Before watching the film, I was warned by several reviews not to expect too much from the battle scenes, and that it is primarily a love story set on the battlefield. Also, Yun Huei warned me that it was going to be very emo, even too emo. Nevertheless, I decided to give it a shot.
In the end, I felt that it didn't disappoint on both counts. The battle scenes were filmed quite well. Of course they don't match up if you compare them to Gladiator or Kingdom of Heaven, but it was adequate to the film. The gem of the movie is really the acting. Both Zhao Wei and Chen Kun display very believable chemistry and perform their roles to a very high standard. Even the acting from Jaycee Chan and previous unknown Liu Yuxin were good. The film also had a couple of scenes which if, taken as a snapshot, I liked quite a bit. One example of this is the scene where Mulan regains control of her senses and restarts training of the army. I quite liked the shot where as she walks up to the platform, they show for a moment the fact that she is wearing not just her own but also Wentai's dog tags on her belt.
Perhaps the biggest complaint I have about the film is the jerkiness of the plot advancement in the beginning. It was as though Jingle Ma rushed through the starting just to establish the frame of reference for the events after Mulan becomes a general. One moment she enlists in the camp, the next moment she's in training, then the hot spring scene, then she gets arrested, then suddenly she breaks out and rejoins the army in battle. It's like everything flashes forward in scenes of two minutes or so each. After a while it gets very disjointing. Also, in terms of the plot, the believability of the conclusion is really sketchy. They don't explain what this 'poison dragon' is (I gather that it's a sandstorm of sorts, but why the funky name?) Also, the part about Mulan breaking into the Rouren camp incognito and then killing their Danyu is a little too far-fetched; and after that, how did they break out?
Also, the comment about it being too emo was rather justified. There is a lot of crying in this film, and although at times the emo-ness seemed necessary to the plot, I wish it didn't have to end on such an emo note. It almost leaves you with the thought that in spite of all her achievements, in the end Mulan ends up back to being just a normal girl who loses the man she loves. Also, in the middle of the film, I felt that they could have cut down on the emo bits where Mulan thinks Wentai has died and spent that time on more character development in the parts that they fast forwarded through.
Oh yes, and I totally didn't understand the need for that Vitas Russian fellow in the cast at all!! Like, his character was so insignificant and could easily have been replaced with a Chinese actor. The only contribution I felt he provided was comic relief at his ang moh-accented Mandarin.
I think Zhao Wei especially was very well cast and believable as Mulan, even if it's quite surprising that nobody guessed she was a girl (I mean, since when have you seen someone look so hot in battle armour, and even if she's not smiling?) In fact, she looks better in the armour than in those scenes when she's dressed as a woman! I particularly thought she looked really good in the scenes where she was riding into battle on her horse, in full armour and a stern, determined expression. In spite of that, Zhao Wei is not too fragile that she can't pull off the character properly. I read that the original choice for Mulan was Stefanie Sun and I'm so glad that Zhao Wei got it in the end. Honestly, I think Stefanie Sun looks too delicate to pull off the character of a legendary female warrior, and while Zhao Wei's hoarse voice was already barely believable as a man, I don't think Stefanie's voice would suit a woman masquerading as a man at all. In fact, the voice is very important to the character portrayal. As the film makers state: "Zhao Wei’s voice sounds full of power, it’s in accordance with the character who is a girl poses as a boy. Because Mulan has fought in battlefields for many years, and she always dressed like a man, her voice can’t be so gentle, it's necessary to sound baryphonious."
One theme I liked very much in the story of Mulan is that of female empowerment; in the scene where Mulan convinces the Rouren princess to help kill the bad guy, where she revealed to the princess that the Mulan who was responsible for so many brave deeds and who was so feared by the Rouren army was actually a woman. In the beginning of the film it started off on the premise that women were useful only for domestic tasks, even something shameful or disgraceful to be hidden away and not to be seen, and it ends with Mulan being recognised as a woman that the entire nation can be proud of.
I also empathised with Mulan when she realised that there is nothing glorious about war on the battlefield, and that she never intended to have to shoulder the responsibility of being a great general, when all she intended to do was to save her father from having to go to war. It's another example of Zhao Wei's great acting skills.
All in all, one of the better films that I have watched this year.
Next Chinese movie: The Treasure Hunter. With Lin Chi Ling, mmmmm....
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