Home > Movies > Hua Mulan (2009) Recap

Hua Mulan (2009) Recap

Saturday, April 17, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

I think everyone knows the story by now, what with the Disney adaptation, which was rather good given their usual idiocy. But anyway! China’s favourite female hero gets a serious live action treatment, with Zhao Wei starring as the eponymous general.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Hua Mulan, live action 2009, starring Zhao Wei.

Presenting Mulan, the fiercest of them all.

Before we start, I just need to say: RANDOMEST CAMEO EVER. I have no idea why he’s there, being the Danyu’s Singing Altar Boy of Dramatic Posturing. By the way, this is VITAS, and he can sing – the crazy starts at 1:06. I particularly like his semi-psychotic smile, don’t you?

Okay, back to the story.

The DANYU, which is a title for whomever happens to be ruling the nomadic tribes, is the tough old dude in armour. He’s pretty much been kicking ass and taking names since he’s been in the cradle, and he has two children to carry on the family tradition.

(We are playing in Opposite Land today, please enjoy your stay.)

PRINCESS ROURAN (er, on the left, not that you couldn’t tell, right?) is the soft-spoken pragmatist who wants the nomad tribes to be at peace with the various kings of the central plains. Her brother ASHINA? Not so much.

In fact, not very much at all. His hobbies include: hunting, killing, telling his men to kill prisoners of war, etc.

Daddy disapproves.

He doesn’t exactly have a cause for complaint, however, given that his son’s army is beating the Wei kingdom like drums.

Back in the Wei kingdom, we have MULAN living her life as the obedient daughter to a local war hero, who has sadly fallen on bad times and is ill into the bargain.

You will drink your medicine! Or she will know why!

Alas, the army comes calling, and he has to go into battle. She knows he’s won’t survive, he knows he won’t survive, such is life.

So Mulan does what any sensible, filial girl would do. /sarcasm

This shot breaks my heart.

You can see the point where she gives everything up, acknowledges that she may never come back to her father just so he could live out the rest of his life. And she knows that even if she does pass herself off as a man, she’ll always be alone in order to keep her secret.

Her resolution to stay aloof lasts exactly five minutes into registering at camp because…

… Homeboy TIGER recognizes his big ‘sister’, the one who’s been defending him from vicious bullies since they were three feet high. She threatens him with grievous bodily harm to keep his mouth shut and he points out that should she be discovered, they’re both headed for the executioner’s block, so there’s not much point in making threats.

On the other hand, he understands why she’s here, so he promises to help in any way he can.

Ah, friendship.

She fits right in.

No, seriously. She just ties her hair up and joins the boys in whacking at straw dummies, shooting at straw dummies and other sundry abuses of straw dummies.

(She doesn’t even change her name! I mean, how many male Mulans do you have walking around?)

What she loves best is alone time with her loyal horsey.

Fellow soldier WENTAI, being impressed with her, attempts some small talk.

At first she is not impressed.

But his charming ways wear her down.

SHE IS SO PRETTY HOW DO THEY NOT SEE??

Anyway. Camp is generally a rowdy place, though I don’t know where they get the energy after going through drills all day long. Wentai is so friendly with the others in his tent, look at that face.

Unfortunately, sometimes egos get out of hand.

Mulan does not approve.

Wentai thinks he may be in love.

And now: OBLIGATORY INTERRUPTED BATH SCENE!

Alas, that Wentai is in for a world of pain instead. But now he knows there’s a girl at camp.

Something important goes missing in camp, and the commander general orders a trip search when no one offers any clues as to where it is.

Obviously Mulan can’t do that, and owns up to stealing the command plate (having it is like holding the authority of the general). She’s hauled away and locked in a storage warehouse to await punishment.

Wentai’s cottoned on by now to the fact that she is the girl in camp, and from what he knows of her character, is sure she isn’t responsible for the theft. But his attempts at stopping the commander general do nothing.

That night, Wentai goes to meet Mulan, who makes him promise to burn her body by himself after her death so no one discovers her true identity and shame her father.

Love in the time of war, y’all.

The next morning, a conveniently timed attack by the nomad forces allows Wentai to set Mulan free.

Generalized destruction reigns.

You know, the great thing about making movies in China is that you never lack for extras. Ever.

The fight’s going badly for the Wei soldiers, but then Mulan comes riding on her horse, sword swinging against the wind, and turns the tide of the battle. She’s great at kicking butt, and Wentai is very impressed. (Well, more impressed than he already is, anyway.)

Exigencies of war means that men who die on the battlefield are cremated right away. The only thing they can keep as mementoes are their wooden dog tags, when they can be found.

It’s become something of a tradition for Mulan and Wentai to wash them (they have to return these to the families when they can, so they try to keep the blood to a minimum). She’s troubled by the implications of being a soldier in wartime, especially since she’s a much better fighter, while he tells her that she was just doing her duty.

Duty, however, is a cruel mistress.

Seasons pass, the Wentai-Mulan team do really well at fighting, and are successively promoted to generals.

However, the death toll does rise, and the frame on which they keep all the dog tags grows larger and more prominent in front of the commander’s tent. Having just come from battle, it’s a gruesome reminder of the cost of their continued victories. In a moment of frustration, Wentai says that if he could end the war, he’s willing to give his own life.

In order to keep his mind off the men they’ve just lost that day, Mulan tells Wentai that when her mother had just passed away, her father had taken her out at night to look at the stars. He’d told her that a new star appears for every person who dies, and so she would never truly lose her mother.

It’s scant comfort, but there’s not much they can do except end the war as soon as they can.

Their closeness throws a wrench in the works when Mulan and Wentai are sent on separate missions. Mulan is put in charge of escorting supply caravans when she hears that Wentai has been ambushed by a group of nomads. She’s worried enough to rush off to rescue him, but it turns out to be a ruse to lure her away.

She knows she’s made a serious error in judgment, but she cannot guarantee that the next time she won’t do the same thing: he matters too much to her.

The resulting argument puts them at a deadlock. She refuses to go into battle knowing that he could be hurt and he wants her to concentrate fully on leading her men.

And then one day he doesn’t come back from battle.

Mulan succumbs to her sense of guilt and becomes an alcoholic, leaving the soldiers to fall into disorder.

Tiger’s not willing to allow her to let herself go, and tries to keep things going while she copes with her grief. He tells her repeatedly that this is not what Wentai would have wanted.

And one day she decides that enough is enough, and goes back to fighting.

OH NO HE DIDN’T!

(I was so angry when I first saw the movie that I had to pause and walk it off. YOU LIAR I HOPE YOUR CLOTHES CAUGHT ON FIRE. ARGH.)

Mulan’s presence on the battlefield means an increase of wins for the Wei kingdom, and Ashina wants his father to mobilise all the tribes, while the Danyu is fine with the status quo.

So Ashina kills his father. (In case you couldn’t tell he was evil from the hairstyle.)

And propositions his sister, for the ‘purity of our bloodline’.

Yeah, evil.

The chief general, being jealous and also a backstabbing traitor, assigns Mulan to a lure-and-trap mission.

The location is between two mountains, which means if reinforcements don’t come, Mulan’s people are screwed.

And guess what? Reinforcements don’t come.

Mulan is injured in the retreat, and unwilling to stand aside, Wentai reveals himself. The supplies are depleted and so he feeds her his own blood to help her with the dehydration.

(I know it’s supposed to be hugely romantic that he’s basically giving up his own life for her, but really? They couldn’t find a single skin of water for the general of the army in the entire camp?)

D’aww.

D’aww some more, people, because this, being a war story, will not end well.

Ashina, rat bastard that he is, orders the execution of all the captive rearguard to take place right in front of the barricaded soldiers. They know they’re dead anyway, but they start singing. I kid you not.

Go Tiger! *sobs*

Yeah, that’s pretty much my face right there too.

Mulan knows that there really isn’t a way out for her troops unless she accedes to Ashina’s demands – hand herself over as a prisoner of war. And Wentai accepts this because he was the one advocating cold, objective soldiery in the first place.

Except he gets to cheat, because he’s the seventh son of the Wei emperor, and thus worth more than Mulan in a ransom/negotiation.

Darn.

Back in his tent of evil, Ashina proceeds to gleefully party on his ‘victory’. Wentai is still alive so he can be used to threaten his father, but he does his best to get on Ashina’s nerves, and gets strung up as a result.

You didn’t think she was just going to sit back while someone kidnaps her prince, did you?

Didn’t think so.

Writers, learn from Chuno. Why is there such a sad lack of abs in this scene?

Rouran doesn’t seem to mind the look of Wentai. Huzzah for not sleeping with your evil, war-obsessed brother!

Mulan’s figured out a little of the politics, and thinks that having Princess Rouran on her side would be useful, so she breaks into her tent at night and explains everything – her pretending to be a man to fight for her father to how she wishes this war would just end. Rouran is fully onboard with that idea, and tells her about everything Ashina’s been up to.

Plus, there’s a brief moment of being ecstatic that a woman is the famed general of the plains, who’s responsible for leading a nation to victory in war. Mulan ftw!

The next day the assassination plan goes ahead. Witness his look of utter surprise that a woman’s the one who’s been beating him. The brilliant thing is that Mulan organized the attack during a feast so no one outside notices all the noise and banging.

The tent guards must hear the struggle, but they’re Princess Rouran’s people, so Ashina’s death is probably handwaved as ‘choking on an ox bone’ or something equally humiliating.

The prince is the only one, however, who thinks they can just waltz off into happily ever after now that the warlord’s dead.

Before she goes home, Mulan and co. travel to the capital, where the emperor ties up a few loose ends: namely that being a national hero, it doesn’t matter if Mulan is a woman. (That and the general who sent her to be betrayed is executed.) He even offers her the Army Commander in Chief position, but Mulan politely refuses.

Poor Prince Wentai, on the other hand, has to watch the love of his life walk away knowing that she bought his life with a diplomatic marriage.

I love the father-daughter reunion. It makes me tear up that he’s still there to greet her at the end of 12 years, and that she’s still human enough after all that killing to be able to smile back and pretty much be his daughter again.

Homecoming is bittersweet at best – Mulan’s aged, and being a national hero doesn’t erase the fact that 12 years of her life have been passed in killing people.

Wentai comes for a visit, and even if he doesn’t say it in so many words, he wants the two of them to run away and live together.

Unfortunately, he’s taught his lesson of duty too well. She reminds him that he once told her he would die for the war to end – and now he has live for peace.

He knows that dying in war and living with someone you don’t love are completely different things (and to him, the latter is more punitive), and Wentai doesn’t want to marry anyone but Mulan. On the other hand, she won’t let him run away from his responsibilities, so she tells him that they cannot afford more warring.

She would rather he forget about her than to see more families left with nothing but bloody dog tags. Wentai understands this, at least.



He leaves.

Mulan, voiceover: Someone once said, go too far from home, and you will lose your roots; kill too many people, and you will forget yourself. If you die in battle, your life will sink into the ground like rain and vanish without a trace. If you fall in love with someone at that moment, hope will blossom once again from the earth and embrace life with passion.

Thank you, Wentai.

End

Rambling/Commentary:

– Mulan, I wish you didn’t have to give him up as well. T-T

– More than anything, I love that this movie didn’t go down the My Lady of Tragic Love route, and simply focused on Mulan as a soldier who learns to bear her responsibilities and goes on to make enormous sacrifices in face of the duty that demands them. It’s a coming of age story couched in 12 years of war.

– Also, aside from princess Rouran, pretty much everyone else was perfectly fine with getting their hands dirty (almost literally). There was no Chuno-esque nonsense of a slave girl being perfectly pristine and like untouched snow. Instead, you’ve got at least one layer of dust and grime over Zhao Wei at any time. I like that.

– Also, no fuss about the cross-dressing! I think this is the first movie/drama I’ve seen involving cross-dressing that doesn’t have the girl binding her breasts at some point. Though I do think the army drinks stupid potion every day to not notice how pretty she is.

– The film is understated, the visuals gritty (as it should be, in a constant state of war) and yet everything is so clear and beautifully shot. Well done indeed.

Sevenses

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  1. flyingcrispi
    Monday, April 19, 2010 at 6:17 pm

    Having just finished writing this comment, I’ll tell you beforehand that if you don’t want to read it, it’s ok, it’s boring, but that’s just how I felt about the movie.

    I saw that movie when it came out a while ago, subbed, of course, expecting to see a movie version of my all time fav disney movie Mulan. And it turned out to be something else entirely, and I was very disappointed. I know, it was never supposed to be a remake of the disney version, but rather a more truthful story about the real Mulan, but man I liked disney better. And here’s why:
    Mulan is a girl and Mulan goes to war. That’s all we get in the first scenes. We don’t really have time to get to know her and see why she loves her father so much she’d go to war for him and leave everything behind.
    I honestly had no feelings for her (by that I mean I wasn’t rooting for her at all) until her boyfriend died. Then she became a drunk (understandably) but I found her more annoying than anything else. Of course I pitied her, but geez, get a grip woman.
    I actually got interested when dead boyfriend turned out to be not so dead, and that made me like Mulan a little bit. I liked her a lot more when they slaughtered her friends (the singing part had me in tears, and honestly that is the first time in the movie I felt human emotion aside from boredom and mild interest).
    Then it turned out boyfriend was son of the emperor. Shocker, really, an honest guy like him? But I admit, it was sweet that he was willing to risk his life for her.
    Meanwhile, on the dark side, instead of my beloved Shan-Yu (I loved his eyes, so yellow) we have a weird family, with some random pop singer with white hair who gets killed (and we care, why?) and teddybear grandpa who’s not really evil but gets killed by his very evil and attractive son (love the hair, so silky). Ok he rapes his sister, but he still has beautiful hair.
    Then Mulan goes on a little rescue mission. Now that was well done and I finally emerged from my mildly interested state.
    So finally, I root for her to get her happy ending after 12 frakkin years of killing people and whatnot, and it turns out he’s gonna marry to some broad? SERIOUSLY?
    seriously.
    And then I wondered : why the bloody hell did I watch all that for if she doesn’t even get the guy?
    I know, the movie runs deeper than the girl getting the guy, but come on, if you’re going to make a me watch a love that spans over 12 years, might as well give me a bone to chew on! Like, I don’t know, a happy ending?

    Maybe I should have watched this movie without expecting it to be like the Mulan I knew and loved, but rather like something else entirely. Maybe I should have given it my undivided attention instead of painting my toenails during the fight scenes and maybe I should have watched a wuxia movie beforehand to get an idea of what was to come. Then maybe I would have appreciated it more.

    Et voila.

    • karened
      Saturday, May 22, 2010 at 11:37 am

      @flyingcrispi, I was sorely disappointed that Mulan and Wentai didn’t end up together, but given the setting of the story, it’s perfectly logical. To end up the other way would be illogical. The story was set during the Northen Wei period, where conservative Chinese social customs and norms are followed very strictly.

      Throughout the movie, the words ‘duty’ and ‘responsibility’ appeared numerous times. And they wrapped up the movie at the end as well. Wentai with his responsibility as prince of the people, is in a position where his marriages, especially the first one, are expected to bring some political benefit to the country.

      Mulan, with her place as a woman in those times, would most likely see eloping as betraying the country, her townsfolks, and her father, because it will bring them shame. Note that Mulan’s posing as a male to enlist into the army isn’t about her trying to assert gender equality. Rather, she was motivated purely by filial piety. In fact, when she returns home after war, she touches her weaving machine emotionally, as if greeting her identity as a woman again. So, given her personality, I don’t think it’ll be logical for her to elope with Wentai. Not when that will also mean continued war. After all, beside being a woman, Mulan was also someone who had seen the terrors of war.

      What was strange was that they didn’t consider Mulan marrying Wentai as a concubine, as was the norm for royalty back then.

      All in all, I absolutely enjoyed the movie. The story of Hua Mulan that I know didn’t have much emphasis on any romance subplots so the movie took me by surprised when the romance slowly unfolded during the part where the army got trapped. I had seen the relationship, the tension and concern between Mulan and Wentai as that of camaraderie. I would have found the relatioship development too sudden if not for the fact that this movie is essentially about the growth of Mulan as the heroine of this well-known tale, not a story about her romance. But with the right frame of mind, this movie is one of the better, more meaningful epic movies of late (especially those starring idol/singers).

      Sacrifice is the theme. Mulan’s sacrifice of her youth and life by enlisting on behalf of her father. Wentai’s near sacrifice of his life by surrendering in exchange for medical and food supplies. Tiger (and the rest)’s sacrifice by staying back to help an injured Mulan escape. And of course, the final sacrifice by our lovers.

      I’m secretly glad that the movie didn’t go dow the road of Chuno, in terms of both the dirt and the abs. =D

  2. SM
    Friday, April 23, 2010 at 3:53 am

    I think Zhaowei improved a lot in this movie… I meant looking at her, the skin, makeup and costu, we can see how much she devoted for this movie, she looks old, and unladylike… She was definitely Mulan… I was so moved in the part that she was so sad when Tiger and other soldiers got killed…. and very pissed when at he ending, they could not be together?!!! hixhix…but it was a good movie, even the pace in the movie moved quite fast.

  3. Friday, June 18, 2010 at 4:11 pm

    I have some questions to ask. So Mulan didn’t die in the end?? And she gave up the one guy who she loved??? Why would she do that anyways??? I like this story a lot!!! I think Mulan was a very brave, clever, and talented girl!!!! So what happened to Wentai when Mulan rejected him again??? Well….I don’t really understand the real story of Mulan, but I hope to know more about it because i’m curious about it too!! Thanks!

  4. touched
    Thursday, October 7, 2010 at 6:42 am

    i have to say that i completely loved this movie. @flyingcrispi; i didnt read your entire comment but i just wanna say that we dont need to know why mulan loves her father so much, its jst in chinese culture that we are filial to our parents unconditionally. I loved everything about this movie and i loved how it was different to disney’s fairytale ending. War isn’t pretty. The ending of mulan and wentai’s relationship was so sad, but it was more the strength of mulan was what had me in tears during that movie. This movie really captured the stricter values of chinese tradition. We’re so used to seeing kissing scenes in a movie (at the least) when you know people like each other and call me a weirdo, but i’m appreciative that mulan and wentai only had brief moments of contact; it was really… nice. Well I kinda rambled on but bottom line, i just loved this movie.

  5. Lucille
    Wednesday, October 13, 2010 at 7:37 pm

    I really liked this movie. I’ve watched it many times. I think it was the friendship between Tiger and Mulan that was actually my favorite parts. I loved that there was a pure man/woman relationship with no sexual over tones. I almost cried when he died. She may have loved Wentai, but I felt that Tiger was her strength. He was the once that kept her secret first. He never doubted that she could handle the strains of war. He recognized and bragged about her skill. He tried to find the wallet he kicked into the river to save her life. He gave her the courage to stand up after Wentai’s “death” and it was his death that gave her strength to plan one last charge. She had lost so many friends but losing Tiger was the last straw. Also, having to return to that village and know that he is not going to come running to her must be an ongoing nightmare.
    Also, I loved this movie because I felt like I could relate to Mulan. No, I’ve never been to war, but I know what it is like look into the mirror and realize pieces of your life are missing and wondering where they are gone. I’ve been betrayed by people I never though would betray me and we’ve all had to make tough decisions that no one understands but us. This was a nice movie.

  6. Tuesday, December 14, 2010 at 11:22 am

    I personally thought that the ending was pretty much a cliffhanger- will Weitai follow his heart or not?

  7. Saturday, May 28, 2011 at 11:23 am

    amazing movie

  8. Pieman
    Monday, August 29, 2011 at 8:41 am

    I really want to kill Mendu!!! but i saw the movie once and i found there were two lessons to be learned, when the two brothers dies and when tiger and all the others dies that shows that war is nothing to be happy about. that is the first lesson, the second lesson which you all know.

  9. JMD
    Sunday, April 29, 2012 at 4:37 pm

    Loved the movie. The ending makes total sense (but I still found myself thinking “yeah, the movie says they couldn’t be together but in my head they were together happily everafter”).
    Plus, If Wen Tai was the 7th son, wasn’t there anyone else available to marry the Rouran princess?

    Btw: very nice and funny recap 😉

  10. Anonymous
    Saturday, September 1, 2012 at 1:34 am

    I thought it was stupid that mulan didn’t get the guy at the end I wanted them to kiss , but I like Disney”’s
    version better its more happy ending.

  11. Anonymous
    Tuesday, September 4, 2012 at 1:47 pm

    AWWWWWWWW

    Is my reaction upon reading your recap. I watched this movie like two years ago and thought it absolutely great. Thanks for reminding me of it c:

    I’ve got to rewatch it sometime. Haven’t seen a good Chinese tearjerker in a long time xd

  12. TML
    Thursday, July 31, 2014 at 12:39 am

    I think the producers did a rather poor job of concealing Mulan’s gender in this film. In the Disney version, Mulan enlisted under an alias and maintained her guise until she got injured and the doctor treating her uncovered her true gender. In this film, however, she enlisted under her real name, which is a decidedly feminine name in Chinese. As such, it beggars belief that only one person initially recognized who Mulan really was upon hearing her name – in real life, if someone claiming to be male gave “Mulan” as their name, I’m sure many more people would question that person’s true gender.

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