Even on the small screen.
Yes, it’s a shame that American audiences won’t be able to see Niki Caro’s spectacular live-action epic “Mulan” in theaters, but the good news is this is such a great-looking film, with amazing set pieces and dazzling action and colors so vibrant they would dazzle a Crayola factory, it will still play well on your home monitor. There are so many gorgeous shades of orange and magenta, blue and yellow, it’s as if we were seeing these colors for the first time.
While the 2020 version of “Mulan” adheres to many of the elemental plot points of Disney’s 1998 animated hit (which is based on the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan), there are no musical numbers and there’s no wisecracking dragon sidekick, and the film earns its PG-13 rating through the realistic albeit stylized violence sequences.
“Mulan” is set in an unspecified fantastical/historical period in China many centuries ago, with various temporal references from different eras. The opening is set primarily within a bustling, rounded-housing community, aka Fujian tulou, where a young Mulan (Crystal Rao, absolutely delightful) is a rules-bending free spirit who is always getting into trouble, as evidenced by a frantic comedic sequence in which she chases a chicken every which way and that, at one point winding up on the roof, thanks to her prodigious if untrained chi, or life force/energy flow.
Mulan’s mother, Hua Li (the wonderful Rosalind Chao), is mortified by Mulan’s wild ways. Mulan is nearing the age when she will be matched up for marriage, and Hua Li frets that the town matchmaker won’t be able to find anyone for such an undisciplined and nontraditional girl. Mulan’s father, Hua Zhou (the excellent veteran character actor Tzi Ma), a legendary war hero, can’t help but beam with pride over “the boundless energy of life itself speaking through her every motion,” but when Mulan is a little bit older (and now played by Yifei Liu), he tells her, “Your chi is strong, Mulan, but chi is for warriors, not daughters.”
This is no idle chatter. The empire is under siege from the revenge-minded Rouran warrior Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee), who has struck a devil’s bargain with the shape-shifting and quite evil witch Xianniang (Li Gong) and has amassed a mob of bloodthirsty factions who have invaded China. The emperor (Jet Li) orders conscription notices decreeing one man from every family to join the Chinese army, but the only male in Mulan’s family is her noble but aging and disabled father, who will surely be killed if he joins the battle. (In this version of the tale, Mulan has a little sister, Hua Xiu, played by Xana Tang.)
You know what happens next. Mulan takes her father’s old armor and the family’s legacy sword, disguises herself as a man and enlists in the army. Cue the obligatory training sequences, with Mulan going to great lengths to hide her identity (there’s a running joke about her smelling awful because, of course, she cannot bathe with her fellow trainees). The highlight of this section is an extended faceoff between Mulan and the dashing Honghui (Yoson An), who is widely regarded as the top fighter in the battalion until Mulan can no longer disguise her magnificent skills.
There are moments when “Mulan” is like the “Tootsie” of a thousand years ago, e.g., Honghui thinking he’s talking to his new little buddy, when of course it’s Mulan, who has taken a liking to him:
“How do you even talk to a woman?”
“Just talk to her like you’re talking to me now.”
“I wish it was that easy. What if she doesn’t like me?”
“She will. I mean, I think she will.”
Later, when Bori Khan captures the emperor and traps him in elaborate restraints, he goes on and on and ON in classic Bond yapping, villain style. Regardless of era or genre, these megalomaniacal bad guys never learn to just shut up and get it over with.
With an appropriately rousing epic movie score accompanying the action, “Mulan” takes us through bright green bamboo forests and snow-covered mountains to horizon-spanning canyons. The interiors are just as impressive, e.g., when we’re in the emperor’s palace in the Imperial City. And the costumes! Whether you’re in the Chinese army or you’re a black-clad henchman for Bori Khan or a humble villager or the emperor, not to mention our hero Mulan, you are sporting some seriously badass, stunningly coordinated outfits. These folks are fighting for their lives with style.
Director Caro knows how to stage elaborate action sequences, and she is equally adept at light comedy and the heavier dramatic moments. For all its realism, “Mulan” also has some fantastic magical elements, from Xianniang’s sorcery to the soaring phoenix that occasionally appears to the title character to Mulan’s “wire-fu” fighting style. The international cast is nothing short of great, led by Yifei Liu’s movie star turn as a boundaries-shattering, stereotype-defying hero-warrior for her time and for ours.