After several less-than-stellar live-action Disney adaptations, I’m about to call it quits when it come to this new Disney movie trend. Except we’ve been promised a live-action Mulan movie. Since news broke of the adaptation, I’ve been stoked to see if Disney will do justice to the Mulan story, giving us live-action Shang and a thrilling, historically accurate story.
Until I watched a 2009 Chinese film, Hua Mulan (or sometimes known as Mulan: Rise of the Warrior), that already gives us exactly what we need for a live-action Mulan adaptation.
Hua Mulan retells the Mulan legend in a historical and realistic portrayal. While it follows the basic storyline of a young woman dressing as a boy to fight in place of her father, Hua Mulan is different than the Disney animated film. For one, it follows the original ballad, showing Mulan’s rise in the ranks of the Wei Army as she becomes general and highlighting all of her accomplishments during her twelve years in battle, such as how many enemies she defeated and how many men she saved. It also doesn’t shy away from the realities of war, showing many characters dying brutal deaths.
But Hua Mulan does more than just tell the story without a comedic dragon come to life and catchy singing montages. It offers a portrayal of a strong, female character that doesn’t have to live up to the standards of Western ridicule.
There is a theme centering the film about sacrifice and not developing feelings on the battlefield, and throughout the film, Mulan keeps her face stoic, especially in the face of numerous deaths. She doesn’t have to smile to show us she’s a strong woman. We see it through her other actions: how she pins a fellow soldier when he attacks her comrade or when she doesn’t give up in a fight, no matter the bloodshed around her. Her fortitude in battle and her ability to fight reaffirms her strength as a badass character. She doesn’t have to have a flawless face or hair to let us know she’s beautiful. Throughout the film, strands of her hair are wildly falling from her updo and her face is streaked with dirt and blood. Yet seeing her step forward to fight to protect her “brothers” makes her more beautiful than all the Disney princesses combined.
This version of Mulan also shows her emotions. There are many times she is shown crying over the deaths of friends or even when she has to take the life of an enemy general (supposedly her first true kill). She cries over a man she has feelings for, and she cries when she is reunited with her father at the end of the film. Despite how tough she may be on the outside, how stoic she may keep her features, Mulan’s character in the film also allows for genuine emotion. She may be strong, but she is human. And no one ever shames her for crying.
As if that wasn’t enough, Hua Mulan also brings us a more realistic, well-developed romance than Disney did. Yes, I love Shang just like the rest of the fangirls, but the romance between him and Mulan isn’t quite as developed as it could have been. It’s really just thrown there in the end after Mulan saves China. Hua Mulan, however, gives us a slow, sometimes sweet and sometimes sad but mostly realistic romance between Mulan and her fellow general, Wentai. From the beginning, Wentai admires Mulan for her strength and fighting ability. Even after he learns she is a woman, he doesn’t abandon her. He keeps her secret and continues to encourage her to be a great leader, no matter her gender. Together, they fight battles and grow in their leadership skills side by side, as equals. Even up to the end of the movie, his words help her persevere against the enemy and with the personal sacrifice she must make to stop the war. While the story of Mulan is definitely not about the romance, the way Hua Mulan handles it was tasteful and poignant. I think Disney is going to have a hard time competing with such a beautiful connection, especially since Shang isn’t going to even be in the live-action adaptation.
Hua Mulan may be a little different than the Western action movies I’m used to, but the acting talent of the cast has been highly praised and the film itself has won several awards and been nominated for many others. The music and the costumes along with the script breathe life into the Mulan legend, providing everything we need for a good live-action adaptation. We just may need subtitles to understand it.