but he does not have an older son. So, Mulan willingly decides to go to the market to buy a horse and saddle to take his place in the army.

 

The next day, she leaves her family and travels to the Yellow River, no longer able to hear her parents calling out to her。She only hears the rush of the Yellow River. The following day, she travels to the Yan Mountain, no longer able to hear her parents calling out to her. She hears only the horsemen and their horses.

 

They travel thousands of miles to reach the battlefield, climbing over many mountains as if they were flying.  Through the cold northern air, they hear the night clap, the moonlight shining on the soldier’s armor. Some fall after a hundred battles, others return after ten years time, victorious. 

 

The victors return to meet the son of heaven who sits on his throne. Each soldier is rewarded for their merits and Mulan receives a hefty sum. The son of heaven asks Mulan what else she desires. She says she does not want a role in his court. She only wants to return home to her family. 

 

Her parents, upon hearing that she is returning home, come out to greet her. Mulan’s sister dresses herself up. Mulan’s younger brother starts working to slaughter pigs and goats to celebrate. She opens every door at home to look around. She takes off her armor, dons her women’s clothes. She fixes her hair and puts on makeup. She walks out to greet her fellow soldiers who are stunned at her transformation. They exclaim that they have traveled and fought together for twelve years and never knew she was a woman.

 

The poem ends with – There are characteristics to tell the difference between male and female rabbits. But when they are running together, how can one tell the difference?

 

[Cathy]

So what are some of the differences from the poem vs what we’ve seen in the movies. 1st, there’s no mention of a matchmaker so that seems to be added for general story purposes in both the animated and live action versions. There is also no intense battle to save the emperor documented in this ballad. Instead, she fought this war for 12 years. Further, her identity is never revealed to her fellow soldiers in some dramatic fashion. They only discover her secret after she decides to reveal it to her friends. Interestingly, in this ballad, she has a younger brother and a younger sister. There is, also unfortunately, not a love story in this ballad. This seems solely focused on her devotion to her family and her wish to protect her father. Evidently, any love interests are further fabrications or additions to this ballad.

 

But geez, keeping your identity a secret for 12 long years! That’s an incredible feat. This probably also speaks to Mulan’s intellect at being able to fool everyone for so long.

 

As a major point of deviation from the animated version, the enemy in this movie are the RouRans. This is actually true to history and was most likely the enemy that Mulan fought in this Chinese ballad.

 

Who are the RouRan’s exactly?

 

[Karen]

The origins of the RouRan people are not definitive but experts generally agree that they are descended from Eastern Hu, Xiong Nu and Xian Bei people. RouRan was a khaganate of mostly nomadic tribes that were fearsome on horseback during the 4th to 6th centuries and occupied Mongolia and Northeastern China. They hit their peak in the years 410 – 425 AD.  They constantly descended further mainland in skirmishes against the Northern Wei (北魏).  In between wars, there were tributary relationships between the Rourans and the Northern Wei empire. The Rourans were completely decimated in 555AD at the hands of Gokturks which effectively dissolved this group in history. In the movie, the leader of the invading Rouran’s is called Bori Khan. I don’t see records of that persome existing.

 

Let’s talk about the time period that this was set. It’s never clearly said in the movie but based on certain costume choices and the existence of the Rourans, the movie is most likely set during the Southern and Northern Dynasties 南北朝 which also fits in with when the Mulan Ballad first surfaced. This period lasted from 386 to 589AD. There were multiple kingdoms that sprung up during this time period without one unifying dynasty. The Northern Dynasties comprised of 北魏、东魏、西魏、北齐、北周 and the Southern Dynasties comprised of 刘宋、萧齐、萧梁、南陈. It was a dangerous and fragmented time. If you look at maps of this time period the Rourans were a constant threat to all of the Northern Dynasties. There are plenty of records of Rourans attacking Northern Wei and Northern Qi. This time period came to an end with the unification under Emperor Wen, creating the Sui Dynasty. The origins of Mulan are known to have come from this time but it isn’t clear of the exact time so we don’t know which dynasty she’s from. 

 

[Cathy]

Time for some sets and costume design! These were all shown in the trailers so no spoilers here. When we first start off with the movie, we get a sweeping scene of Mulan’s home. We see the rice fields and rice paddies along with huts that look very much similar to Hakka huts found in Southern China. Today we can find them in Fujian Province. 

 

As for costumes and makeup, the one that pops into mind is 刘亦菲’s transformation for the matchmaking scene. When I first saw it, I was pretty taken aback. It’s quite different from what we’re used to, especially the yellow powder but after doing a little bit of digging, this makeup is relatively historically accurate. 

 

The specific style for Mulan’s cheeks is called 晚霞妆 or the Evening Sunset style. It was common during the time period. The main point was to powder the cheeks like a red sunset. Now, onto her forehead. The style is called 额黄妆 or literally translated to Forehead Yellow. Women would powder their foreheads yellow or use a yellow paper flower cutout that they would place on their forehead. This style is actually quoted in the Mulan Ballad. When she returns home and changes to women’s clothing, she looks at the mirror to add yellow flowers. In Mandarin the phrase is 对镜贴花黄. Finally, the red flower petals on Mulan’s forehead were also common. It looks to be 3 flower petals. The origins of this actually come around this time during the Song Wu Dynasty in the south. One princess was sleeping and flower petals landed on her forehead. She couldn’t peel them off but after 3 days, they finally washed off but left 5 petal marks on her forehead. Her maids and other ladies in the palace thought it looked lovely and all wanted to mimic the style. The Plum Flower style was born. It was very fashionable to draw flower shapes on one’s forehead and it persisted well into the Tang Dynasty. We actually discuss this in some of our episodes of 甄嬛传 Empresses in the Palace. 


That’s it for our discussion and history of Mulan and our brief recap about the film without any spoilers. Go and watch the movie before coming back to listen to our review. We will talk about our overall impressions of the film as well as Easter eggs and historical inaccuracies.  Let us know what you thought of the film as well either via social media or email us at karenandcathy@chasingdramas.com