The story of Hua Mulan or The Ballad of Mulan took place during the Northern Dynasty (北朝) period (386-535 CE) in the Kingdom of Wei (Cao Wei, 曹魏). Hua Mulan (Zhao Wei) and her father, Hua Hu (Yu Rongguang), depended on each other for everyday living. Her admiration for her father, a retired local war hero, made her to furtively emulate his martial art skills and studied Sun Tzu’s (孙子) manuals on the tactical deployment of troops.
When Hua Mulan came of age, the dynasty was under constant threat by the Mongol hordes in the north, specifically the Rouran (柔然)tribes who were fixating the fertile plains of Central China as a place for fulltime settlement. The Wei Emperor (Sun Zhou) conscripted a decree for all able-bodied men in the Northern Province to defend their homeland against the barbarian Rouran hordes. As the Hua family was without a male heir, Hua Mulan’s father insisted to enlist again to serve his country.
Unable to bear the thought of her ailing father exposed to the sufferings of a soldier’s life and to the horrors of the battlefield, the dutiful Hua Mulan got her father drunk and swiped his armors. She masqueraded as a man and enlisted in the army for a war against a coalition of the hostile desert tribes in her father’s place. Her act was forbidden at the time and it was punishable by death. She acknowledged that she may never come back to her father just so he could live out the rest of his advanced age.
Hua Mulan was able to keep her true gender identity a secret with the assistance of her childhood friend, Fei XiaoHu (Jaycee Chan). Through the harsh military training, Hua Mulan proved to be courageous, scrappy, and helped others to fend off an army bully. Her prowess in combat and tactics as a warrior quickly shined through where she gained the attention of Wentai (Chen Kun), the battalion’s Vice Commander. They soon developed mutual admiration.
Nevertheless, this mutual respect put Hua Mulan at constant risk of exposing her true gender. When Wentai accidently stumbled into her bathing, she was very fortunate to escape without revealing her identity. However, Wentai was adamant to divulge the woman hiding among the troops. And to make matter worse, the army bully claimed someone stole his jade pendant. A strip-search was ordered in Hua Mulan’s camp and she was terrified to reveal herself. Afraid of tarnishing her father’s reputation and legacy, Hua Mulan admitted the theft. She was sentenced to death. In the confinement, Hua Mulan revealed her incognito to Wentai and he promised to protect this truth to himself.
As luck would have it, the Rouran launched a surprise attack and Wentai released Hua Mulan to let her flee. But she stayed to defend the assault on the camp and decapitated the Rouran General. Her life was spared for this merit and she was promoted to be Vice Commander. Hua Mulan’s remarkable courage and insights into the art of war elevated her through the ranks along with Wentai until they were promoted to the position of General. This achievement established Hua Mulan as a true military leader willing to sacrifice everything to defend her nation and brought honor upon her family.
As the conflict developed and the invading Rouran closed in, Hua Mulan and Wentai fought through various battles and achieved successive victories. But as they became inseparable, Hua Mulan was unable to conceal her true feeling any longer and their friendship gradually evolved into romance. Eventually, her affection for Wentai attributed to Hua Mulan’s poor judgment while leading the Wei forces which caused multiple casualties among her troops. She was forced to reconsider her entire situation. Wentai realized that their mutual emotional attachment could lead to their downfall on the battlefield. He tried to teach Hua Mulan to separate emotion from the hardship and horror of warfare by faking his death.
Thereafter, Prince Modu (Hu Jun) seized the throne of the Rouran by murdering his father and amassed strength by mobilizing the other nomad tribes. As the new ruthless warlord of the Rouran, Prince Modu planned for an invasion. The Kingdom of Wei’s need grew ever more desperate facing an unprecedented scale of attack. Hua Mulan found herself faced with increasingly hard decisions and personal sacrifices as her love and brevity were put to the ultimate test.
The Chief General assigned Hua Mulan to a dangerous lure and trap mission to counter Prince Modu’s forces. Her troops were vastly outnumbered and they relied on the reinforcement from an envious Chief General. Trapped between two mountains range, her reinforcement never did come. Consequently, Hua Mulan was injured in the retreat. The supplied were depleted and unwilling to stand aside, Wentai revealed himself. He nursed her injuries and fed her with his own blood to help her from dehydration.
Meanwhile, Prince Modu ordered the execution of the captured Wei soldiers in front of the barricaded remainder of Hua Mulan’s troops. Hua Mulan knew that there wasn’t a way for her men to elude capture unless she acceded to Prince Modu’s demands to hand herself over as a prisoner of war. However, Wentai volunteered himself to be captured in exchange for the lives of the surviving soldiers as he was the seventh son of the Wei Emperor and he was more valuable to Prince Modu for ransom.
Parted from her loved one, Mulan disbanded her soldiers and set out to rescue Wentai. Once at the Rouran’s camps, she figured out a little of the politics involved and thought the Princess of Rouran (Liu Yuxin) could help her to extricate Wentai from his captivity. They contrived for assassinating Prince Modu during a festivity to save Wentai, the 7th Prince of Wei Kingdom, and to end the war.
Both Hua Mulan and Wentai were treated as national heroes upon their return. In addition, Hua Mulan refused the offer of becoming the Commander in Chief of Wei Kingdom armies. The Wei Emperor mandated Wentai for diplomatic marriage with Princess Rouran to bind the peace treaty and sealed relations with the northern Mongol hordes. It was a bittersweet ending for Hua Mulan who would rather forget about Wentai than to see more warring.
Jingle Ma slightly chose the direction to melodramatic love story between Mulan and Wentai instead of the usual period drama with lots of battle scenes. It’s obvious that the producers gave a lot of thought to how much romance would be possible under the circumstances. It did however, tells a moving story of a strong female personality. Jingle Ma portrays Mulan as very human and real who doesn’t depend on men or their expectations toward her role or place in society.
As far as for a romance movie is concerned, Zhao Wei is a perfect cast for her Mulan role. But as far as characterizing Mulan as a female soldier imposter then the makeup artist did a poor job. Zhao Wei is just too pretty donning the soldier armor with or without helmet or with her tied up hair. They need to make her complexion a little more believable and make her more masculine. Especially in the 12 years Mulan on the battlefield, no soldiers or other military personnel could tell that their leader with porcelain complexion, wide-eyed, plucked eyebrows, long curled eyelashes, and cherry lips is actually a woman. All things considered, Zhao Wei did immerse herself fully into the soft side character of Mulan and brings out the various emotions through her tears whether in anguish, sadness, happiness and or anger during combat.
Chen Kun put in a notable performance playing Wentai. He did convincing job head over heel for Mulan and the burden of keeping a secret for her incognito. Unfortunately, Jaycee Chan (Fei XiaoHu) in the other hand, his attempt to provide some comedic moments into the story falls flat, tiresome and annoying. Meanwhile, Hu Jun once again gives a strong performance as supporting cast playing the glowering and borderline psychotic Prince Modu. And the most baffling cast is Vitas as the Rouran’s servant. He is completely out of place in the movie.
Although this version of Mulan won’t be an instant classic or memorable one, for now it is the definitive one. All in all, Jingle Ma’s Mulan is worth watching and you won’t be disappointed if you were looking for a moving romance movie.
Zhao Wei … Hua Mulan
Jaycee Chan … Fei XiaoHu
Hu Jun … Modu
Chen Kun … Wentai
Yu Rongguang … Hua Hu
Jiao Xu … Young Hua Mulan
Vitas … Wude
Sun Zhou … Emperor
Liu Yuxin … Princess of Rouran
Chinese Title: 花木蘭
Director: Ma ChuCheng (Jingle Ma), Wei Dong
Screenplay: Ting Zhang
Producer: Song GuangCheng, Wang She
Director of Photography: Tony Cheung, Chen GuoXiong
Action Choreographer: Tung Wei
Art Director: Chan WuHo
Image Designer: Bruce Yu
Composer: Lee Wei Song, Lee Si Song
Soundtrack: Stefanie Sun (Hua Mulan’s Love)
Filming Locations: Gansu Province, Hebei Province and Ningxia Province
Release Date: November 26, 2009
Run Time: 1 hour 58 minutes
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