'Mulan' comes to life with live actors

Director Ma said new version humanizes woman warrior

HONG KONG -- More than a decade after Disney made a blockbuster animated film out of a folk tale about a young woman in ancient China who takes her father's place on the battlefield, a Hong Kong director is taking on the story of Hua Mulan with real actors.

Jingle Ma said his live-action version of "Mulan" avoids glorifying one of China's best-known female folk heroes, instead focusing on her vulnerabilities and relationships. Ma said he delved into Mulan's trepidation when killing for the first time and confronting the death of her comrades.

"The animated movie tells you she is cheerful. She's a little godlike in that she can solve all her problems. She can use her wits to solve many of her problems. But it doesn't discuss her deepest emotions," he said in a recent interview.

In Ma's 115-minute movie, which opens in China, Singapore and Malaysia on Friday, gone are the goofy antics of a sidekick dragon voiced by Eddie Murphy and the smooth Broadway-style numbers performed by "Miss Saigon" star Lea Salonga, replaced with the bloody, gritty reality of war. One of the movie's shots shows Mulan, played by Chinese actress Zhao Wei, sprayed with blood on her face after killing a general from a foreign tribe invading China.

Zhao, whose credits include Stephen Chow's "Shaolin Soccer" and John Woo's historical epics "Red Cliff" and "Red Cliff II," is known for her pretty looks but also boyish demeanor that Ma says made her a good fit for the lead role. The Hong Kong director said he was looking for an actress who was athletic and well-built enough to be a credible male soldier.

"If you put a woman with a slender face among tens of thousands of soldiers, I don't think she would have an easy time," Ma said.

It's debated whether Hua Mulan is a historical figure. The basis of the folk story is largely a 300-word poem from the Southern and Northern dynasties (420 to 589) that gives the broad sketches of her life, leaving plenty to the imagination of the storyteller.

Ma, who is best known for his romantic films, fills the gaps with a sentimental portrayal of Mulan. In between her brutal military campaigns, Mulan falls in love with fellow general Wentai (Chen Kun) and is devastated when she is led to believe that he died in battle. When Wentai volunteers himself as a hostage to the invading tribe so his trapped comrades can be freed, Mulan goes undercover among the enemy to rescue him.

"Most people think Hua Mulan is a god, but I think Hua Mulan is a woman," Ma said.
American and European distribution deals for the 80 million Chinese yuan ($12 million) production are still being negotiated.

While Ma said he wants his movie to go global - the 1998 Disney film made more than $300 million worldwide - he said his first mission is to tell a Chinese story for the Chinese.

"I don't know if foreign audiences will like this movie, but I want to do a good job in our domestic market first. If foreign audiences like it as well, that's a bonus for me," he said.