Has ‘Mulan’ brought honour to family entertainment?

SEPTEMBER 11 — Warning: Contains spoilers!

If you have been checking out the reviews of Mulan, you may be forgiven for thinking that there was world peace, equality and justice right up to the point the movie came out. 

Some folks on Facebook and Twitter reacted to the movie with so much vitriol you’d think Trump had a three-second cameo or something.

So in this piece, I’m going to try something different.

I’m going to ignore the historical inaccuracies, the fact that the bad guys and the “spherical” houses don’t match the period, the complaints about gender identities (of which I’ve honestly lost count), about there being “witches” (and how that’s a Western thing), the poorly-spoken “Chinese-y” English (and how’s that’s “racist”), etc.

Nobody is being asked to pay RM10-15 to get an “authentic” lesson on history or culture, or an affirmation of one’s political perspectives. 

The reason I am not pissed at Mulan’s distorted portrayal of Chinese culture and history is the same reason I don’t get pissed that The Fellowship of the Ring suggested that thousands of dwarves continued to live inside a mountain despite the obvious lack of quality living plus the possibility of being destroyed by a monster from hell who likes whips: I already paid for the ticket so why not suspend as much reality as I can in order to enjoy myself, kan?

Therefore, I suggest that Mulan should be judged the way you more or less judge any family entertainment action/adventure movie i.e. Did you enjoy the story, the action, the drama, and basically come out of the cinema feeling slightly “happier” than before going in?

On those criteria, I think Mulan did okay. Not “OMG I CAN’T BELIEVE WHAT I JUST WATCHED!” amazing but there was no dishonour to family entertainment.

Comedy-wise, I laughed a bit at the matchmaker scene but not much after that. The kids around the cinema giggled a lot at the goofs in the military camp. 

My daughter was laughing uncontrollably at the bathing scene and I’m pretty sure a few people behind me chuckled when they saw the trainees struggling to carry the pails of water up the mountain.

Drama-wise, you’d have to be cold as ice to not have a few tears almost coming out, especially towards the end. Dad embraces the daughter many weeks (or was it months?) after they parted on such heart-breaking terms, with the Dad recognising the daughter’s sacrifice even as the daughter learnt a lesson about being True. 

As expected, the virtues of Loyal, Brave, True and Devotion to Family aren’t going to resonate very well in today’s society which emphasises Resistance, Keyboard Wars, Feelings and Obsession With Self. 

Thus, paradoxically, Mulan may be the quintessential “counter-cultural” film which gives an alternative-yet-traditional paradigm of approaching life?

Most importantly(!), the action. What can I say? All those parts in which a character (not least, Mulan herself) bends and turns to avoid a weapon were worth the slow-motion. Nothing like seeing a ballet move employed to ensure one’s body does not get punctured by an arrow or shuriken.

And the scene in which the bad guys jumped from their horses and ran up the wall was good (even Spiderman’s taking notes, I am sure). Plus, every scene in which Mulan fights with props (especially those construction poles) were intense. Glad to see Disney paying tribute to Chinese acrobatics. Add to this, too, the horse-riding theatrics plus the fancy sword-play. All Pass with Minor Revisions.

But other than that, sad to say, the movie failed me action-wsie. The kungfu hand-to-hand-to-leg-to-limb scenes were sub-par; and in my book any Chinese-oriented action movie with poor martial arts scenes has some answering to do. It’s like a zoo visit with no tigers or lions. 

Long and short, I don’t know what action style Mulan & Gang were using, but it only looked like kungfu when they were practising. The martial arts cinematography looked like something you’d see in a high-school musical play. 

I can think of at least five Jackie Chan and Jet Li movies which had more engaging action scenes, the kind which makes you want to put on loop after a long day at the office. Donnie Yen’s skills were severely under-used; needless to say, Jet Li looked like he was posing for a painting throughout the show.

The fact that none of the good guys got really hurt when fighting the bad guys in that “corridor” (in that team battle towards the end) shows you Disney needs a tutorial on kungfu realism. Hey, even Kungfu Panda got beaten up like really bad.

The final showdown between Mulan and the Big Baddie was too short, not spectacular enough and thus underwhelming. Disney should have taken Steve Spielberg’s advice when filming action scenes with Jackie Chan, “When it came to the kungfu stuff, I let Jackie direct.”

Niki Caro ought to have done the same.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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