- RatedPG /GenreAction, Adventure
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Rating: 2 out of 5
The story of Chinese folk heroine Hua Mulan is well-known.
During the fourth-century Wei Dynasty, a young woman dons her ailing father's army uniform to save him from being enlisted for a war against a coalition of hostile desert tribes.
Her act is illegal in ancient (sexist) China. But Mulan manages to conceal her breasts/identity and, in leading the rout of China's invaders, proves that she has cojones as large as any of her male counterparts.
This pre-Feminism feminist tale has been re-imagined for the screen in countless ways in the twentieth century, most popularly in a hilarious Disney cartoon, Mulan (1998).
Now, Hong Kong action director Jingle Ma, best known for the Tokyo Raiders franchise, has appropriated the Mulan legend and turned it into an incredulous epic melodrama.
Incredulous, because Ma has made the spectacular mistake of not taking cross-dressing as seriously as his own androgynous name would suggest.
The fact of the matter is, in order for this film to work, the audience must be convinced of Mulan's ability to transform. She must be made to appear -- in voice, mannerism and dress -- completely masculine, so the audience might believe she has duped her comrades into mistaking her for a man.
Woefully, in Ma's styling and direction of his lead actress Vicki Zhao Wei, Mulan's transformation isn't even half-hearted -- it's completely non-existent.
Zhao, with her porcelain complexion, plucked eyebrows, long curled eyelashes, cherry lips and (get this!) manicured fingernails, appears even more gu-niang (Hokkien for feminine) than she might be in real life.
This is an artistic travesty, and the film comes across as imbecilic; at the risk of sounding crude, it seems that the soldiers can't tell whether a woman's a woman unless they can see her private parts.
Then there's the questionable and unmissable dramatic choices of director and lead actress, which dictates that Mulan must always be crying.
And I mean the single-teardrop-running-down-cheek, my-boyfriend-just-insulted-me type of crying, not the I'm-an-anguished-warrior-dealing-with-unimaginable-cruelty-and-bloodshed kind of crying.
Mulan cries when she delivers her pre-battle pep talk to the boys (how this embarrassing display might possibly incite the troops to fight, I cannot say); she cries when she runs out of water; she even cries when she is killing the enemy. In fact, she seems to be crying for more than two-thirds of her screen time.
It's all a mess really, and Ma doesn't do himself any favours by concluding the film with a climax (spoiler alert: the assassination of the tribal chief in his own tent) so predictable, it almost brings tears to my eyes.
To conclude, I wish Ma and Zhao had spent some time watching Anita Yuen in He's A Woman, She's A Man (1994) or Hillary Swank in Boys Don't Cry (1999) before letting the cameras roll. With Mulan, director Ma has undermined, or 'under-manned', himself with a girly film that trips up on its very premise.
About Ken Kwek
Ken Kwek is a playwright and screenwriter. His film credits include The Ballad of Vicki and Jake (2005), The Blue Mansion (2009) and the forthcoming Kidnapper (2010).