Quintessentially Chinese? / Review: Hua Mulan
I first talked about Hua Mulan here. Unfortunately, by the time I got home, Hua Mulan was off the screens (because movies have notoriously short running periods here), but the DVD was out! So I hunkered down with my father, a family friend, my mom, and I had a box of tissues in front of me, because I knew I was going to need some.
And I was right! I will try to cut down on spoilers as much as possible, and will reference the 1964 Shaw Brother's production of Lady General Hua Mulan for comparison purposes besides the Disney version.
As Mulan's story usually starts, there's a call for soldiers. The Hua family has no sons, and Mulan's father is ailing, but he feels that he has to go, because for generations, the Hua family has been known to be great fighters. Mulan herself is an excellent fighter, having been taught by her father, one of the greatest warriors of his generation, but as a woman, she isn't allowed to be part of the army. Nonetheless, she takes her father's armor anyway, and goes off to war. There's even a brief flashback where a young Mulan, played by Xu Jiao, kicks ass, protecting her friend Xiaohu.
(We last saw Xu Jiao as Dicky Chow in Stephen Chow's CJ7, which is why I was confused greatly when I caught CJ7 a little after watching Hua Mulan. Sorry, Hollywood, what was it about not being able to find Asian child actors who can do martial arts? If Xu Jiao was a little older, I think she'd be perfect for A:TLA's Azula.)
Mulan arrives at camp, where her friend, Xiaohu (translated into "Tiger" in subtitles), played by Jaycee Chan, helps her in hiding her identity, although there is a hilarious moment where Mulan is almost discovered by Wentai, a fellow soldier, and Xiaohu just wants to go back to sleep when she tries to ask him for advice.
The movie is, at heart, about people. Jingle Ma focuses, of course, on Mulan's development into a great general, who must learn to make sacrifices and let go of specific emotional attachments. Her friendship with Wentai is clearly coded as one that, given a chance, could and should bloom into romance, but their love can go no further because of the circumstances they are in. Zhao Wei's portrayal of Mulan's emotional trials in facing the horrors of war is moving, punctuated with Chen Kun's Wentai who fades into the background as general so he can watch Mulan bloom to her greatest potential. Mulan herself has trouble growing into her role - she must learn how to kill, must learn how to watch her comrades die, must learn how to stand on her own as commander of an army. The result is a fascinating character study, even as it is at times palpably painful to watch.
Wentai, played by Chen Kun, as best friend, closest companion, mentor, and love interest, is no less a developed character, beginning as a teasing soldier who tries to get to know his fellow soldiers, clearly a strong officer, but with a compassionate heart that, deep down inside, hates killing. He recognizes very quickly the potential in Mulan, even when he discovers that she's a woman, and puts aside his own opportunities for accomplishments in order for Mulan to get over her attachment to him and grow independent of his companionship. One might ask, why doesn't Wentai make a move on Mulan, since he knows her true identity and is clearly in a position of power to do so? Couple of reasons: Wentai is clearly mindful of the dangers of attachment during a war. Already burdened with the duty of ensuring families are notified of their sons' deaths, Wentai has seen more violence than he cares to. When he admits to Mulan early on, "I couldn't even kill a rabbit," she observes, "you didn't want to."
Also, Chen Kun is a total hottie, and seeing as there is apparently a huge dearth of Asian masculinity in Western media, here is a picture that illustrates how utterly handsome Chen Kun is as Wentai:
The side characters are not neglected either - a few soldiers who start as Mulan's tent mates are portraited as various men who have left family and fiance's behind. Xiaohu's initial resentment towards his sparring partner becomes a deep friendship that climaxes in a moving scene that illustrates the spirit of self-sacrifice, steadfast loyalty even when facing death in a pointless war, and the recognition of both. Even in death, the soldiers are not forgotten, as depicted by Mulan and Wentai washing the name tags of soldiers and hanging them to dry, so that the name tags can be sent back to the soldiers' families.
The Rouran, nomadic raiders that the Wei Kingdom are fighting, are also sympathetic, although there is a clear antagonist in Modu, who is clearly not the leader the Rouran want to have. Modu is foiled by his half-sister, who is never given a name and is only referred to as the Princess of Rouran, yet is portrayed as having deep sensitivity and wanting to seek common ground with the Wei. (There is also, inexplicably, a white dude, Vitas, a Russian singer, who plays a former slave to the Rouran and stays with the tribe out of affection and loyalty.)
The political ramifications of being a figure of authourity, as embodied by Wentai and the Rouran Princess, is something that is very rarely noted in most Western love stories about royalty, but is always, painfully drawn out in Chinese movies. The theme of duty over self, of the greater good over personal happiness, adds pathos to the love between Mulan and Wentai, yet lends itself to a satisfying end to the war as Mulan encourages the Rouran princess to step up and help end the war.
As I mentioned in my earlier post, the love between Mulan and Wentai is clearly not sexualized - they fight side by side, but never kiss. The closest they ever get is when Wentai sleeps next to her while taking care of her during a fever, feeding her his own blood as they have run out of supplies. Even then, the love they have for each other shines through as something that drives them both to make the sacrifices which will ultimately keep them apart but will also achieve their mutual goal: the end of the war. In a Hollywood movie, the couple will kiss and makeout for several minutes. In this quintessentially Chinese movie, Mulan asks the man she loves and who loves her, "If I must die on the battlefield, will you go with me?" and he replies, very simply, "Yes." This is a resilient kind of love, in which one does not demand sacrifice from the other, but in which both, strong character unto themselves, stand together to face battle.
All in all, Hua Mulan was every bit as satisfying as I had hoped it would be. The acting is excellent. The plot, while not new, is moving and stirring to the dormant Asian in me. Jingle Ma forces the audience to acknowledge the devastation that war deals on the human spirit, whilst reinforcing the hope and illustrating the strength of the soldiers who have to go through it. Powerful, painful, loving and sad, this Hua Mulan portrayal will be in the annals of great historical fiction.