Mulan can’t meet her father’s gaze, because she has just made a fool of herself at the matchmaker’s place. So, she does what any good daughter does at the time — she turns her family horse’s face around to cover her own, as she takes him to the stable.

Her embarrassment is earnest enough that a song swells out: “Look at me, I may never pass for a perfect bride, or a perfect daughter. Can it be, I’m not meant to play this part?”

At her family’s ancestral shrine, Mulan wipes half of her face make-up off, her internal reflections reflecting in the dozen or so mirror-like ancestral tablets as the song Reflections reaches an emotional high. “Who is that girl I see, staring straight back at me? Why is my reflection someone I don’t know?” she sings.

Her struggle is profound, but her father understands. At their garden, blooming with Mulan Magnolias (yes, that is one of the names of the orchids), he tells her that she is a bud that has yet to blossom, and find her way in the world.

Soon Mulan will be wiping away her make-up, tying up her hair, wrapping her breasts to conceal them and stealing her father’s sword to battle invading nomadic tribes of the north on her Emperor’s orders — only she would be disguised as the son her father never had. She is a strong young woman in a story where men are relegated to the background.

It’s difficult to make a mess with a simple story, $200 million, experienced crews and a solid production house like Disney behind it. Somehow, the live action adaptation of the 1998 animated movie Mulan has managed it

The scene above is hardly two-and-a-half minutes long and dates back to 1998, when the subtext of the battle against patriarchy was subtler, unbloated but still, surprisingly, insightful.

In the 2020 live action adaptation of the 1998 animated movie, with over 200 million dollars spent in budget, and a female director at the helm, the outward appearance remains intact. How can it not? The hull is protected by the sacrosanct corporate branding of Disney, which is as formidable (if not more), than any imperial army from history.

Very few key moments change: Mulan (once voiced by Ming-Na Wen, now played by the stoic Yifei Liu) still visits the local matchmaker, makes a fool of herself, wraps her body up, steals her father’s sword, disguises herself as a man and joins the army on Imperial orders.

However, gone are the small details, the subtlety in telling a feminist story, the emotional connection to the characters and the buffoonery of a small, wisecracking dragon (voiced by Eddie Murphy in the animated version). Their replacements are a Maleficent-like villainess (Gong-Li, pathetic and apathetic), badly choreographed Wushu (Chinese martial arts), some mumbo jumbo about the powers of Chi (the channeling of one’s life force), and the cameo appearance of a soaring phoenix — a symbolic representation of Mulan’s rise from the ashes, that may also be early signs of schizophrenia (our heroine is the only one who sees this phoenix).

Also, expunged with prejudice are the songs, which gave weight and insight into Mulan’s inner struggles.

As per director Niki Caro’s point of view, in contemporary, realistic cinema, no one sings in the heat of the battle, or afterwards for that matter.

In light of this argument about realism in movies, one would have assumed that flying sorceresses, gravity-defying martial arts and a soaring phoenix would also have gone out of the window. One cannot just pick and choose for convenience, but that’s how the ball rolls in this version.

The Ballad of Mulan, a 31-couplet sixth century poem by Guo Maoqian, is an oft-adapted source of inspiration for historically inaccurate, gung-ho war films with a strong, independent-minded heroine at the centre. Just this year, there have been two adaptations of Mulan in China — Matchless Mulan and Mulan zhi Jinguo yinghao (roughly translated as Mulan Heroine) — with a third animated one, Kung Fu Mulan, in the works.

Despite the multitude of adaptations, the main story points, detailed in the poem, remain fixtures, even in the two Disney adaptations.

Seemingly simple to adapt — there are few story points to move around — the screenplay by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Lauren Hynek and Elizabeth Martin is mostly unsure of the tone of the film, and Caro’s direction is amateurish, even with the mega-budget at her disposal.

There are very few ways a film teeming with experienced camera crews, assistant directors and the likes can be messed up. But Caro, who seems to have overshot the film, and then fumbled at the edit, appears to have a natural knack for shoddy storytelling.

Scenes that would highlight specific actors — such as Jet Li in unrecognisable make-up as the Imperial Emperor, or master-actor and celebrated martial artist Donnie Yen’s Wushu — are appallingly hacked and slashed in the edit. The bad edit also leads to unclear storytelling and continuity issues.

An early scene, for example, shows a teenage Mulan, brimming with Chi and acrobatic abilities, chasing a chicken in their enclosed chawl-like village (historically some rural villages were made that way). We then cut to a trade city on the Silk Route, the intro of the shape-shifting witch (Gong-Li), an invading horde from North China and their arrow-catching chieftain Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee). When we cut back to Mulan, and she’s now a young woman who would make a debacle at the matchmakers.

The editorial decisions attenuate the relevance of space and time, and boggles the mind with a torrent of questions: Did the horde invade when Mulan was a young girl, or when she became fit for marriage? In either case, why did it take years for the Imperial Army to mount an attack? Are we looking at the last days of war? If we are, why is there no sense of dread in the way scenes play out? Why is there the need to have witchcraft, when it doesn’t help with the story? Why don’t we connect to the supporting cast?

Donnie Yen’s character, a commanding officer who is supposedly a father-figure to Mulan, has a few mishandled scenes to validate his relationship. Gong-Li’s witch and Mulan have forced, undeveloped scenes of woman-to-woman kinship against oppressive patriarchy. People, even bad ones, flip sides without motive. This Mulan is a mess, any which way one looks at it.

For a better experience, here’s some advice: watch the 1998 animated feature. It is, essentially, the same story — only 28 minutes shorter and better told.

Released by HKC Entertainment in Pakistan, Mulan is rated PG-13 for the usual Disney, kid-friendly action stuff

Published in Dawn, ICON, September 13th, 2020