Mulan (2020): FILM REVIEW

Mulan (2020 film) - Wikipedia
Source: Wikipedia

Released on Disney+ back in early September, the live-action version of Mulan has garnered both a lot and not-so-much attention in the press, depending on how you’re looking at it. I’ll get to all of that later in this post, and instead give my review of the timely Chinese classic of the female underdog-turned-hero epic.

To be honest, I’d been curious in watching Mulan since way back in March. That was when Disney released the trailer for it, and considering that the 1998 animated version is my absolute childhood favorite, I was interested in seeing just how it would translate into a live-action version.

…then the film release got postponed a few times before finally being released for paid streaming just last month…I don’t have Disney+, but luckily, a friend of mine managed to get a pirated copy and shared it with me. While I do feel bad about going about this manner of obtaining the film to view, I also didn’t want to fork over $30+ just to see it on a streaming service I didn’t even have. So that said, this’ll be our little secret *shhh

The quality of the pirated copy was perfect; it even came with both English and Chinese subtitles! I finally got to watch it just last week, and so here’s my critique of the 2020 Disney Mulan:

For starters, this version is quite different from the 1998 animated version. I’d known about the changes made to the new film based on what I read in the press, including the omission of Mushu and Captain Shang (and many other character additions/removals). But instead of feeling that such characters added more depth to the story, I felt that it detracted a lot from the storyline, to the point that many of the characters were unnecessary for the film. I’m talking about the addition of fellow soldier (and *kind of* love interest) Honghui, as well as Xiu, Mulan’s sister. There was also the weird inclusion of Cricket, who in the 1998 version was, literally, an anthropomorphic cricket, but in this case took on a human form as a fellow soldier. I supposed he was included to serve as comic relief, but he really wasn’t even in a lot of the scenes to be funny enough.

There were also thematic inclusions to the film that made the storyline all the more muddy; I’m talking about the use of chi and the presumably-symbolic use of the Hawk Witch, Xianniang. Those elements were absent from the 1998 film, as well as the original historic ballad, and I have no idea why the hell the screenwriters chose to incorporate such things to the film. Not only that, but chi was used as magic, which is not the purpose of chi in Chinese culture! As a Chinese-American myself, even I know that chi is a meditative exercise used to channel energy flow within the body, not out of it– FAR from being any sort of superpower that the film so inaccurately portrays. Definitely a slap to Chinese culture, and it boggled my mind that the actors, many who are Chinese themselves, would agree to interpret chi as such in the film…alas, a job’s a job, so I guess they’re getting paid to deal with this crap.

I also had a hard time staying engaged throughout the entire film, just because the dialogue and scenes were choppy, even uncomfortable, to watch. Let’s start with the scenes: I felt some parts were cut off abruptly, without much time to really soak in what just happened before moving on to a completely-different scenario. There were also inconsistencies within a scene, as a character would be doing one thing one second before suddenly jumping to something completely different in another. There is a cinematic term for this sudden jump (which I forgot), but in any case, it made for a rather-rushed film that, funny enough, is already almost two hours long.

Dialogue-wise, I just felt that it was very forced and contrived. Even I could tell the actors weren’t comfortable delivering the lines; Liu Yifei, who played the titular character, had the emotional range of a potato– beautiful and as great of an actor she is in China, I felt like she didn’t want to be in the film in the first place. If I had to sum up how the dialogue was, it would be one-part awkward and one-part cliché. I’d read that Mulan had four(!) different screenwriters, all of them being white– it was no wonder, then, the entire film felt like it was written by people who didn’t know what Chinese culture was, and instead relying on stereotypes of how they perceive the Chinese to be. This isn’t inherently racist, but it is definitely very ignorant, on the writers’ part.

I also found the takeaway message of Mulan to be not-so-inspiring, nor worth praising. Whereas the 1998 version was focused on Mulan working hard to become a good soldier through blood, sweat, and tears, the 2020 version was more on accepting oneself despite having magical powers. While I’m not saying that the message of self-acceptance is bad, it’s a weak one all the same that I felt the entire film ended up being pointless to make, let alone to watch.

I won’t get too much into the political controversies surrounding the film (e.g. Liu Yifei’s stance on Hong Kong, the filming in the Xinjiang province), but I will say that such controversies have definitely muddied one’s idea of the film before even watching it. And even if one were to put aside such controversies, one can’t deny that the hiring of a director, screenplay writers, and even costume designers– all who were white– goes to show that Disney can’t even completely hire people who actually know and understand the culture (i.e. Chinese/Asian directors) to be bothered with cultural sensitivity– heck, the 1998 version had more cultural sensitivity than the 2020 one.

…and even if one were to put aside the comparison between the 1998 and 2020 versions and see the latter as a stand-alone film, one still would find it to be mediocre, at best. Not going to lie, I was actually impressed with the colorful cinematography and action sequences, but even those things couldn’t detract from the stilted dialogue and obvious clichés throughout. As much as I wanted to enjoy it, I couldn’t completely do so, just because of the awkward acting and cultural insensitivity that I, being Chinese-American, was aware of…and I believe many others (whether Chinese or not) felt the same way, hence why the film isn’t doing too well in sales– especially on its massive $200 million budget.

That said, you have the right to enjoy the live-action Mulan— don’t let my review color your opinion on it. As I did mention in the previous paragraph, there are good elements to the film (e.g. visuals), so even if the film had been intended to be a rather serious action-drama, I’d say that it’s best not to take it very seriously and have fun with it.

Grade: C+

— The Finicky Cynic

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3 thoughts on “Mulan (2020): FILM REVIEW

  1. Given your background, your opinion is particularly interesting, in a way it matches the negative mood that has developed around this film, it feels more like the pressure of dollars than the love of cinema.

    1. rebbit7

      Really is. After all, Disney is a massive company that’s generated billions of dollars in films, TV, theme parks, etc. Mulan (2020) especially felt like a cash-grab for the audience, because it was so poorly-written and poorly-executed. A disappointment, to say the least, and I’ll just stick to the cartoon version from now on.

  2. Pingback: Mulan: Rise of a Warrior (2009)– FILM REVIEW – The Finicky Cynic

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