Mulan, no relation to our own timeless tale of reincarnation Milan, is a story that had to be told. It is inspiring and edifying, filled with troves and peaks that live up to every definition of a tradition fable. Director Niki Caro fuels the fable with fabulous images of war and more personal battles that a girl in Imperial China fights with a might that is traditionally associated with men. Many parts of this wonderfully unalloyed saga of a plucky female warrior who dreams to fly, played out like India’s very own Gunjan Saxena, with the male soldiers sniggering at Mulan who masquerades as a male to find a sense of belonging in the imperial army.
There are moments of unstoppable beauty in the bond that the exquisite camerawork (Mandy Walker, who shot a similar Man against Nature equation in The Mountain Between Us) establishes between the imposing mountains and the beautiful young Mulan’s passion for swordsmanship (or should that read swordswomanship). This is poetry, though not of the peremptory kind. While travelling through a crackling story of war, love, betrayal and triumph, Mulan also ploughs through gender stereotypes, making her not only an equal to her male colleagues in the army but even better.
There is also a message on ascendancy of the male heir where Mulan’s father declares if he could do it again, he would still want two daughters in his life. A moment robbed of its rabble-rousing value by the Covid home detention. Yifei Liu and Tzi Ma, who play Mulan and her father respectively, reminded me of Janhvi Kapoor and Pankaj Tripathy in Gunjan Saxena. But I am digressing. Mulan is a spectacular achievement on every level. It opens up vistas which are meant to inspire awe in the audience, and they do.
The characters brim over with a cultural pride that many outside China would find odious at a time when the country is held responsible for the biggest disaster of modern times. What stays with you after watching Mulan is that sense of epic buoyancy, fastened to strong family values. The action scenes have a choreographic depth. Liu in the title role is luminous. Gong Li, as the witch has the other powerful female role in a film reeking of masculinity but serenading muliebrity in the most endearing way possible. Watch out for the legendary martial arts hero Jet Li as the Emperor of China. For the climax he is tied to a bamboo scaffold urging the young female hero to do the right thing for the country and family. The martial arts hero has come a long way.