On Sunday, Disney confused most of the English-speaking world when it released the trailer for the live-action remake of its 1998 film, Mulan. Lacking musical numbers and smack-talking animals, the film, directed by Niki Caro, looks so unlike most of Disney’s other reboots, as in the case of The Lion King, Aladdin, Dumbo, and the billion-dollar box office hit, Beauty and the Beast.
I’ve had my suspicions for weeks, but the first-look trailer confirmed it: Mulan is Disney’s attempt at a “wuxia” movie. While the term may be confusing to most moviegoers, it’s a thriving genre dominant in Chinese cinema that shares plenty in common with American westerns and superhero movies.
Instead of singing and CGI animals, a staple for Disney features, the trailer for Mulan is packed with wide shots of Mulan (Chinese-American actress Liu Yifei) riding horseback across colorful plains, leaping above pagodas, and charging toward galloping armies. The trailer ends with Mulan swinging a broadsword as she speaks in voice-over, “It is my duty to fight.”
From its visual style to its epic scope, everything in Mulan screams “wuxia.” It is also a clear strategy to attract Chinese box office dollars, which were averse to the original Mulan when it was released two decades ago. Hence, the absence of Mushu and the original film’s songs.
But what is wuxia? How is it different from other martial arts movies? Here’s a brief introduction to the genre, plus a handful of films to watch to know what in the name of Mushu Disney is doing with live-action Mulan.
Unlike a martial arts movie, which can vary in style and themes, wuxia has a distinct philosophy with abundant flair for its action choreography.
A portmanteau of “wu” (Chinese for “martial”) and “xia” (“chivalrous”), wuxia stories tell sometimes historical, usually fantastical tales of powerful heroes who use martial arts to free people or dispose of oppressive regimes. That’s not unlike the American western, in which heroic gunslingers defend helpless villagers from rogue bandits or greedy entrepreneurs.
In another world, Star Wars could have been a wuxia film, if it weren’t for the fact wuxia is usually set in ancient China and not galaxies far, far away.
As a story genre, wuxia goes back thousands of years. But in film, it originates to the early 20th century. The 1928 film, The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple, directed by Zhang Shichuan, is considered one of the first wuxia films. (It’s also one of the longest, with a running time of 27 hours.)
Hits of the wuxia golden age include Come Drink With Me (1966), The One-Armed Swordsman (1967), Dragon Inn (1967), A Touch of Zen (1971), The Last Hurrah for Chivalry (1979), and Ashes of Time (1994).
Like superhero movies, wuxia is known to fuse with other genres, like horror, fantasy, romance, and comedy. The 2004 wuxia epic House of Flaying Daggers, directed by Zhang Yimou, is notable for being a love story as much as it is a war movie, while Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West (2013) retains Chow’s comedic swagger in an adaptation of the epic novel.
What Wuxia Films Should I Watch?
For newcomers to the genre, hardcore enthusiasts will want to introduce you to classics like Come Drink With Me and The One-Armed Swordsman right away. You should absolutely check them out, but for some, it can be almost like diving into the ocean when you’re still learning to swim.
The following list of wuxia films are nothing to slouch at. But their modern production values makes it easier to grasp the aesthetics of Disney’s Mulan reboot. Here are five films to check out to better understand Mulan.
5. Dragon (2011)
Peter Chan’s Dragon is a confident, stylish action thriller that showcases Donnie Yen in top form. In 1917, tensions and fist arise when a commoner (Yen) is outed by a master detective (played by Takeshi Kaneshiro) as a former member of a ruthless gang responsible for hundreds of murders.
Available on: Amazon
4. Hero (2002)
A modern classic that had a delayed release in the United States until Quentin Tarantino stepped in, Hero stars Jet Li alongside an all-star cast (Donnie Yen, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Zhang Ziyi) as a nameless swordsman who regales a king with stories of how he killed his assassins.
While many epic wuxias have sweeping battles of armies clashing with swords and spears, Hero turns down the spectacle but ups the stakes in some of the most gorgeous one-on-one battles ever put to screen.
Available on: Hulu
3. Red Cliff (2008)
Released as a two-part epic in Asia (an edited version was released everywhere else in 2009), John Woo’s triumphant return to Chinese cinema is a fictional retelling of the Battle of Red Cliffs, the battle that decided the end of the Han dynasty before the Three Kingdoms. If you thought Game of Thrones had epic battle scenes, you haven’t immersed in the infantries of Red Cliff.
Available on: Tubi
2. Curse of the Golden Flower (2006)
Eschewing heroism for family infighting, Zhang Yimou’s Curse of the Golden Flower is a dramatic (and beautifully shot) tragedy that ends in the breathtaking bloodshed of thousands. Chow Yun-fat, Gong Li, and Jay Chou (The Green Hornet) star in what can only be described as, “What if Game of Thrones were only about the Lannisters (incest included) and they all killed each other?” The ending credits song, sung by Jay Chou, slaps.
1. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
The turn of the millennium saw a flashpoint that bridged the impossibly large gap between Hollywood and China. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a lavish co-production that, at the time, cost a risky $17 million, Ang Lee’s epic love story about 18th century Qing Dynasty swordsmen (and women), remains the highest-grossing foreign language film in American history.
A serious contender for Best Picture at the 73rd Academy Awards (it lost to Gladiator), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is arguably one of the most influential martial arts movies in history, next to Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon. The film solidified the work of choreographer Yuen Woo-ping (who designed The Matrix a short year prior) while American moviegoers new words to their cinematic vocabulary. A sequel, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny was released on Netflix in 2016.
Available on: Netflix
Disney’s Mulan will be released in theaters on March 27, 2020.