China’s long-mooted “response” to Disney’s singin’-and-dancin’ “Mulan” scores high on ethnic credentials but considerably lower on entertainment value. Directed by a Hong Kong helmer, with several offshore Chinese among the key techies, pic lacks the dramatic and cultural heft of a purely mainland production, despite a largely mainland cast led by petite, big-eyed star Vicki Zhao as the cross-dressing ancient warrior. Good-looking but uninvolving costume actioner rounded up an OK 83 million yuan ($12 million) in a brief sally in China late last year but flopped in Hong Kong. For Western markets, it’s largely an ancillary item.
The story of the (probably fictional) Hua Mulan has been celebrated in Chinese cinema since the silent days, with more than half a dozen feature-film, film-opera and TV-drama versions. Disney’s 1998 toon, with its pesky, Eddie Murphy-voiced dragon, ethnic cliches and showbizzy razzmatazz, was an international hit but put many Chinese noses out of joint. Several local projects vied over the years to remedy the perceived loss of face, with Hong Kong d.p.-turned-helmer Jingle Ma (“Fly Me to Polaris,” “Tokyo Raiders”) winning the race.
Result has all the feel of a Hong Kong-led, mainland-shot production, with thesps like Jaycee Chan (son of Jackie) spliced in for comedy, but with an overall lack of dramatic and cultural depth. That wouldn’t be so bad if Ma’s helming had some real oomph, but he’s generally been stronger with romances and comedies than costume dramas, as demonstrated by his last attempt, the blah “Butterfly Lovers.”
Film is set in the Northern Wei dynasty, during the fifth century, when Mongol hordes in the north — specifically the Rouran tribes — are eyeing the fertile plains of China as a place to settle fulltime. When the Wei emperor puts out the call for able-bodied men, tomboy Hua Mulan (Zhao) takes the place of her sickly father, professional soldier Hua Hu (Yu Rongguang), and signs up in manly duds, as women are barred from military service, on pain of death.
The only one who knows her true identity is laddish childhood friend Tiger (Chan, consistently annoying), who happens to be in the same troop. But another soldier, Wentai (Chen Kun), soon cottons on, and protects her from discovery; he also tries to teach her to separate emotion from warfare.
Unlike the recent “Pope Joan,” pic is hardly interested, after the initial reels, in Mulan’s cross-dressing problems or her fear of discovery. With the final battle against Rouan leader Mendu (Hu Jun) taking up a major chunk of the second half, the script spends more time on Mulan’s psychological makeup, and whether she can really disengage her personal feelings on the battlefield and match the murderous Mongol in toughness.
Problem is, beyond the physical action (well staged by ace action director Tung Wei), there’s little drama happening onscreen. Zhao, who’s perfect casting for tomboy roles (“Red Cliff”), looks convincing in helmet and fifth-century armor but is a tad short in stature to convince as a commander. And there’s so little sexual chemistry between her and the weedy Chen that the de facto love story never gets off the ground.
On a performance level, the leads are totally outclassed by Hu as the glowering, psychotic Mendu. Korean-American singer Nicky Lee contributes some gruff masculinity as a Wei soldier, while eclectic Russian singer-composer Vitas (who’s repped by producer Starlight Intl. Media Group) simply hangs around the outskirts of the plot as a Rouran court singer. As a Rouran princess who seeks alliance, not war, with the Wei, newcomer Liu Yuxin deserves more screentime.
Sizable local budget (some $12 million) is all up on the screen, with dusty locations in Gansu, Hebei and Ningxia provinces grittily lensed by Hong Kong d.p. Tony Cheung. Score by Singaporean brothers Lee Wei-song and Lee Si-song (“All About Women”) wobbles back and forth between costume-heroic and more contempo sounds.