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I think it's very telling that for my birthday I got an abundance of stuff relating to the far East, including calligraphy books, inkstones with brushes, books of Japanese art, novels and the subject of this post: Hua Mulan on DVD. In case you hadn't guessed, it's the 2009 Chinese language version of the story of Mulan, and my word, it's good. Trailer.

I'll freely admit my knowledge of the Mulan story initially came from the Disney version, which I love for many reasons anyway. For those who don't know the story, China is under threat, so conscription notices are sent throughout the provinces. Mulan's father is sick/old (depending on the version), so she steals his notice and his old army uniform, and runs away to join the army in his place. She ends up a war hero, and of course, film version do have to add a little romance, just because she's a girl.

This film took that story and made it absolutely intense and heartbreaking. Chinese cinema always dazzles me anyway, with their landscaps, scale, lighting, everything really. I would sit through a thousand subtitled films just for the look of the thing. They had the scale in this, but they also had the intimacy.

The main characters are Mulan, her best friend Tiger, and another soldier, whom she falls for in a big way, Wentai. The back-up circle of friends, though, are also great. You have few small moments with them, and yet, you feel the friendship and the genuine affection that is there. The development of tough blokeish posturing into genuine friendship was so subtly and beautifully done that when it came to Tragic Deaths (oh, come on. It's a Chinese film about war. Do you really think every/anyone will get out alive when you can have Epic Tragic Deaths?), I was in tears every single time. Made all the more poignant by the fact that Wentai and Mulan collect the wooden dogtags of their fallen friends and wash them and hang them in rows outside the tents so they rattle softly in the wind.

And then, we have the villain. Played by the son of Jackie Chan. He was the most fantastically over-the-top gleeful villain possible, but was restrained by his father, who did seem like a genuinely good leader, and cared for the tribes under his aegis. Good leader. Violent, crazy son with a crush on his sister. Anyone seeing where we Gladiator going with this?

The first half of the film was mostly about Mulan's transition from nervous girl soldier to general, and the sacrifices that had to be made to ensure that she would be as strong as she could be. What really impressed me was the fact this film surprised me not once but several times in ways I really should have seen coming, but didn't until they happened.

The second half is when Fei Xiaohu (Jaycee Chan) goes full-throttle for villainy, and Mulan's army are betrayed and left to fend for themselves against Xiaohu's merciless band, who are prepared to make them suffer and beg and starve. Mulan, however, decides to go for one last stand.

Wentai, however, proves to be something of a valuable asset, and when he's captured, Mulan makes the decision to join forces with Xiaohu's sister to take him down, and end the war between their people at any cost. And they do, and there is righteous smacking down, and for once, the girl gets to save the boy.

And of course, since this is a wonderful, wonderful Chinese production, Mulan faces the choice of being with the man she loves or seeing peace through rejecting the love of her life to make him do his duty. And yep, was sobbing quietly again as she tells him "you said you would give your life to end this war. I can't be selfish when this is the only way for peace". It was a beautiful, heart-wrenching ending.

As for the cast, won't go on too much, but Vicki Zhao (Wei Zhao) brought such dignity and determination to Mulan. She was so fantastically strong-willed, and the transition from idealism, through heartbreak, to proud determination was a great one. Even on the return home, the joy was so beautifully muted, and you can see the emotional scars that twelve years as a warrior have left on her.

I'm useless at the character names, on the whole, but the guy who played Wentai was fantastically loyal, and actually looked very nice with a great big scar. Tiger was just fricking adorable, as the loyal friend from Mulan's hometown, who is only one of two people who know her secret and supports her through good and bad, right to the bitter end.

I want to icon this film to death. It's beautiful, heartbreaking, powerful and emotional. Yes, there are flaws, and you can see where some of the editing has been made for the English subbed version, but even so, I love it. Beautiful, beatiful film.
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Fyre

October 2012

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