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A view on Blu-ray and DVD video by Leonard Norwitz

Mulan [Blu-ray]

 

(Jingle Ma & Dong Wei, 2009)

 

 

 

 

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Review by Leonard Norwitz

 

Studio:

Theatrical: PKU Starlight & Shanghai Film Groups

Blu-ray: Panorama

 

Disc:

Region: FREE! (as verified by the Momitsu region FREE Blu-ray player)

Runtime: 1:54:09.000

Disc Size: 23,713,794,774 bytes

Feature Size: 23,453,939,712 bytes

Video Bitrate: 22.39 Mbps

Chapters: 12

Case: Standard Blu-ray case

Release date: February 12th, 2010

 

Video:

Aspect ratio: 2.35:1

Resolution: 1080p / 23.976 fps

Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC Video

 

 

Audio:

DTS-HD Master Audio Chinese 2133 kbps 5.1 / 48 kHz / 2133 kbps / 16-bit (DTS Core: 5.1 / 48 kHz / 1509 kbps / 16-bit)
Dolby Digital Audio Chinese 640 kbps 5.1 / 48 kHz / 640 kbps
Dolby Digital Audio Chinese 640 kbps 5.1 / 48 kHz / 640 kbps

 

Subtitles:

English, Chinese, none

 

Extras:

• None

 

 

The Film: 6
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is the same Mulan who was brought to the attention of Western audiences in Disney's animated feature of the same name in 1998. But this new movie is no pretty feminist picture of that legendary personage. This Hua Mulan doesn't sing and she doesn't have any talking animalistic sidekicks either. But the rest of the story's outlines are much the same. Her country on the verge of being gobbled up by a neighboring faction in centuries old China; her taking her father's place in battle, disguised as a man; her coming close to being found out, which would have brought shame to her family; her victories in battle over twelve years of war; and, of course, the central love story, which, in the present case, is dripping with pathos and sentiment – very affecting and noble.

Zhao Wei, who plays our eponymous heroine, did considerable work on Chinese television serials before breaking out on the big screen in 2001 in Steven Chow's Shaolin Soccer and Jeff Lau's A Chinese Odyssey 2002. She has since worked with John Woo in Red Cliff in the part of Shangxiang. In between she played a quite different character with a similar name - Yao Mulan - for a long running, critically acclaimed TV series ("Moment in Peking" – readily available on DVD and at Netflix) that takes place in early twentieth century China. The popular actress is also known as Vicky Zhao, though she is not particularly known for her martial arts skills. When I watched some her scenes in Mulan images of Richard Gere in Chicago flashed before my eyes. That aside, there is no question of acting skills– in particular of her ability to persuade us of her character's ambivalence about fighting, killing, and leading her army to a likely death, which is really what the movie is all about, or should have been except that the love story angle keeps nudging past for those in the audience who feel a war movie doesn't hold enough drama without it.

A review of Director Jingle Ma's credits on the IMDb reveals that he first made his mark as a cinematographer on some 28 films before, beginning in 1998, directing several of the movies he also photographed. You might guess that this could explain, in part, why Mulan looks better than it plays . . . except that he didn't shoot this one – that credit belongs to Tony Cheung did (The Legend of Drunken Master). Jingle Ma also got help directing the action sequences from Dong Wei, who has only this film to his credit, it seems. While the battle scenes are nicely composed when seen from a distance, they never remotely approach the drama or visual impact of similar scenes in Zhang Yimou's Hero or John Woo's Red Bluff. The more intimate combats also lack the necessary gruesome crunch. I rarely had the feeling that Zhao Wei was nearly as good a fighter as Mulan is supposed to be, though she doesn't lack for intensity of spirit and agonized ambivalence.

The movie has a particularly good "villain" thanks to Hu Jun (Red Cliff, Assembly, Infernal Affairs II), though he is underused, and another woman, even more underused, a princess of the invading Rouran clan (Liu Yuxin). The presence of a Russian singer/actor (Vitas) as her loyal servant is questionable.

Another part of the narrative's difficulty comes from the fact that there two non-competing men who invite Mulan's loyalty and affection. The first of these is Fei (Jaycee Chan) a friend from her village who recognizes here at once when she goes to sign up for the army. Fei functions as her guardian for as long as he lives, which isn't long enough to make his character take hold. The second is Wentai (Chen Kun), a son of noble birth, who learns of her true gender early on and falls immediately in love with her. In short order Wentai and Mulan become successful generals and nonconsummating lovers, we imagine, though Mulan's inability to keep her "feminine" side from making objective decisions costs the lives of an entire unit. Not long afterward Wentai decides to "play dead" for a sizable stretch in hopes that Mulan will discover her inner warrior. (That probably reads worse than it plays on screen.)

Image: 8/9   NOTE: The below Blu-ray captures were taken directly from the Blu-ray disc.
The first number indicates a relative level of excellence compared to other Blu-ray video discs on a ten-point scale. The second number places this image along the full range of DVD and Blu-ray discs.

The image doesn't lack for sharpness, though we have the impression that's it's thinner than it should be (bit rate, perhaps?) Color and contrast is excellent. Transfer issues are minimal to absent. Noise is also absent. The source elements are pristine, as we would expect from a movie that is scarcely three months old.

 

CLICK EACH BLU-RAY CAPTURE TO SEE ALL IMAGES IN FULL 1920X1080 RESOLUTION
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Audio & Music: 7/7
For nearly an hour I felt the audio mix decidedly front directed. Even the action scenes lacked that immersive feeling we have become used to from any number of action and war movies. But from the big set piece and siege in the middle of the film onward, the soundstage opens up in every direction, including down, with some impressive weight to the special effects, especially when a huge magical wind overwhelms the army. Dialogue is always clear and properly positioned.
 

Operations: 4
What we have here is a case of giving with one hand and taking away with the other. Neither the UK nor Hong Kong or Korea have gotten the word yet: Dual layer Blu-rays exist. They work. They are user friendly. They make buyers happy. Happy buyers buy more titles. Today's case in point is a bit unusual in that, instead of taking advantage of dual layer capacity, Panorama places the feature film on a single-layer Blu-ray and the extra features on a DVD – the same DVD that is included on the 2-disc DVD set released at about the same time as the Blu-ray. I assume the reason is that this way they don't have to spend a few cents more for a BD-50 nor invest in the authoring to place the extra features on a Blu-ray. Not content with this backward thinking, they have ended up with an image with a lower bit rate than necessary (and higher in this case would have resulted in a better picture). And not yet done, they twist the knife further with a DVD coded for Region 3 – naturally, since they simply dropped in the disc fro their DVD set. So, why bother with English subtitles for the extra features, we might ask? I guess Panorama assumed the English-speaking market for Mulan would be limited to Hong Kong. Go figure.

 


A brief note about the translation: there are few spelling errors, however, it is evident even without a knowledge of Mandarin, that nuance and detail is left out and that some of the language has been dumbed down, almost as if not to offend anyone.

 

Extras: 6
As indicated in the Operations section, all the important bonus features are subtitled in English, which is as unexpected as it is helpful. There are about 107 minutes worth of production extras, all in standard definition, often 4:3, and in varying degrees of clarity, but never poor. Good show.
 

Recommendation : 7
I thought this Mulan took a long time to get off the ground, but once there I found myself caught up in the drama. The cast is quite good, though I feel Wei Zhao lacks the requisite vocal weight when she addresses her army. The imagery is engaging even if the narrative is spotty. Nice to have the extra features with English subtitles; awkward to have them on a Region 3 DVD.

Leonard Norwitz
March 7th, 2010

 

 

 

 

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About the Reviewer: I first noticed that some movies were actually "films" back around 1960 when I saw Seven Samurai (in the then popular truncated version), La Strada and The Third Man for the first time. American classics were a later and happy discovery.

My earliest teacher in Aesthetics was Alexander Sesonske, who encouraged the comparison of unlike objects. He opened my mind to the study of art in a broader sense, rather than of technique or the gratification of instantaneous events. My take on video, or audio for that matter – about which I feel more competent – is not particularly technical. Rather it is aesthetic, perceptual, psychological and strongly influenced by temporal considerations in much the same way as music. I hope you will find my musings entertaining and informative, fun, interactive and very much a work in progress.


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