Aka (in its English translation) Lady General Hua Mu-Lan.
I must admit to my ignorance: till a couple of months back, I had only heard of Mu-Lan (or Mulan). I’d no idea who Mu-Lan was, whether her character was fictitious or not—or, well, anything. Then a relative came visiting and brought my little daughter a gift: a soft doll, one of the Disney Princesses: Mulan. Ah, East Asian, I realized (yes, so ignorant). But that piqued my interest; at least watch the Disney animation film, if nothing else, I decided. So I watched it—then discovered (and watched) the 2009 Chinese film, Mulan: Rise of a Warrior. And then, stepping back into one of my favourite periods of cinema history, watched this Chinese opera version of the legend of Mulan.
According to Chinese legend, Hua Mulan was a woman warrior who lived during the first millennium CE. The Ballad of Mulan, from the 6th century, first recounted the tale of Mulan: a woman who, when China went to war, took her father’s place in the army, disguising herself as a man in order to do so. From the original ballad, Mulan’s character was exported into other works, including more poems, novels, plays, opera, and (of course) cinema. There have been several adaptations of this story, both in China and overseas, with a live action version of the Disney film now in the works.
But, to get to this film. Directed by Yueh Feng, Lady General Hua Mu-Lan is in the style of Chinese opera, with many of the dialogues being sung rather than spoken, and with a fair amount of singing even in the background. What sets it apart from traditional Chinese opera is the lack of exaggerated makeup, and the fact that the settings are cinematic ones—an actual house set, a tent, the outdoors.
It’s in the outdoors that the film begins, on a quiet day in the countryside. Hua Mu-Lan (Ivy Ling Po, who won the Best Actress Award at the 11th Asian Film Festival for the role) is out hunting when she hears two riders come tearing through, raising the countryside with their shouts: the land has been invaded. The country is at war, and the Emperor has issued a decree calling up men to enlist as warriors.
Mu-Lan, who’s dressed as a man, in tunic, trousers, boots and all, gathers up the spoils of the hunt and hurries back home.
Here, after Mu-Lan’s spent some time rushing about the house trying to find the rest of her family, we finally get to meet them: her ailing father, her worried mother, Mu-Lan’s elder sister Mu-Hui, and their little brother Mu Di.
Father has just received a call-up for conscription, and—as an ex-warrior—is determined to get up and go off to fight the invaders. He’s asthmatic and in no shape to fight, and his wife is wringing her hands and pleading with him to reconsider, but Mr Hua is adamant.
Mu-Lan, with a song, tries to dissuade him: he is too old, too frail and unwell. How can he go into battle? It is best that she, Mu-Lan, go instead. Her father sings back to her: how can a woman go into battle? Women aren’t allowed to join the army. It’s a silly idea.
This family argument is interrupted by the arrival of other family members, fleeing the invading hordes. Uncle, Aunt, and their son—Mu-Lan’s cousin, Ming (Mu Chu)—have come, bag and baggage, to take shelter with Mr and Mrs Hua. Ming is going to join up, and Mu-Lan confides in him. Since Ming is confident of his cousin’s prowess (and probably also realizes that it’s going to be impossible to stop the headstrong girl from doing just what she wants), he agrees to help her.
They concoct a plan, and shortly after, Ming goes to Mu-Lan’s father with a request. He tells the old gentleman that a friend of Ming’s has arrived, eager to join the army. But, before he can do so, he would like to pay his respects to Mr Hua, of whom he has heard much praise. And, if Mr Hua is amenable, the young man would like to spar with him as well. Just to test his own skill.
Mr Hua is flattered, and agrees. His wife tries to dissuade both him and Ming, but to no avail.
The young man, of course, is Mu-Lan, in flimsy disguise. Mr Hua doesn’t recognize his own daughter [which just goes to show; with eyesight like that, should this old man really be so eager to go and enlist?]. They use their spears to spar, and Mu-Lan puts up a good enough fight to win. She reveals her identity, and [a pleasant surprise, this] her father and the rest of her family are not just astonished, but very proud of her.
So proud, in fact, that Mr Hua immediately approves of Mu-Lan joining up. Her cousin Ming will be with Mu-Lan when they go to enlist, and she will carry her father’s weapons, wear his armour. She will make them proud of her.
With the blessings of the entire household, therefore, Mu-Lan sets off, along with Ming.
On the way, they meet other men also headed for the military base where new recruits are to report. There’s Wang (Yi Feng), for instance, who’s an ex-soldier, a man very sure of himself, but also a bluff, hearty sort, always ready to befriend a newcomer. He is accompanied by others, like Chen (Ming Chao) and Zhang (Kuang Chao Chiang), all of them friendly and somewhat boisterous—so boisterous, in fact, that they get a bit too insistent about Mu-Lan and Ming teaming up with them for the rest of the journey.
This makes Mu-Lan decide that she and Ming are better off slipping away on their own.
They do, but when the two cousins stop at an inn later that night, the noisy lot arrives there as well. Mu-Lan, in order to keep her secret safe, is forced to bundle up and sleep in a crowded dormitory rather than in the sole vacant room which she had taken—and which has now been cheerily usurped by Wang and Co.
Not that any of this is really pertinent to the story.
Soon, Mu-Lan, Ming and the rest arrive at the recruiting office. They’re soon divided into two batches, and—under the eagle eye of the commander—are made to show off their skills as soldiers, in a sort of round robin competition, the aim of which is basically to come up trumps, regardless of weapon or tactics used. Mu-Lan manages to win this, too, even defeating the formidable Wang, and is therefore much applauded.
Not that she is rewarded for it; instead, she ends up with the warehouse division, rather like the Quartermaster Corps. The next time we see Mu-Lan, she’s busy hauling sacks into the warehouse. It’s while she’s at this work that she’s given a helping hand and a word of encouragement by a handsome young officer (Chin Han, who in real life married Ivy Ling Po two years after this film was made) whom she’s told is General Li.
Mu-Lan is immediately interested. This interest is given a boost that evening when General Li joins the soldiers to give them a pep talk [or rather, a pep song] and raises a toast to Mu-Lan, for having done so well in that preliminary competition. Then Mu-Lan raises a toast… and, basically, with all this toasting, Mu-Lan ends up being pretty tipsy, even though she’s tried her hardest to keep from drinking too much. General Li blames himself for Mu-Lan’s condition and is contrite; Ming helps whisk her away before the sympathetic General tries to offer any assistance that might reveal Mu-Lan’s real identity.
And then, suddenly, they’re all in the midst of battle. Mu-Lan has been ordered to the frontline, and while soldiers are charging fiercely uphill and battling it out with the invading army, we see Mu-Lan in the forefront, wielding a sword, yelling ‘Kill! Move forward!’, and generally showing that she’s the stuff generals are made of.
It’s no surprise then, that the next time proceedings come to a halt (just a few frames after Mu-Lan first went into battle, and therefore disconcertingly soon), she’s being referred to [and deferred to] as General Hua. But it’s been ten years, we’re told. Ten years of war in which Hua Mu-Lan has distinguished herself (or himself, as everybody except Ming thinks).
The Commander of the army thinks very highly of General Hua, and the relationship between the two generals—Li and Hua—is one of mutual trust and deep friendship. So much so that they joke about being near-siblings. Or husband and wife, says Mu-Lan. But we’re both men, General Li points out; we can’t be husband and wife. But what if one day one of us changed? Mu-Lan says. What if I turned into a woman?
For us, who know the truth, it’s obvious what Mu-Lan is dreaming of. But when will General Li discover the truth [or realize that Mu-Lan, even if somewhat plausible as a boy with a high-pitched and impossibly dainty features, as a man ten years later still hasn’t changed a jot?] When will the war be over? What will become of Mu-Lan?
This isn’t an amazing story. There are ripples in the plot now and then—Mu-Lan’s getting disguised and joining up is one; her meeting General Li is another; that conversation in which she hints at her feelings (not that Li understands) is yet another. But that’s about it; this film isn’t about brilliant plotting.
What I liked about this film:
The fact that it introduced me, somewhat, to the ‘Hong Kong opera musical’. It’s unlike the usual Hindi cinema song-and-dance sequence, because the songs aren’t separate from the narrative: it’s just that a lot (not all) of the dialogues are sung rather than merely spoken. In that way, it’s probably closer to the Western concept of the musical, but even Hollywood’s musicals tend to have more contrived song sequences as compared to what I noticed in Hua Mu-Lan: here, it seemed almost as if somebody, in the course of a conversation, decided they’d rather sing the rest of what they wanted to say.
The other interesting thing is that a lot of that singing is accompanied—especially on the part of Ivy Ling Po—by dancing. Slow, swaying dancing which more often than not consists primarily of graceful gestures of the hands.
What I didn’t like:
The sad lack of a good script. The main highlight of Hua Mu-Lan is the singing, but take that away, and there’s really not much to see.
As is usual when I’m reviewing a film of which I’ve either read a book original, or seen another cinematic adaptation, I’ll compare Hua Mu-Lan too to something else I’ve seen. In this case, I’d watched two other adaptations: the Disney Mulan, and the 2009 Mulan: Rise of a Warrior, with Wei Zhao as Hua Mulan and Chen Kun as Wentai, the equivalent of General Li.
The Disney Mulan is—well, Disney. Mulan runs away from home, accompanied by a ‘guardian’ in the shape of a loony little dragon appointed by the clan ancestors to watch over her; and a so-called lucky cricket. The film’s fluffy, light-hearted, and even when there’s danger—to Mulan and her soldier colleagues, to the Chinese Emperor, and so on—you know everything’s going to turn out all right, and Mulan and her hero will be fine. (The good thing, of course, is that in a refreshing change from the usual Disney Princess, Mulan gets to come to the rescue of the hero more than once, instead of the other way round).
Mulan: Rise of a Warrior was what really impressed me. Unlike either Hua Mu-Lan or Mulan, this film actually focused on the core idea: the very real trauma of war. Hua Mu-Lan is a cheery and decidedly escapist film, not just because of the singing, but because of other elements. The fact, for example, that Mu-Lan’s family, once they’re convinced that she has the skills to be a warrior, are so happy seeing her go off to war. Or that very little is ever shown of the battlefield, or of how war affects soldiers.
Mulan: Rise of a Warrior, on the other hand, is a grim yet sensitive film. Its prime focus is the war. There’s blood and gore and the killing of people Mulan has come to cherish while in the army—and the overall tone is subdued. This is war, indicates the film, not a summer camp where all is fun and laughter.
Mulan here is more gritty, also (visually) more easily believable as a somewhat fine-featured man. And her character arc—from a fresh, somewhat nervous recruit—to the battle-scarred general whom even the invaders have come to fear, is well paced. It doesn’t happen overnight, and Mulan has to battle not just China’s enemies, but her own fears along the way.
The romance between Mulan and Wentai is there (here, unlike in Hua Mu-Lan, the ‘hero’ comes to know of the heroine’s real identity very early in the film), but it’s very subtle, conveyed more in actions than in words.
There is some melodrama even here (one scene which reminded me of Hindi cinema had wounded Chinese soldiers, taken captive by the Rouran invaders, tied up and being killed—but singing a song of their love for home and country all the while). There is some (to me) unnecessary politicking in the Rouran camp, but there are also some unexpected developments that add to the story.
Like Seong Chun-Hyang and Choonhyang, this set of films turned out, too, with the newer film appealing to me far more than the earlier one. Hua Mu-Lan is quaint and has a certain old-fashioned charm about it (besides the singing being an attraction), but the film that’ll stay with me is Mulan: Rise of a Warrior.
Both films, with English subtitles, are available on Youtube; Hua Mu-Lan (in seven parts, with the first part here), and Mulan: Rise of a Warrior, here.
Very informative and interesting. Thank you.
Thank you for the appreciation!
Thanks to you now I also know who Mu-Lan was. I had only heard about Disney’s Mulan. I think, Lion-King was the last Disney cartoon film I saw.
I hardly know much about Chinese opera, much less about Hong-Kong style opera. I have only seen snippets. I think, just like in European opera much depends on the singer and the music rather than the acting. Moreover the dance movements surely add to the message, which most probably goes missing in the cultural translation.
The 2007 film sounds to be more up my alley though!
Thanks for this beautiful introduction to this story with a difference.
Although I’ve watched several animation films (like the Ice Age and Madagascar series), I too don’t think I’d watched anything from Disney after The Lion King.
“Moreover the dance movements surely add to the message, which most probably goes missing in the cultural translation.”
So true! And God knows how much else – in the way of gestures, symbols, etc – goes missing because it rarely gets translated through subtitles (though I’ve seen some good subtitling in Korean dramas that actually takes the trouble of explaining the meaning of some symbolic gestures).
Do try and watch Mulan: Rise of a Warrior, Harvey. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good film, and (as so many of the better Chinese historicals/mythologicals being made these days) very easy on the eyes. :-) Beautiful cinematography.
Interesting; I’ve watched Mulan because, well, I don’t really care too much about the Disney-bashing that goes on around me and I typically like their animation; I didn’t like Mulan because the story didn’t interest me enough. To be honest, I rather preferred Tangled, the DIsney take on Rapunzel. I must also confess to being completely ignorant about the real (or myth-based) roots of the film – and worse, hadn’t felt the need to actually research it either. :( (Just goes to show what a snorefest the Disney outing was!)
Now, you’ve piqued my interest – especially for the newer version. Should watch. Thank you so much for reviewing this, and telling me the new film is better. :)
Ah, I’ve never seen Tangled. Someday, maybe.
To give you an idea of the effect of the two Chinese movies. When I finished watching Hua Mu-Lan, I saw the list of other movies Youtube suggested I might want to watch – several other Hong Kong opera musicals. And I said to myself, “One’s enough for the time being, I think.”
But after I finished watching Mulan: Rise of a Warrior, I actually went to IMDB to search for other films starring either Wei Zhao or Chen Kun (or both). :-)
The old film is really only if you want to get an idea of Chinese opera – or its film equivalent. The new film is far better scripted, acted, directed – everything.