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Visually dazzling, more faithful to the legend and free from antics that disrespect Chinese culture and tradition (no Mushu), Mulan did not disappoint.
The release of the 2020 live-action adaptation of the 1998 animated film that my daughters grew up with was not something we eagerly awaited. We already knew it wasn't going to be a musical and, the soundtrack of the 1998 Mulan being such an inherent part of the film, we were wary that the no-singing version would be bland. That there won't be songs seemed bad enough but, worse, there was going to be no Shang. No Shang singing "I'll Make a Man Out of You"? That's sad!
But when calls for a boycott of the movie surfaced following actress Liu Yifei's statement of support for the Hong Kong Police, I reconsidered. Not because I support the Hong Kong Police (I don't know enough about what's going on there except for what I get from the anti-China English-language media, so, I won't take sides) but in opposition to the narrow-mindedness of those calling for the boycott.
What is it with these boycott-mongers anyway? Is the right to free speech limited to people who share their views?
The irony is that I should be thanking them for pushing me to watch Mulan. It's a great movie even without the songs (some song lyrics were woven into the dialogue). I appreciated the better research on the legend of Mulan, and Chinese culture and traditions. I especially appreciated the absence of any character, scene and dialogue that, for the sake of a few laughs, are disparaging to the Asian way of life.
What did I love about the live-action adaptation?
The Asian cast, for starters. It would have been the height of silliness to cast white actors and paint their eyes over to make them look Asian.
Second, the inclusion of mythology in the story, and this is directly related to the absence of Mushu, the puny dragon. Instead of a loud-talking reptile that inexpicably lacked the capacity for respect for humans, dead or alive, there is a phoenix which is an apt symbol for the death of the old Mulan who had to hide her true helf and the birth of the new Mulan who is comfortable in her skin.
The introduction of the Chinese fenghuang (Hō-ō in Japanese mythology) is auspicious.
According to legend (mostly from China), the Hō-ō appears very rarely, and only to mark the beginning of a new era...
Third, a narrative the better establishes motives. Take the antagonist Bori Khan, for instance. In the animated film, he was Shan Yu who was portrayed simply as a barbaric and power-hungry Hun who wanted to invade China. A successful invasion always involves defeating the army of the ruling power but Shan Yu seemed just as intent on having a one-on-one with the Emperor. Why? In the live-action adaptation, Bori Khan's motives are better explained. The Emperor killed his father and he wants revenge.
The next wonderful thing about the movie? The stunning visuals. I've always wondered how the avalanche would be recreated in a live-action adaptation. There's no fire-breathing Mushu to light the cannon so who's going to light the cannon and how?
Well, there's no cannon. Instead, there is a trebuchet. And that is more fitting since the ballad of Mulan places her story somewhere in the 2nd century while the cannon did not appear until the 12th century. And it isn't Mulan who sets off the trebuchet in the movie. Despite the differences, the avalanche scene is spectacular.
Then, there's the falcon. In the 1998 animated film, Shan Yu had a pet falcon, Hayabusa, who was his master's eyes and ears. In the 2020 live-action adaptation, the falcon is just one of many forms taken by Xian Lang, a shape-shifting witch and ally of Bori Khan.
But "witch" is nothing like the witches in old Disney princess movies. Xian Lang, like Mulan, draws power from mastering the ch'i which, in Chinese culture translates to life force or energy flow. It's not a big role for Gong Li, but Xian Lang makes a strong statement.
A woman who has lived in exile because of people's inability, or outright refusal, to accept her for being different, for being a powerful woman who ought to matter as much as any powerful man, Xian Lang sees in Mulan a chance to change the norm and re-define women's role in society.
It is Xian Lang who opens Mulan's eyes to accept what she is, to stop hiding her real self and to claim her rightful place. And that gives 2020 live-adaptation the nuance that Mulan's story needed to make it relevant today. What a coup.