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Mulan: Rise of a Warrior (2009) - Movie Reviews

The mongolian Rouran-tribe invades the Chinese Wei-empire over and over again. An endless war breaks loose which lets the ruler of Wei summon all men of the country for military service. Among them is the sick father of Mulan, Hua Hu (Yu Rongguang), a reputed veteran. Mulan (Vickie Zhao Wei) may be a woman, but she is trained in martial arts since her childhood days so that she joins the army instead of her father and without him knowing. The only one who actually knows that she is a woman is her childhood friend Tiger (Jaycee Chan). But soon thereafter the soldier Wentai (Chen Kun) gets behind her secret. However, since Mulan can prove her extraordinary expertise in battle Wentai decides to keep his knowledge about her true identity to himself. Together the two of them are so unstoppable that they climb up the ladder within the chain of command and even get their own troops. Nevertheless, as Mulan has feelings for Wentai she can't unfold her true potential. And this at a time when a talented warrior and leader like Mulan is needed the most since the coldblooded and ambitious Mendu (Hu Jun) has become the new leader of the Rouran and united all the tribes of Mongolia in order to fight the Wei. A bloody fight breaks out on the battlefield which gives Mulan no room for emotions anymore.

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Review Mulan 2009

The necessity of China to tell their own version of the Mulan subject has been pressing at the latest when Disney brought their joyful-coloured animation movie full of clichés on screen, a rather shallow look on the Chinese. Jingle Ma's version of the story is supposed to show that the story around Mulan, who shouldn't be mistaken for a historical individual, can provide much more than just a singing and dancing protagonist. But wait a minute, Jingle Ma? The director who brought us such "gems" as "Seoul Raiders" or "Playboy Cops"? Even if some of his movies are actually entertaining, Ma is rather a second-rate director and so we have to wonder why he got the reins in his hands to direct this 12 million dollar project. However, interestingly enough "Mulan" shows its weakness when it comes to its entertaining value rather than the story. The plot may remain easy to follow but the necessities and sacrifices a war requires are at times illuminated in an almost profound fashion.

Still, at first "Mulan" uses quite some time on the introduction. Especially the long passage at the army camp soon becomes repetitive and almost sends us to sleep since there is little happening at all. You should think that there are numerous moments that would make it difficult for a woman to conceal her identity in an army solely consisting of men, but the movie barely plays with Mulan's fear to be discovered. One single incident is covering this subject and later on all of the battles seemingly don't leave any free space for such problems. Vickie Zhao Wei ("Painted Skin", "Chinese Odyssey 2002") may fit into the role quite well and bestows something manly to her character without ever completely losing her femininity, but compared to the others she is quite petite and her voice doesn't sound that manly during her big speeches. The fact that Chinese men think of themselves as so androgynous that a woman can easily pass for a man is nothing new and so we can also overlook this small incredibility after some time.

Kun Chen ("Painted Skin", "Playboy Cops") plays Mulan's friend who is willing to sacrifice everything for the welfare of his country, except of Mulan, of course. The apparent romantic story between the two never fully comes to bear, they are to occupied with other important matters, but when the feelings of the two get some more room towards the end, eventually, they can be surprisingly touching. The drama that lies within the story is often more than just touched and thus offers nice brain food even if you have already seen most aspects here and there in other movies of the same subject as well. Emotions are hindering in war and yet it isn't that easy to suffocate love just like that. The willingness to sacrifice that the warriors display nearly borders blindness but the film thankfully doesn't get too patriotic and in some way we can even understand that the men just want to protect their families from the barbarians of the north, no matter the cost. That is because concerning his cruelty Mendu, played by Hu Jun ("Assembly", "Curiosity kills the Cat") has no one to rival him. He nearly crosses the border to being a caricature in his evilness.

In a supporting role we also get to see Jaycee Chan ("Invisible Target", "2 Young"), son of Jackie Chan, who is still waiting for his big breakthrough, but that really isn't a suprise considering what kind of annoying role he takes on here. In another completely insignificant supporting role we get to see the ukrainian pop singer and song writer Vitas. As the only westerner in the film who, moreover, doesn't serve any real purpose as the minstrel of the Rouran, he is simply incredibly irritating and especially the fact that his face is the first in the movie we get to see while he greets us with strange hand gestures, makes lots of question marks appear above our head.
On a note concerning the production value you have to wonder at first, too. Where have the 12 million dollar gone? There is only dull desert landscape and empty plains. Apart from that the rest also looks rather unspectacular. The first battle scenes aren't really special either, but fortunately the film can make up for some of its mistakes in the second half.

After an hour "Mulan" finally gets slightly epic character. The final battle against Mendu involves an impressing number of extras and the war tactics are also very nice to look at. But why did it have to take until then? Also the emotions can actually reach us only towards the end. It's a shame that "Mulan" needs such a long warming up time. Jingle Ma's directing sadly can't reach the epic level of similar ambitious works so that the material might have been put to better use in the hands of someone else. But at least it was a good decision to put some more depth into an epic battle movie than what we are used to see thanks to the implementation of a decent love story and the question what we are ready to sacrifice for peace. Furthermore, Vickie Zhao Wei embodies Mulan in a convincing fashion so that "Mulan" surely could have been a really good movie had the first half been on the same quality level as the second.
With the Disney trailer for Mulan (2020) being released yesterday, it's timely that I finally watch this film.

Hua Mulan is a remarkable woman. Portrayed by Wei Zhao, this film is much more traditional and better adheres to the legend. That is not to bemoan Disney's animated adaptation of years ago. It is certainly enjoyable with it's singing, dancing, and humorous side characters. But as the subtitle "Rise of a Warrior" suggests, this is primarily a war film in ancient China. Hau Mulan is beset by various challenges and does not always overcome them right away. Death and grief haunt this tale, but she still manages to be an inspiring character and worthy of the legend.
Thank you my sister Michelle, for gifting me this movie for my birthday!
If Mulan had been a real historical figure as opposed to a mythical legend, this version of Mulan would have been much closer to the real deal than the 1964 Shaw Brothers version that I just saw. Not just because there is no singing in this one - but the playful tone of that older one plus nothing really bad happening to any one in 12 years of war is clearly not even attempting to be in the neighborhood of the reality of war. It is just a wonderfully warm film that is about friendship, family and country. For the Hong Kong of that era there was always a need to connect to Old China before the Communists took over. Especially from the Shaw Brothers who were brought up in China.

This version was produced by the Mainland and the mood is totally different. It is dark, grim, unrelenting and without a spark of joy or laughter within. It is constant warfare and comrades die, betrayal occurs and misery abounds. It is as if they wanted to take previous versions of Mulan and proclaim them cheap lies and grind those versions into the dustbin of history. Now Mulan is a great warrior and the only attempts really at hitting emotional targets is in the patriotic speeches of dying for country. Everything else lands like a dull thud from a broken down boxer. This seems surprising to me because the director is Jingle Ma, who often creates these fizzy, shiny films of bright cheerful colors and charming if not very deep stories like Fly Me to Polaris, Summer Holiday, the three Raiders films and of course that great classic Para Para Sakura. All films as light as a spring morning on helium. But he must have been under orders - make this drab, make it realistic, make it about love of country, make Mulan a patriot who is even more relevant today.
It even amazingly almost leaves out the emotional resonance of the love for family as it spends a minute up front in which Mulan (Vicki Zhao) takes the place of her sick father (Yu Rong-guang) and departs without a word. It just seemed an opportunity to make us care about the character of Mulan - make her real - but instead she is never smiling, never flirtatious, as dour as a loveless 80 year old spinster. And in fact the film somehow manages to make us not care about any of the characters - not an easy thing to do - not even the man (Chen Kun) she falls in love with - in as wimpy and colorless a love story as can be imagined. Throughout I kept thinking will someone besides her goofy cousin who also joins the army show some personality. He is played by Jaycee Chan and is the only small spark of life in the film.
There is a fair amount of action - perhaps too much because so much of it is similar - how much can you do to change things up as two armies charge each other. Though in fairness the one large scale battle near the end has some style to it. It is choreographed by Stephen Tung-wai who has been doing great action choreography since the late 1970's - A Better Tomorrow, Magnificent Warriors, The Twin Dragons, The Blade being among his best - but what made his choreography great in those films was either the imaginative gunplay or great one on one martial arts. Here it is just a bunch of men crunched together like a cattle show swinging blades at one another. Big budget, nice production values, lots of extras, great armor - but they forgot to buy a little heart - something I find in a lot of these large scale Mainland films that take themselves too seriously.

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