Shadow of an Empire – Mulan (2020)

From the political comments of some performers to the race of the filmmakers to the studio’s decision to sell the film on their streaming service…controversy has followed this movie before, during, and after production. Politics aside, Mulan delivers the kind of grand action-adventure we’ve come to expect from Disney over the years. 

Based on a Chinese folk song, the story follows a young woman who disguises herself as a male warrior to save her father and serve the Chinese empire in their efforts to quell an uprising. In the process, she unlocks her hidden potential and discovers her purpose.

Scale and scope were important in telling this story and Director Niki Caro nailed that aspect. Not having an Asian in the director’s chair obviously comes with backlash but she did a good job. The production design is exceptional from the location filming to the set design to the costumes. Mandy Walker’s cinematography is fantastic and beautifully captures all the color and grandiosity. I can’t attest to its authenticity but it all looks great on screen. Having grown up watching a lot of Chinese Kung Fu movies, it sticks fairly close to those roots and stirs up a lot of nostalgia.

Yifei Liu was a good choice to play the titular character and her performance was more than strong enough to lead the way. She played a similar character with a smaller role in The Forbidden Kingdom back in 2008, so it was nice to see her expand on that. 

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Yifei Liu promotional photo

Li Gong was outstanding as Xianniang, one of the primary antagonists and the yin to Mulan’s yang. She was paired with Jason Scott Lee who got to have some fun playing the villain. As a long time veteran of Chinese martial arts films, Donnie Yen was a terrific choice to play the venerable Commander Tung. Along those same lines, the legend Jet Li had a small but symbolic role as the Emperor. 

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Li Gong (left) and Jason Scott Lee (right)

The lack of Asian writers didn’t do the movie any favors, delivering a formulaic script that goes exactly where you’d expect it to. There’s nothing groundbreaking going on. However, Mulan makes a small group of friends along the way and it’s during their training camp where most of the character development takes place. Ultimately, beyond the spectacle, that group friendship dynamic is the heart of the film. While non-specific, the narrative decision transcends cultures.

Having never seen the animated film, it was a good place to start for me. I was able to appreciate the things this new film did well rather than nitpicking all the ways it was different from the original.

Recommendation: If you’re not boycotting the movie, it’s one of Disney’s better live-action remakes. The paywall is a legitimate consideration at $30, but it benefits the target audience of families most and gives you continued access to the movie once you make the purchase. 

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