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Thu, Nov 26, 2009
my paper
This Mulan is far from Disney-esque

BY TAY YEK KEAK

THE last time we saw Mulan, she was a Disney cartoon character who sang cutesy love songs and who, at the end of the film, did a very untraditional thing: she hugged the emperor.

But in her latest big-screen incarnation, Mulan, which opens today, the legendary gal-disguised- as-guy warrior is tougher and grittier than ever.

Vicki Zhao Wei plays the fearless leader who charges at enemy forces, kills every poor sucker in her way, and heads straight for the enemy commander whom she nails ferociously with her sword. (Think Sarah Palin hunting moose, but without the helicopter.)

Conquering army after army, Mulan is promoted to general, becoming an unlikely heroine.

She even gives a rousing "we shall die for our country" pep talk to her troops, like Mel Gibson did in Braveheart.

Zhao's Mulan goes teary-eyed for only two things: her boyfriend, who's a fellow general, and her dad back home, whom she thinks of wistfully from time to time.

Jackie Chan's son, Jaycee, plays her best pal-soldier who knows her big secret of how, deep down, underneath her tough armour, she's scared of being found out. But other than that, as Zhao moves from maiden to warrior, there appears to be little that she is afraid of.

The gender issue in Mulan brings to the forefront Chinese culture's share of iron maidens.

And there have been more than a few.

Perhaps that's no surprise, considering how Chinese female athletes have won more Olympic gold medals than the guys, and also Cheng Pei Pei, who made a career out of kicking butt as Golden Swallow all those years ago in old Shaw Brothers wuxia films.

Now, some, like American magazine Bright Lights Film Journal, may argue that the Mulan legend, a revolutionary role model for Chinese women, "actually regurgitates filial piety and other outmoded Confucianisms".

The tale, says the magazine, forces Mulan to "alternate between masculine power and female sexuality without being able to truly synthesise the two".

Personally, I can only gauge the emancipation of Chinese women by how they are portrayed in films. And Chinese cinema has done much for the portrayal of heroines on the silver screen.

While Audrey Hepburn was learning to speak good English in My Fair Lady (1964), Cheng Pei Pei was already readying herself for the seminal martial-arts action film, Come Drink With Me (1966).

This was in a time, mind you, when feminism was blossoming in the West. Even then, Hollywood could only offer heroines of the James Bond kind: women who could deliver a sharp kick, but who were sexualised objects nonetheless.

Arguably, it wasn't until Alien (1979), starring Sigourney Weaver, that the West allowed a woman to really pack a punch.

In contrast, Chinese heroines have long been empowered with gongfu-style Fists Of Fury and Swords Of Vengeance.

The tradition continues today.

I instantly recall Zhang Ziyi clearing out an inn full of bandits in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2003).

Michelle Yeoh clobbered people in her movies. Shu Qi, Karen Mok and Vicki Zhao (again) did a Charlie's Angels in So Close (2003).

Gong Li and Zhou Xun shot daggers with their eyes in their films (don't ever mess with them).

And Maggie Cheung as ballbreaker in a qipao in Wong Kar Wai flicks.

Okay, so they all play to a certain stereotype, but it's one that is undoubtedly formidable.

The Chinese Female Warrior is a scary sight to behold, and you don't need Zhao donning a suit of battle armour in Mulan to tell you this.

But you might want to go watch the movie just to prove to yourself that I'm right.

myp@sph.com.sg


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