Review: Liu Yifei is the only good part of the live-action Mulan

How is it that Chen Man’s photoshoot for Liu Yifei got a calligrapher to write out Mulan’s slogan – Loyal, Brave, and True – but Disney couldn’t seem to get one for the movie with their 200-million-USD-budget.

The original Disney’ Mulan wasn’t perfect, but you could tell that the people who worked on it poured their hearts into it through details. Yet films often reflect societal attitudes, and gone is the time when China was still a subject of wonder for many filmmakers in the West, when filmmakers were sometimes insensitive but at least interested in China. In the live-action Mulan, almost every aspect of the film seems to send the same message: China is the world’s second-biggest box office and we will use the minimum efforts it takes to give them what we think they want.

Disney’s Mulan is not a bad film, but it is a disappointing film. The basic story of Mulan is compelling, the scenery is beautiful if often obviously New Zealand, and its lead Liu Yifei is charming enough and did what she could with the role. Yet it’s very hard to watch the live-action Mulan and not judge it for what it could’ve been or see the lack of effort behind it. One expects a live-action to have the same humor and heart as the original, and it doesn’t. There isn’t a single change I can name that improved the story.

As a fan of the original, my biggest problem is with the plot changes. The film’s choice to introduce “chi” aka the inner force is the antithesis to in many ways what made Disney’s Mulan unique at the time – she was not a princess by birth nor marriage but became worthy by her own strength. By giving her an innate ability to be in touch with her “chi” that others do not, she loses her character growth and agency. This, along with several other changes, made many of Mulan’s actions become reactions rather than active decisions. She became a hero by following her destiny rather than in spite of it.

The film also tries to make the film “more Chinese” by focusing more on patriotism and filial duty. Yet by removing the little girl’s doll, they remove “a girl worth fighting for”, and Mulan’s patriotism become blind. This is not helped by the fact that Jet Li’s emperor feels like a villain at times. The patriotism part feels like someone saw Wolf Warrior 3‘s box office and decided Chinese people liked it for the patriotic slogans rather than the fight scenes. Similarly, her filial duty was only tacked on at the very end.

The film also tries to be more feminist by removing the power imbalance between Mulan and Li Shang, by adding a female antagonist, and by some pretty obvious feminist lines. Yet everything seems so superficial, especially when they removed her agency with the concept of the “chi.”. There’s one key turning point where all the men take turns saying “I believe in Hua Mulan”, and it was so poorly done I felt like it was a parody.

As a fan of traditional Chinese culture, I felt even more offended by the film. I did this visual comparison of why I hated the costumes, sets, action choreography, and general aesthetics when the trailer came out, and everything still holds in the overall film. The costume and sets were dug up from an 80’s TVB abandoned lot and the action choreograph feels like someone watched Liu Yifei’s Return of the Condor Heroes and did a low-budget imitation of a few key elements. The end products all feel like someone who didn’t care about the film or Chinese culture went on SparkNotes and turned in something on a tight deadline.

One new complaint is that of composer Harry Gregson-Williams, who is just as lazy as the rest of the production team in his work. In addition to being an overall generic and boring soundtrack, the music also feels like he just googled Chinese instruments and added in the top three results ( guzheng, erhu, pipa, with a bit of the ruan). I couldn’t feel any love or understanding of Chinese music or instruments in his score. His use of the erhu was especially jarring for me. He used it in intense parts, happy parts, and sad parts as if it were a violin, but everyone who knows anything about erhu knows how hard it is to use the erhu to convey anything but sadness to the casual Chinese audience. Compare this to, say, Stefanie Sun’s Mulan Spirit that perfectly uses the horsehead fiddle in addition to the erhu, guzheng, and dizi to convey the vastness of the fields, the grandeur of the battles, and the longing for home.

The cast was also disappointing. I could’ve forgiven the casting of so many caricature looks if they made up for acting, but the acting is made-for-TV-film bad. Gong Li and Donnie Yen were passable but obviously didn’t try too hard with the one-dimensional characters they were given. Jet Li was atrocious. Only one of Mulan’s fellow soldiers – Jun Lin’s cricket – could act. Meanwhile, Rosalind Chao as Mulan’s mother was the only one who passed the test for me back at the village.

At the end of the film, Liu Yifei is the only person who feels like she’s trying in this whole production team. Her English intonations always convey the right emotion, something that she must’ve worked very hard on. While she didn’t have any wow moments, she delivers almost every scene, be it the innocence and joy of pre-matchmaking Mulan, shyness towards Li Shang-wannabe, her boyish fake demeanor in the army, and her doubt, anxiety, reservation, and determination in deciding to be her true self. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean she was excellent, it just means no one else feels like they’re trying, from the writer to the set designer to the costume designer to the stunt coordinator to the composer to the editor to the rest of the cast.

Mulan is currently available for streaming on Disney Plus in many countries and coming to theaters in others.

12 thoughts on “Review: Liu Yifei is the only good part of the live-action Mulan

  1. It was ok. The storyline and acting were passable and LYF did surprisingly well. BUT whoever did the costumes,set and action sequences should be fired. Honestly, I agree with the 80s TVB costumes comment. Having been spoiled by recent Chinese period drama productions like Tribes and Emperors, this really does not live up to the budget it was given. Even the trailer for Tribes and Emperors outdid every action scene in this movie (and of course the costuming and set production)

  2. I’m not going to lie but overall I enjoyed the movie mainly because of Liu Yi Fei’s acting. she definitely was the one that really kept the movie going. I really thought she delivered most parts very well. It is like how you said as if she was the only one trying. However I was really disappointed with A LOT of things about the movie. I felt that Donnie Yen was just way too flashy especially with his actions scenes and i personally thought he wasn’t really needed there, Jet Li felt as if he was the real general rather than an emperor or maybe the script for his and donnies character was just too bad and they couldnt think of any other way to deliver their character any better. The “romance” should have just been taken out. It really sucks how they took out the original character. Cricket… why even bother naming one of the characters as it.. that was so weird.. the costume and makeup though. Such a big disappointment no words can even express the disappointment. I thought it was really contradicting and quite upsetting how they decided to swap mushu for a pheonix since the pheonix is often associated with women whereas the dragon is with men (im not sure if this is accurate just based it off from the chinese historical dramas ive watched). It felt as if she is still below men and not really treated as an equal. I did feel like they could have worked more on Gong Lis character or should have just made her as the main villain to focus on. The character itself was pretty meaningful for Mulan but the character was just there and was pretty much wasted. The sister.. At first i didnt really like the idea of her having a sister. But after watching the movie i understand why she was there. You can see how she was that ideal perfect daughter in contrast to mulan. Pretty much most of the cast was wasted and just there for the screen. Disney should have worked more on the characters rather than just planting them there to be seen. I did complain to my sister about the action though and how it could have definitely been better but she was saying how Disney isn’t Hollywood where they often produce actions movies and for Disney to produce this its pretty good for Disney itself. I still dont agree but i can understand in a way. The whole chi was quite dumb. I really hated how whenever she was fighting they kinda blurred the outside to make it look like some sort of chi movement. Watching that made my eyes hurt.

  3. Checks who wrote the screenplay…. all white. Director…white. Who designed the costumes… white. The movie tried to be feminist but ended up creating a bland Mary Jane character. Even more talented actresses would struggle to make Mulan interesting here let alone Liu Yifei.

  4. idk, Liu Yifei’s acting was pretty par for the course for her. Though it doesn’t help that her character wasn’t written particularly well, which is sad since she’s the main character.

    The best part was Ming-Na Wen’s cameo.

  5. I watched the interview though and the director? said that they also work closely with the chinese government hence why the nuance were more sombre. I think whoever of the chinese side that was given the task to supervise this film, need to take some responsibility as well.
    Truthfully when they announced that the FL would be liu yifei, i know that they would scrap the hardworking, clumsy, a bit silly but brave and loyal cartoon mulan. Bcs quite frankly, liu yifei acting always been one note. She doesnt really have extensive amount of facial expression to begin with. Why would you guys expect more from her ?

    • Based on the few LYF works I watched, I agree with your assessment of her acting. Based on what I read from a couple summaries of her work, she seems to be the type who needs the right director to coax suitable acting out of her. This is not an idea trait for an actor but there are still plenty of productions willing to take the gamble due to her commercial appeal.

  6. Disney’s Mulan wanted a bit of everything, and the result did not live up to my expectations.
    If you want warfare+romance, go for Zhao Wei and Chen Kun’s version. If you want comedy and friendship,go for Anita Yuen’s drama version. Just not this.

  7. One thing I wonder is what would’ve happened if they did Mulan just a few years later. Most of the production crew seem to be longtime collaborators of director Niki Caro. At the time Niki Caro was chosen, there weren’t any well known female Hollywood directors of Chinese descent, and Disney pretty much had to go with either Chinese or female. Had Disney done Mulan now, it would’ve been harder to justify picking Niki Caro when there’s now Lulu Wang, Chloe Zhao, Cathy Yan, and Alice Wu. I feel like any of them could’ve done a much better job in bringing nuance and love to the film.

  8. Some commenters on social media and forums that watched this movie mentioned the cartoon version was better.
    Looking at who wrote the screenplay for this film, the end result was as expected sadly:

    The story could have been a lot better if they actually took the time to research the original ballad and other cultural aspects of that time period..

  9. I can’t remember if I left a comment on your original post about the trailer, but I wanted to say that I really appreciated your thoughtful analysis of both the trailer and now the film. It was really helpful to have context for what things could/should have looked like, since I don’t feel like most English language reviewers would have picked up all of those details. I’m disappointed but not surprised that the live-action Mulan is not great. :/

  10. I enjoyed the movie very much. The acting was incredible and I like the fact that Mulan main focus was to protect her family, her father and the kingdom. I still don’t understand why some don’t like this movie, but what do I know. LOL :)

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