The warrior’s intention should be simply to grasp his sword and to die!

Warriors should suffer their pain silently
Erin Hunter, Into the Wild

Title
Mulan: Rise of a Warrior (2009) 
Also known as
 Mulan: Legendary Warrior  
Genre
Drama, War
Written by
 Zhang Ting
Directed by
Jingle Ma    &     Wei Dong
Country of Origin
 China
Running time
113 minutes

oh! … background

Hua Mulan was a legendary woman warrior from the Southern and Northern Dynasties period (420–589) of Chinese history and was originally described in a ballad known as the Ballad of Mulan. In the ballad, Hua Mulan takes her aged father’s place in the army. She was a beautiful woman who was very strong and was known for practising martial arts such as kung fu and for being skilled with the sword. Mulan fought for twelve years and gained high merit, but she refused any reward and retired to her hometown instead.

The historic setting of Hua Mulan is in the Northern Wei. Over a thousand years later, Xu Wei‘s play from the Ming dynasty places her in the Northern Wei (386–536), whereas the Qing dynasty Sui Tang Romance has her active around the founding of the Tang c. 620. In 621, the founder of the Tang dynasty was victorious over Wang Shichong and Dou Jiande, the latter was the father of Dou Xianniang, another female warrior who became Mulan’s laotong in the Sui Tang Romance.

oh! … brief

In 450 A.D., the ruling Chinese Dynasty calls for a nationwide draft to fight against the constant threat of the Rouran tribes. Hua Hu, a retired soldier insists on enlisting again, but his daughter Hua Mulan disguises herself as a man and enlists in the Wei army on her father’s behalf. Making her way through severe living and training conditions, Mulan grows into a courageous warrior and gains the attention of Wentai the battalions Sub-Commander. Eventually, Fa Mu Lan becomes a General and assumes a critical role in defending her nation.

oh! … talks film

I completely understand why the Chinese film industry decided to create their own version of Fa Mu Lan, and this production is another classic Chinese masterpiece.

Screenplay writer, Zhang Ting, took a Chinese folk tale that originated within an ancient Chinese ballad (poem) and created a truly dark story that paints a truer factual narrative than Disney’s ‘western’ white-washed take of the character.

Taking ‘poetic license’, Zhang Ting offers a more compelling story of the personal journey, self-discovery, and motivation for China’s historical folk character, Fa Mu Lan, than we have ever seen before on the big screen. His tale allows the audience to delve into the realities of China’s patriarchal and sexist leanings as we trail Fa Mu Lan’s destiny, from loving daughter to mighty army General, and everything in between.

This also means that storytellers have almost a full reign at what could have transpired during her tour of duty, and suffice to say this will always mean that there will be elements of hardship during training, attempts or situations at putting her true identity at risk, and given the soft hearted nature of an adolescent female, affairs of the heart will come knocking. The same goes for this film, written by Zhang Ting, which adopted the romantic angle rather heavily, exploring the relationship between Mulan, and General Wentai (Chen Kun), in a love that’s quite forbidden since firstly a female cannot be serving in the army, and secondly, face it, two male soldiers, and later on, of general rank, can’t be seen behaving lovey-dovey in front of their men. Besides, being romantically involved also served to be a roadblock to Mulan’s innate war ability, or so Wentai believes that needs some way to be severed so that she can unleash that beast within.

The narrative for this production certainly leans more to its characters and battle history than its ‘western’ counterpart, and I enjoyed every minute. The plot is one everybody is already familiar with – it started simply and remained simple throughout. There are no obscene soap-styled melodramas, no typical clichés unlike some other epic battle films of the same period, just a simple story that details the necessities of war and highlights the sacrifices made, and of course offers a different view of the protagonist to others available.

Zhang Ting put a lot of effort and research into his writing, pulling out all the stops. He leveraged the perspective and emotions of Fa Mu Lan in stark contrast to the male dominated environment she willingly ran toward. He explored the concepts of honour and power and highlighted the dilemmas of commanding an army with vast numbers. Fa Mu Lan constantly battles the dilemma of country versus self and sentimentality versus ruthlessness. It’s a small glimpse into the far greater factual story of what Fa Mu Lan is said to have accomplished and the power she wielded. Zhang Ting’s focus is less about what Fa Mu Lan accomplished and more about self-discovery, the sacrifices and tough decision she made on behalf of her country and its people.

Zhang Ting’s decision to include the wooden name tags of soldiers as the central symbolism of the brutality of war was insightful. In particular, the scenes where the name tags are washed of the blood staining them and then hung up to dry before being shipped back to their families acted as a stark reminder of the identities of the soldiers that perished along the way. The growing numbers spoke far louder than any scenes of mutilated and bloodied corpses could.

Director Jingle Ma, who headed the directing of this production, doesn’t have the best reputation even though he has 28 previous films to his name. His preferred style of directing film always leans toward ‘cool’ instead of ‘substance’. Most of his productions have been highly emotive. But, while his reputation reflects his personal styling preference, I must also admit that he enjoys painting good visuals with striking poses and a good eye for photographic aspects. That is why Mulan: Rise of a Warrior is such a beautifully visual creation and is a great depiction of the melancholic poem of the past. It could be said that this production is the most mature and classical of all his works. His personal tags are all over this body of work and storytelling and character development are not his strong suits, he is a master at controlling emotional intensity, and I found he hit the right balance of intensity for this film and certainly directed the performances of the cast to get what he ‘needed’. I think he handled himself better for this production, but that’s merely an observation as an audience member and not because I’m a professional critic, cos I’m not!

On the whole, the art direction and the cinematic effects are one of the factors that held my attention, and of course this piece of work had elevated production values – costumes, armour, and wardrobe were remarkable given the sheer numbers of all the extras. Cinematographer, Tony Cheung is the reason why the film’s visuals are so clear and profound in certain scenes. He favoured a cool colour palette in blues and greys with a few other neutrals and in contrast amber hues for warmth and effect.

Tony Cheung’s filming of the battle scenes can only be outshone by Dong Wei’s battle choreography and offers panning wide-shots and long shots as well as intimate combat. There are no excessive action sequences to capture. I wish more attention in the screenplay had been paid to these battles scenes because these are the reasons for Mulan’s folklore, but as I’ve previously mentioned Jingle Ma is more about cool than substance. The fighting was straight forward and beautifully captured by the lenses of the cameras at various angles, aerial and long shots, which help place emphasis on the characters and the story, but, it needed more. In my opinion the film was never brutal enough, I wanted more guts and gore and deaths of personal friends and comrades. Tony Cheung certainly delivered a realistically gritty feel to the whole production and his slo-motion slaughters in each battle were eye-opening.

The special effects were solid, which was not surprising, this is another area of strength for Jingle Ma – he obviously communicates well with what he’s looking for visually and finds the right people to get behind making that happen. The musical score that accompanies this film perfectly suited the dark nature of the story, the stark desert, and the neutral or bland colour palette. The finale theme song “Mulan Qing” performed by Stefanie Sun was originally composed by Lee Shih Shiong, with lyric by Kevin Yee – its haunting and was nominated for the 29th Hong Kong Film Awards. Vitas also covered “Beneath Glory” in English. And finally, also included was the song “Mulan Star” performed by Jane Zhang.

The actress and actors cast in this production held the various elements together. And contrary to what professional critics thought, the female lead was well-cast and did an amazing job. And while she is a beautiful woman and it’s hard to overlook that, I still found that how she dressed, behaved, and acted was about as manly as a woman-playing-a-man would be able to do. I’ve yet to see a fantastic performance of cross-sex-acting happening, except perhaps Robin Williams (RIP).

Zhao Wei who played Fa Mu Lan is an award-winning actress that simply embodied this character and inhabited the very complex aspects of Fa Mu Lan’s personality. Her bland facial expressions become that was probably because the character lives with PTSD and all emotions, except for feelings of loss, were left along the dusty pathways through the desert. While some might see her delivery of her performance as flat or dispassionate, it was anything but! I enjoyed it!

Chen Kun, such a darling young man, played Wentai. I was captivated by his performance in this film. He’s no ingénue, he has had many performances in film and TV and many historical or period pieces. You have to watch it to see how good he is. The chemistry the two characters, Wentai and Fa Mu Lan, shared was tangible and believable and about as honest as they could be in their circumstances. Chen Kun certainly held his own as a lead.

oh! … that’s a wrap

The well-known story quickly developed and took on its own life in this far more realistic retelling of her life’s story. There is gripping drama within this strong film. No Jingle Ma didn’t get it right, but he rarely does. This is perhaps one of his better, or in the least more mature, body of work. If not for Zhao Wei this production had the potential to flop entirely and of course, Tony Cheung’s beautiful camerawork.

If you are a fan of life-action and war history films then this might just appeal to you. Also if you like films along the line of Red Cliff, then this piece will also appeal to you, but understand that it is nowhere close to the level it’s mastery.

I recommend Mulan: Rise of a Warrior, however I’m unlikely to watch it again myself and while I am tempted to add it to my collection, I’m going to think about that a little more.

oh! … tidbits

The Hua Mulan on Venus is a crater named after Fa Mu Lan.

Mulan: Rise of a Warrior was nominated for seven international awards and won three.

The finale theme song “Mulan Qing” performed by Stefanie Sun was originally composed by Lee Shih Shiong, with lyric by Kevin Yee

oh! … soundtrack

oh! … gallery

oh! … trailers

 

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