×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Mulan

China's "response" to the Disney pic scores high on ethnic credentials.

With:
Mandarin dialogue

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.

Mulan

China

Production: A Polybona, Shanghai East, China Film Group release of a Starlight Intl. Media Group production, in association with PKU Starlight Group, Hunan TV & Broadcast Intermediary Co., Shanghai Film Group, Beijing Galloping Horse Film & TV Prods., Polybona Films, Beijing Starlight Intl. Media Co. (International sales: Distribution Workshop, Hong Kong.) Produced by Song Guangcheng. Executive producer, Wang Zhe. Co-executive producers, Long Qiuyun, Ren Zhonglun, Li Ming, Yu Dong. Directed by Jingle Ma. Screenplay, Zhang Ting, Ma, Wang Hui-ling, Bai Bangni, Hu Yu.

Crew: Camera (color, widescreen), Tony Cheung, Chen Guoxiong; editor, Kwong Chi-leong; music, Lee Wei-song, Lee Si-song; production designer, Bruce Yu; art director, Chan Wu-ho; costume designer, Petra Kwok; sound (Dolby Digital), Kinson Tsang; action director, Tung Wei; assistant director, Chan Wai-kei. Reviewed on DVD, Berlin, Feb. 21, 2010. (In Berlin Film Festival -- market.) Running time: 118 MIN.

Cast: Mandarin dialogue

More Scene

  • Dylan O'Brien, Justin Theroux, Angela Bassett,

    Travis Knight on Getting the Call to Direct ‘Bumblebee’: ‘Did You Guys Get The Right Number?’

    “Bumblebee” director Travis Knight admits he couldn’t believe it when Paramount Studios and producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura called him two years ago, asking him to helm the upcoming “Transformers” movie. “My initial question was, ‘Did you guys get the right number?'” Knight joked at Sunday’s premiere of “Bumblebee” at the Chinese Theater in Los Angeles. “You’ve seen [...]

  • Director Peter JacksonWarner Bros. Pictures THEY

    Peter Jackson Talks Transition From 'Hobbit' Movies to World War I Documentary

    Peter Jackson remains a bit astounded at his transition four years ago from the Shire of Middle Earth to the French battlefields of World War I. Jackson introduced his documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old” Friday night at the Linwood Dunn Theatre in Hollywood, four weeks after it aired on Armistice Day on the BBC. [...]

  • Hillary Clinton'Network' play opening night, New

    Hillary Clinton Attends Opening of Broadway's 'Network'

    A 1976 film might not be expected to translate seamlessly to Broadway in 2018, but for the cast and creative team behind “Network,” which premiered Thursday night with Hillary Clinton in the audience, the story still feels uncomfortably close to home. “It was a satire then, and now it’s documentary realism,” said Lee Hall, who [...]

  • Children's Defense Fund

    Angela Bassett, Conan O'Brien Honor Young Students at Children's Defense Fund Gala

    Awards season may be right around the corner, but on Thursday, Hollywood took a break from the glitz and glam to celebrate five high school students who have excelled academically despite facing extreme adversity both at home and in the classroom. The 29th annual Beat the Odds Awards ceremony at the Skirball Cultural Center featured [...]

  • Dolly Parton attends the world premiere

    Dolly Parton Hopes to Perform 'Dumplin'' Song at the Golden Globes

    It’s not easy to upstage Jennifer Aniston. But everyone at Thursday night’s premiere of her new Netflix flick, “Dumplin’,” seemed to be singing the praises of Dolly Parton, who earlier in the day received a Golden Globe nomination for “Girl in the Movies,” one of half a dozen new songs she wrote for the film. [...]

  • Lena WaitheVariety's Power of Women, Arrivals,

    Who Lena Waithe Thinks Should Replace Kevin Hart as Oscar Host

    Lena Waithe thinks Kevin Hart could have handled his Oscar debacle in a much better way. “I kind of wish that he would have taken a moment to let it be a teachable moment and to say, ‘Hey, what I said wasn’t right and I want to make that right,’ not just to keep the [...]

  • Christie Brinkley32nd Annual Footwear News Achievement

    Christie Brinkley at 64: 'Women My Age Cannot Allow the Numbers to Define Them'

    Christie Brinkley may be turning 65 next year, but don’t you dare try to tell her what she should — or shouldn’t — wear. “I think women my age cannot allow the numbers to define them. We need to constantly redefine the number,” Brinkley told Variety on Tuesday at the Footwear News Achievement Awards in New [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content