The big film news in China this past week was the announcement that casting is at last set for a new treatment of the story of woman warrior Hua Mulan, and that filming will begin soon in Hubei. It has been known for some time this was in the works, but casting of the title character was undetermined. The rumors swirling about that casting decision at times resembled those around the casting of Scarlett O'Hara: Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, the winner of the Chinese counterpart of "American Idol" ... these were just a few of the names rumored as possibilities. Last week it was confirmed that the new Mulan would be Vicki Zhao Wei 赵薇. The Chinese blogs have reacted to this news with considerable enthusiasm, which the editor shares, although tempered with caution: while the lovely and charming Ms. Vicki is one of a handful of performers he would cheerfully pay to see even if she did nothing more than read selections from the Beijing telephone directory for 90 minutes, he has never thought of her as a wudan, especially not in the sort of gender-bending roles Brigitte Lin did so well in the 1980s and 90s. We will see how it turns out.
The announcement of a new recounting of the legend brings to mind the numerous past filmed versions of Hua Mulan. While moviegoers in the West may be familiar only with the 1998 Disney animated feature "Mulan", and perhaps its 2004 straight-to-video sequel, the tale of the filial daughter disguised as a boy who goes to war in her aging and infirm but heirless father's stead has been presented countless times: on stage as drama, ballet and opera, on large and small screen, computer games ... virtually every form of popular entertainment. Mulan has been considered a plum role for generations of Chinese actresses, much as every actor in the West supposedly nurses a secret desire to play Hamlet.
Since Mulan's story had been a subject of Chinese opera for many years, it makes sense that the first filmed version was a segment of classic opera. In 1926, the Minxin studio released a two-reeler "The Stage Art of Mei Lanfang", in which the immortal Beijing opera artist performed excerpts from a half dozen of his classic roles. "Hua Mulan Cong Jun" 花木兰从军 (Hua Mulan Joins the Army) was the first of the scenes presented.
The first full-length dramatic film treatment came the following year from Tianyi, the Shao (later Shaw) Brothers original Shanghai studio. The Chinese title again was "Hua Mulan Joins the Army", but was released outside of China with the English title "Maiden in Armour". The title role was played by Hu Shan 胡姗, younger sister of Chinese movies' "Empress" Hu Die. While none of Hu Shan's movies seem to have survived, from all contemporary accounts she was a fine actress who was always overshadowed by her more famous sister.
[right, Hu Shan as Mulan, in a tough spot]
Minxin brought out its own dramatized feature a year later, in 1928, this time with Li Dandan 李旦旦 in the title role. Li Dandan was one of China's most popular young stars of the late 1920s. She retired early from movies when she married and moved to Europe, but had a later, second career as one of the first Chinese female aviators.
[left, Li Dandan as Mulan]
The earliest version we can see today is the 1939 Hong Kong sound version, "Lady General" starring Chen Yunchang 陈云裳 (aka Nancy Chan) as Mulan. Two versions were filmed, in Cantonese and Mandarin, with the bilingual star acting the title role in both. (Hu Die did this in several Hong Kong films.) Since this version still exists, we will discuss it in a future retro review.
[right, Nancy Chan as Hua Mulan]
There were several remakes in the 1950s and 60s from Hong Kong, both straight narrative and operatic, some in Cantonese and some in Mandarin. The most honored was the 1964 Shaw Brothers production, in Mandarin and with Ivy Ling Po 凌波 in the lead, and released internationally as "Lady General Hua Mulan". (Ling's performance won the Best Actress award at the 11th Asian Film Festival.) In vivid color, with a stellar cast and direction by veteran Griffin Yueh Feng 岳枫, plus added music, it was an entertaining 106 minutes of action and story.
[left, poster for the classic 1964 Shaw Brothers version, with Ivy Ling in the title role]
With any legendary figure, especially one from nearly two millenia ago, the question always arises as to how much of the legend is based in historical fact and how much is fabrication. The Chinese seem to believe there is at least some truth to the story: after she retired from military service as a general, a grateful emperor gave her a comfortable retirement home, complete with fully stocked goldfish pond (she is said to have been fond of them) and military guard to watch over and keep her company. The home has been restored and is a popular Chinese tourist site, a beautiful place the editor visited in the 1990s. Did Mulan really exist? I don't know, did King Arthur really exist? Did Robin Hood? Hopeless romantic that he is, the editor likes to think so. But then, he also likes to think of himself as George Clooney's identical twin ... and married to Vicki Zhao ... hey, it could happen. Couldn't it? Please?
[Presenting the next Hua Mulan, Vicki Zhao Wei. In full armor, courtesy of Photoshop]