In retelling the ancient folktale “Mulan,” director Jingle Ma has evoked the story’s timeless themes—womanhood, manhood, sacrifice, and homeland.
Ma, who hails from Hong Kong, usually churns out Chinese blockbusters like “Butterfly Lovers,” “Seoul Raiders,” and “Tokyo Raiders 2.” His movies are about the contemporary world, big cities, and modern living. But there’s something about this ancient Chinese story that appealed to Ma, and that appeals to us, too. The folktale of “Mulan” has been told for centuries—loved because it has it all: action, romance, betrayal, morality and cross-dressing.
Established actress and pop singer Zhao Wei (of “Red Cliff” and “Shaolin Soccer”) plays Hua Mulan, the daughter who takes her sick father’s place in the Northern Wei army. In a not-so-believable man-disguise, she joins the battle against the invading Rouran tribes.
Mulan’s boyhood friend spots her in the army’s ranks and tries to dissuade her from going to war—this isn’t a woman’s place, he says.
Tiger: [You have to] talk less, laugh less…
Tiger: You laugh like this: Hi hi hi. We laugh like this: Ha ha ha.
Nǐ xiào shì： xī xī xī。 Wǒ men xiào shì：hā hā hā 。
Also, don’t open your eyes so wide.
Háiyǒu，yǎnjing búyào zhēng nàme dà。
Mulan: Why not?
Tiger: Our eyes are not that big.
Wǒmen yǎnjing nǎyǒu nàme dà？
Mulan: You mean, your eyes are too small.
Shì nǐ yǎnjing tàixiǎo le 。
Like other cross-dressing women-soldiers—Joan of Arc, Catalina de Euraso, or the two pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read—Mulan defies expectations about a woman’s role; she is stronger, faster, and smarter than the men she fights with. Mulan proves herself a skilled kung fu fighter and an adept soldier on the battlefield. She quickly rises through the ranks and becomes a Senior General in the Northern Wei army.
But even as she leads a successful war campaign, Mulan grapples with her conscience. She questions whether she is strong enough to lead her army and brutal enough to sacrifice her fellow soldiers. She didn’t understand when she was a young girl in her village, but she comes to learn—war is ugly.
A complex love grows between Mulan and fellow general Wentai. Theirs is partly the camaraderie between two warriors in battle, and partly the love of a man for a woman (in drag). Wentai learns of Mulan’s true identity, but swears to keep her secret. After losing a whole battalion of soldiers to a Rouran ambush, Mulan confides in him:
Mulan: I don’t want to fight anymore. I don’t want to be a general. I want to be a normal person.
Wǒ bùxiǎng zài dǎzhàng，wǒ bùxiǎng dāng jiāngjūn，wǒ yào zuò yígè pǔtōng rén.
Wentai: Who wants to fight! I also don’t want to fight anymore!
Sheí xiǎng dǎzhàng！Wǒ yě bùxiǎng zài dǎzhàng le！
If I could use my life to stop this battle, I would have done it long ago!
Rúguǒ néng yòng wǒde shēngmìng qù tíngzhǐ zhèchǎng zhànzhēng, wǒ zǎo jiù zuòle 。
The problem is we cannot choose!
Kě wèntí shì， wǒmen méi dé xuǎnzé！
Once you put on a general’s armor, your life is no longer yours. This is what war is about!
Nǐ chuānshàng le jiāngjūn de zhànjiǎ，nǐ jiù búzài shǔyú nǐ。 zhè jiùshì zhànzhēng！
Mulan delivers a rousing speech to her troops, telling them that in order to protect their homeland and their loved ones; they must be willing to give their own lives.
Mulan: The General Hua (Mulan) you see before you is actually terrified of battle.
nǐmen yǎnzhōng de huā jiāngjūn ， qíshí shì yígè zuì hàipà dǎzhàng de rén。
I have been afraid and hiding all along.
Wǒ yìzhí zài hàipà，yìzhí zài táobi。
But I never thought my fear and hiding would cause the loss of the most important friend in my life.
Méi xiǎngdào，wǒ de hàipà hé táobì ràng wǒ shīqù le shēngmìng zhōng zuì zhòngyào de péngyou。
His departure has led me to understand, fleeing doesn’t stop war—it only makes us lose even more.
Tā de líkāi ràngwǒ míngbai le，táo bì tíngzhǐ bù le zhànzhēng。 Hàipà ，zhīnéng ràng wǒmen shīqù gèngduō。
From now on I will become stronger, and protect every one of you,
cóngjīn yǐhòu， wǒ huì biàndé gèng qiángdà，bǎohù nǐmen měigè rén，
and you all must become stronger to protect those near you! Will you do that?
ér nǐmen yào biàndé gèng qiángdà ， bǎohù qǐ shēnbiān de měi yígè rén 。 nǐmen yuànyì ma？
Troops: Hail Wei army!
Mulan and General Wentai’s love never comes to fruition. But there are tender moments, like when Wentai nurses Mulan back to life after she is wounded in a particularly bloody battle. There are so few supplies in their war camp that, in lieu of water, Wentai cuts his arm and squeezes his own blood into Mulan’s mouth, reviving her. It is the closest that they ever come to kissing.
Mulan: I dreamed that I died. You all left me. There was no one around me.
Wǒ mèngdào wǒ sǐle ， nǐmen dōu zǒule ， zhōuwéi yígè rén yě méiyǒu 。
Wentai: I count the stars every night and have not counted an extra one. So you won’t die.
Wǒ měitiān wǎnshang dōu shù xīngxing ， yígè dōu méiyǒu duō ， suǒyǐ nǐ yídìng búhuì sǐ 。
Mulan: You’re so good to me.
Nǐ zhēnhǎo 。
Mulan appeals to the princess of the Rouran tribe—and asks for her help in fighting her brother, an evil Rouran prince. Mulan reveals her true identity as a woman and appeals to the princess as a sister.
Mulan: I respect your dream of making peace. I wish to help you fulfill your dream of peace.
Nǐ xīwàng liǎngguó tíngzhǐ zhànzhēng de lǐxiǎng wǒ shífēn zūnzhòng， wǒ xīwàng néng bāngzhù nǐ dáchéng xīnyuàn 。
Princess: Fulfill my dream? You overestimate me. I am merely a woman. My brother killed our father for the throne. I dare not speak out.
Dáchéng xīnyuàn ？ nǐ tài gāogū wǒle ， wǒ búguò shìgè nǚrén 。 wǒ gēge shìfù jíwèi ， wǒ yě zhīshì gǎn nù bùgǎn yán 。
Mulan: Actually, Mulan is also a woman.
Qíshí ， mùlán yěshì gè nǚrén 。
Zhēn méi xiǎngdào ！
Ma’s version of “Mulan” is a war epic, propelled by the unrequited love between Mulan and Wentai. Their emotions and their moral dilemmas feel like dilemmas that we might also have, or like those that face our contemporary world leaders. Mulan’s world—and ours—is full of conflict, war, strife. Though an old story, it’s somehow still current; we can still see ourselves reflected in it. Fables have the ability to do that, to continue to speak to us no matter how ancient they are.
- This movie doesn’t give justice to the legend.
- I’m just dressed up as a woman.