Friday 11 September 2020

China girl: "Mulan"

Our bigger movies have never seemed more like dinosaurs, lumbering noisily about on the verge of extinction, oblivious to changing world and shifting context alike. Back in January, Mulan held the mixed promise of being the latest off the conveyor belt of Disney's live-action remakes, albeit one with intriguing elements: the animation being anthropomorphised wasn't an unimprovable classic, rather one of the studio's solid second-rank items, and the director was Niki Caro, the Kiwi who did such acute, culturally sensitive work in the Maori heartlands of 2002's Whale Rider and the rural America of 2015's McFarlane, USA. As recently as two weeks ago, the studio appeared to be doing something like the responsible thing by making Mulan available for home viewing (admittedly for a hefty premium) via its Disney+ platform, where Tory superspreader Christopher Nolan was forcing everyone back into the recirculated air of the Odeon to witness the dubious virtuosity of his Tenet while being coughed at by maskless teenagers. Then came the meteor strike: a journalist sat at home with time on their hands to follow up on leads in the end credits revealed that Mulan had been filmed in Xinjiang province, with the permission of the same Chinese authorities who, in camps not a hundred miles away from Caro's sets, were carrying out forced sterilisation on the country's Uighur residents. I don't know about you, but I'm getting the distinct impression capitalism gives not a fig for the sanctity of human life.

Like Tenet, with which Caro's film was expected to duel at the global box-office in the non-bizarro version of Summer 2020, the Mulan that lands among us needs filing away under "dangerously seductive spectacle": Caro made many of the right decisions in production and post-production in a bid to compensate for the one very bad decision taken by the Disney higher-ups during pre-production. However much the screenwriters have tinkered with the blueprint (subtracting the wisecracking dragon, because these projects are now taken very seriously; adding Gong Li's shapeshifting sorceress to punch up the action quotient), the story still works: for newcomers, it's the one about the aspirant warrior princess (Liu Yifei) who spares her aging father (Tzi Ma) by riding into battle in his place, and winds up saving Imperial China from invaders, all while disguised as a boy. (Watching this naif blushing before the sight of her shirtless brothers-in-arms, you realise the extent to which the material plays like a bellicose Yentl: it's a legend to be passed down from one generation of oppressors to the next.) Caro peoples it with more or less every name Asian actor currently working (Donnie Yen and Jet Li upfront in the action, Rosalind Chao and Ming-Na Wen in domestic walk-ons), and dresses it up with the best cinematography, art design and costumes a Disney budget (now roughly comparable to a NASA budget) can buy. She shoots in big, striking, widescreen compositions - not entirely reduced on Disney+ - and fills her frames not with the ugly CGI that cluttered up the new Jungle Book, but organic sights, free-flowing textiles and handfinished props. Mulan's monogrammed blade has more weight and beauty than a thousand plasticky lightsabers.

The tension lurking beneath this ravishing surface concerns what all this weight and beauty is ultimately servicing. You can see exactly why the Chinese authorities signed off on this retelling: it's a practically unqualified hymn to imperial might, centred on a heroine whose skillset gets finetuned towards the creation of carnage and the suppression of others. That makes it a very different coming-of-age narrative to Whale Rider, where a girl broke free from hidebound patriarchal tradition to go her own way; Caro here establishes her alpha-female credentials by inviting us to cheer a young woman taking her place in the very frontlines of Chinese ethno-nationalism. (The leading lady's comments on the Hong Kong independence movement would suggest she was made for the role.) Try to separate the art from the artists, by all means - argue that undertaking an international coproduction isn't the same as enabling a major human rights violation, however closely the two might sit together - but the two beneficiaries of us handing over our £19.99 to Disney+ are China, who can show us the most carefully colour-graded recruitment video in military history, and Disney, who get to expand their empire even further into China. We get to swoon at the artistry, granted, but it's gone where a lot of corporate artistry now goes: into covering things up, like the delicate lotus blossom that perfectly occludes the heroine's derriere as she strips down for a moonlit swim. Caro is too gifted an imagemaker not to impose some of this on our eyeballs and sporadically dazzle us into submission - but as in Zhang Yimou's oddly similar Hero, it's the imposition, that underlying need for dominance, that's the issue here. Mulan's opulence is nothing if not supremely well-marshalled - but then it had to be. If Caro had stilled the thunderous horsehooves and quieted her rousing score, might we have heard the Uighurs' screams and cries for help?

Mulan is currently streaming via Disney+.

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