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Review by Rich Cline | MUST SEE
dir Niki Caro
scr Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek, Elizabeth Martin
prd Chris Bender, Jake Weiner, Jason T Reed
with Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen, Gong Li, Tzi Ma, Yoson An, Jet Li, Jason Scott Lee, Rosalind Chao, Xana Tang, Ron Yuan, Cheng Pei Pei, Jun Yu
release US/UK 4.Sep.20
20/NZ Disney 1h55
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This lavishly produced adventure is packed with spectacular settings, costumes and action, and an excellent cast of riveting actors. Director Niki Caro expertly balances the drama, humour, adventure and action, creating a thrilling big-screen epic with potent emotional resonance and lots of female power. It may be based on the same adaptation of the Chinese folktale, but this is far more than a remake of Disney's 1998 animation.
Young Mulan (Liu) has a natural gift for fighting, but knows she must honour her parents (Ma and Chao) and become a suitable bride. Meanwhile, Bori (Lee) and his shape-shifting witch sidekick Xianniang (Gong) are marauding through the kingdom, so the Emperor (Li) drafts warriors from each family. To protect her elderly father, Mulan masquerades as a young man and heads off to boot camp, where she shines in combat and develops an affinity with rival Honghui (An). But the penalty for deception is expulsion and disgrace, even if she saves everyone on the battlefield.
Tradition demands that Mulan conceal her qi, her distinct life force, and this becomes a strong theme in a story about deception and loyalty. As her Commander (Yen) asks: "Your qi is powerful, so why do you hide it?" With oddly English-language dialog, the film is brisk, full of witty encounters, suspenseful nastiness, whizzy fights and gravity-defying assaults. It's beautifully shot (by Mandy Walker) and scored (by Harry Gregson-Williams), with intricate, colourful sets and costumes. And the plot has soaring momentum.
Each actor adds layers of interest, making characters easy to identify with. At the centre, Liu perfectly balances Mulan's internal life and complex physicality. An is particularly well cast as her foil, magnetic enough to also provide a hint of flirtation long before he knows Mulan's true gender. Gong provides plenty of scene-stealing energy, taunting everyone she meets, leading to gripping encounters with Mulan that take meaningful turns.
With set-pieces that are both enormous and intimately detailed, this film could have deepened the characters with a longer running time. While it never feels rushed, most sequences are so enjoyable that we don't want them to end, shifting effortlessly between light and dark tones. And the pointed themes are vital, offering important meaning to the story. As Xianniang tells Mulan, "Your deceit weakens your qi." So she realises that she can't continue living a lie; she'll only make her mark on the world if she can be herself and think outside the box.
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© 2020 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall
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