MULAN. Starring: Liu Yifei, Yoson An, Gong Li, Tzi Ma, Jet Li, and Chen Honghui. Also starring Jason Scott Lee. Directed by Niki Caro. Rated PG (Mild themes and battle violence). 115 min.

This American action-adventure film is based on “The Ballad of Mulan”, which is a Chinese folk-lore tale, and is a live-action adaptation of the animated film of the same name released by Walt Disney in 1998. It is Disney’s first battle epic, and it has a female Director (Niki Caro), who directed “Whale Rider” in 2002.

When barbarian forces threaten China, the Emperor of China (Jet Li) issues a decree that a male  from each family in the land must enlist in his army to defend the country from the attack of the Huns. He insists that one male from each family is necessary to defeat the invading army.

Hua Mulan (Liu Yifei) is the eldest daughter of a renowned warrior, Hua Chao (Tzi Ma), who is in  frail health. Secretly, Mulan steps in to take the place of her sick father, and disguises herself as a man to satisfy the Emperor’s decree. Mulan defies both tradition and law to present herself as a man. She steals her father’s family sword, asks her family ancestors to help her, and she enters battle in her father’s place.

Her action spares her father from military service, and her courage and bravery in battle single her out for leadership. She succeeds in her deception, and becomes an honoured warrior, respected and revered by the entire nation. As a leader, she becomes “a warrior legend”.

The film is visually stunning and has excellent action-choreography, particularly in its battle scenes. Hua soars over roof tops and high walls, and shoots arrows with deadly accuracy while in full flight. The intricate patterning of the battle-choreography gives the film a decidedly fantasy look which works well to accentuate the film’s action format.

The fight scenes don’t heavily emphasise blood and gore, which has significantly helped the movie obtain a PG classification rating. PG is a very mild classification for a “fight” movie such as this one.

The film is strongly focused on female empowerment. Chinese-American actress, Liu Yifei, is a very credible Mulan. She stands firmly and courageously to confront the forces aimed against her as a woman, while defending her beloved nation. The forces pitted against Mulan, are formidable. They include a powerful witch, Xian Lang (Gong Li), who has the ability to alter shape and change into a bird which makes things especially hazardous for Mulan. Xian uses her magic to create “shadow warriors”, but Mulan teaches her a “nobler path”.

Among the martial arts fighting and battle sequences, Mulan is attracted to a fellow soldier in her unit, Chen Honghui (acted by New Zealand actor, Yoson An). The film’s Director, Niki Caro, provides the film with a low-key romance, but mixes it with solid action-adventure. The movie stays largely true to the spirit of the original animated version, though characters have been changed to modernise the movie, so as to emphasise the film’s theme of female empowerment. The musical soundtrack is subdued, and the action-adventure components are presented in realistic format. The realism, however, is tempered with a fantasy overlay when the action picks up pace, and this accentuates the fluidity of the film’s plot-line.

This is a highly enjoyable action movie that carries strong messages about female empowerment and female competency. It is lavishly and colourfully produced, but sensibly pulls away from excess, and the character of Mulan is particularly well acted by Liu Yifei. Mulan impressively conquers all as a woman, and earns the respect and admiration of family, friends, and foe.

This is a well-directed action film suitable for family viewing, and one that carries contemporary messages of very considerable worth.

Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.

Walt Disney Pictures

Streaming on Disney Plus from September 4th., 2020. For later release in public cinemas.

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