Lady General Hua Mu Lan
Hong Kong 1963
Directed by Yueh Feng.

Ivy Ling Po, famous for playing male roles in Huangmei Opera films, this time plays a young woman disguising herself as a man, in the famous story of Hua Mulan, who went to war because her father was drafted but too ill to go. He refuses to let her go at first, but then she disguises as a man and kicks Dad's ass all over the courtyard, and he has a change of heart. Besides, "our enemies are invading, the war flames are spreading, who would not defend one's homeland?"

Her cousin wishes her to have nothing to do with the rough and tumble rabble of career soldiers and opportunists that make up the rank and file of the army, but Mulan has an easy affinity with them, and in turn they admire her generous nature.

When they all arrive at the army camp, a contest is held to pick commanders, and Mulan easily bests almost all of them in armed combat, then is pressured into getting massively drunk with them. General Li takes an immediate liking to the young "lad", and she takes a shine to him as well.

The General is an interesting character, not least because of his strange subtitling. The movie subtitles are normal for all of the other characters, but when he speaks, on occasion the subs start reading like they were written by Mark Twain for one of his southern characters. At one point he speaks, and the subtitles read, "Gonnna marry the commanders daughter n'all." I like to think (though realistically it is doubtful) that this was on purpose, and he really does speak in a rustic, down-to-earth dialect that is different from the others.

When Mulan finally leads her men into battle, the movie heads sharply south. The battle sequence is quite poorly handled, the cinematographer seemingly clueless as to how to do a simple day for night shot. Instead, the action is dark and difficult to see, despite the obvious blue, sunny sky above. Had the wrong filter on the camera, I guess.

I really enjoyed the first half of the film, up to the fifty minute mark or so (roughly, the first VCD, if viewing in that format). Ivy Ling Po gives a spirited and likable performance, and she makes Mulan a genuine and pleasant companion. But then comes the horribly filmed climactic battle, and afterwards, an endless denoument. This movie was made before the age of kung fu endings, in which "THE END" would appear only seconds after the hero delivers a final ball-blasting punch to the villain, and the scene would freeze, before he can even properly fall to the ground. No, the conclusion here is drawn out interminably. What makes matters worse is the dialog in this section, in which all of the main characters sit back and say, "Hey, that Mulan is kind of like Chu Ying-Tai and Liang Shan-po," making reference to the famous cross-dressing romance THE LOVE ETERNE. I felt like we were all sitting around reviewing the film. "Well, that MULAN story we just did was pretty good, but hey, how about THE LOVE ETERNE, we were pretty good in that, too, weren't we?" By the end of this gratuitous and self-congratulatory ending, I had run out of patience, and the good will built up during the first half of the film was thoroughly spent.

Rating: Marginally Recommended (Marginally Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on January 24, 2006.

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