On Saturday, after cleaning my entire house, I celebrated my long week by watching Mulan - not the Disney version but the live Chinese version that came out in 2009.
For those of you unfamiliar with anything but the Disney version (which I also love), the story of Mulan is based off a poem called The Ballad of Mulan that was written during the Northern Wei Dynasty (386 - 534) about a girl who goes to take her father's place in the army and fights for 12 years. Just like the Disney version, this girl steals away in the night, joins the rest of the recruits and makes a few very close friends and starts out with a slightly light-hearted mood which is quickly changed with the reality of war. Unlike the Disney version, the live action version never regains its humor and it doesn't have a happy ending either (in the romantic sense). Furthermore, rather than examine the issues of gender roles, the live action version examines the issues of war, told through the eyes of a girl who expresses and verbalizes the same thoughts as the men round her.
The result is a thought-provoking dialogue on duty, love, self (one) vs. others (the whole), and sacrifice. It's interesting to contrast its thoughts and opinions with my own. It's even more interesting in light of the highly different cultures and values upheld by the differing cultures. However, I didn't feel that I was watching a movie about "Chinese" thoughts or that I was examining the movie with an "American" perspective. Instead, it felt simply and profoundly "human", applicable in ways that all humankind can feel and understand.
There are three scenes that made this movie for me. These aren't the only good scenes in the movie, nor do they encompass all of the issues mentioned above. These are simply scenes that I 'liked', without reference to the details that make any movie review actually worth reading.
(1) The scene: We've just been introduced to the three main characters and the other endearing side characters when a brawl breaks out among some of the soldiers (one is crying because sold himself to fight in a nobleman's son's place in order to hopefully get the money and medicine necessary to care for his sick mother only to find himself facing the chance of death in war while his mother's health continues to decline. Another soldier jumps up to beat him up for being such a 'crybaby'.) Ever the honorable one, Little Tiger jumps in to the defend the crying soldier and break up the fight. Too quickly, he finds himself over his head when the bully brings in his cronies. Mulan jumps into the fray and silences everyone with her/his skill, easily ending the brawl and further tussles. ("Save your fighting for the battlefield.") Little Tiger gives a wry little smile with a glance at his new friends, "That's my brother, Mulan."
Why I love it: Little Tiger already knows Mulan's real identity; they are from the same hometown. That means he knows it was a girl who just showed him up on fighting skills and it was a girl who just beat the bully and his cronies soundly. However, there's nothing but pride though that this person is on his side, and counted as not only his friend but as a family member, a brother. This was the moment I started to adore Little Tiger and that feeling only grows throughout the movie. I can't say enough good things about Little Tiger.
(Interesting side note: The man who plays Little Tiger in this movie is Jackie Chan's son. The fact that Jackie Chan's son was just shown up in fighting by a girl also add a clever little commentary probably not intended but entertaining (and worth the wry smile) nonetheless.)
(2) The scene: Mulan the general gets up in front of her men and says, "Your general Hua Mulan honestly is a person who is very afraid of fighting in war. I am always afraid. I am always avoiding it. But my fear and my running away from the war has caused me to lose my most important friend. His leaving has helped me realize that avoidance does not end the war and that fear has only caused me to lose even more. From now on, I will become stronger and protect each of you. You also need to become stronger and protect the people at your side. Will you do this?"
Why I like it: How often in war movies does a general over the army admit that he is afraid to kill? And that he has made mistakes? It's real; it's very real. This is the scene that makes the army and defines Hua Mulan as a good general - not because of her good tactics, although she definitely has those - but because of her devotion to her brothers and their determination to stand by each other for the sake of each other. Also of note, in this scene, she is wearing two fellow soldier's dog tags on her armor - the tag of a friend who died because she too zealously jumped into a battle to protect another friend and the tag of the most important friend who died because she didn't have the heart to face another battle and stayed behind. Both are interesting lessons - to know when to fight and when to stay still.
(3) The scene: A dust storm interrupts a very serious battle between Mulan's outnumbered army and the enemy's army. Minutes before the storm, Mulan was pulled off her horse because she had received two arrows to the chest. When the dust settles, the air is eerily quiet and it looks like everyone has died. Wentai jumps up and starts turning over soldier and soldier. He panics as he fails to find who he is looking for and finally just starts wandering the battlefield while yelling, "Hua Mulan! Hua Mulan!" It's a desperate plea from a man who is hoping the person he cares most for is still alive.
Why I love it: I'm a romantic. We all know that about me. But this isn't romantic in a 'I wish this were my life' way. It's romantic in the sense that here is a man who, having learned to govern his life with self-sacrifice and emotional discipline, is now staggeringly overcome with emotion and selfishness. You see, Wentai is that important friend in the second scene (above) who Mulan lost. She was told he had died and he meant for it to be that way, partly because he wasn't sure he would survive his wounds, partly because he wanted her to become the general he knew she could become. That would require her to learn to put aside her feelings for Wentai and learn to truly lead on behalf of the thousands of men under her stewardship. Wentai recovered and remained in the army as a mere foot soldier, never returning to his role as general, never revealing to Mulan that he still lived. He remained on, lonely and separated from his best friend, for Mulan and her army's sake. However, in this horrifyingly beautiful scene, suddenly Wentai is faced with the very real fact that Mulan might be dead. He loses it, in one fell swoop, betraying both his emotion and his identity. It's agonizing and it's beautiful.