Soundtrack Review: Mulan (1998)
The animated Disney movie Mulan is based on the Chinese legend Hua Mulan, a young woman who disguises herself as a man to take the place of her elderly father in the army, and could be traced in The Ballad of Mulan. The earliest accounts of this legend indicate that the character lived during the Northern Wei dynasty (386-534). This is further corroborated by the presence of the Huns or Xiongnu (the main antagonists in the movie), who were already absorbed by into Chinese culture during this era. Another version however, implies that it took place later, stating that Emperor Yang of Sui China (who reigned from 604-617) requested Mulan to be a concubine. The use of fireworks also support that the story happened during the Sui dynasty.
On the other hand, the presence of landmarks such as the Forbidden City, which was not built until the 15th century, may also indicate that the film took place at a much later period. Similarly, the style of dress used in the movie (traditional Han clothing, also known as Hanfu), suggest that it was set during the 15th century or earlier. Although the movie is set in northern China, whose main language is Mandarin, the Cantonese pronunciation, “Fa”, was used for Mulan’s family name.
Summary of the Plot
The emperor requires all male members of every family in the country to join the draft for the army and participate in the war, as a result of the invasion of the White Huns, headed by Shan Yu. Fa Zhou, despite his old age, is forced to enlist, having no son of his own. Fa Mulan, his daughter, saves his father from this predicament by posing as a man and joining the army on her father’s behalf. A small dragon, Mushu, is enjoined by Mulan’s ancestors to go with her in her adventure.
Mulan proceeds to the camp headed by Captain Li Shang and is successful in her disguise. She passes off with the name Ping and joins the group in their gruelling training sessions. Mulan impresses them by successfully retrieving an arrow from a pole.
Their group eventually faces off with that of Shan Yu’s (head of the Huns). The White Huns stampede down a snowbank towards the outnumbered troops of Captain Li Shang. The latter escape from a sure massacre of the Huns, thanks to Mulan’s ingenious idea; she also saves Li Shang’s life in the process. However, Mulan is crtitically wounded by Shan Yu. Mulan is discovered to be a woman during her treatment. Chi Fu, the emperor’s adviser, demands for Mulan’s death, but Li Shang relents and spares her life in exchange for saving his during battle. However, he banishes her from the troops as they head to the city.
The troops get a heroes’ welcome in the Imperial City and are hailed before the Emperor. Mulan, having discovered that Shan Yu and his troops are still alive and are headed towards the city, try to warn them about this. No one believes her. Shan Yu and his group eventually reveal themselves during the festivities and kidnap the Emperor, hiding themselves inside the palace. Mulan again leads the troops in a ploy that rescues the Emperor. Eventually, she wins over Shan Yu and the Emperor, and the rest of the city, pay their respects and recognize Mulan for her efforts. The Emperor gives her his crest and Shan Yu’s sword to honor her. She goes home and relays to her family the good news. Li Shang follows Mulan to her home and finally gets the courage to profess his true feelings for her.
The film, despite being set in medieval China, mainly used contemporary western classical music to accompany its scenes. A few parts had hints of traditional Chinese music
and instruments, but they were only minimal; the soundtrack as a whole, was predominantly modern western classical music. The only sequence that used traditional Chinese music and instruments was when Captain Li Shang’s troops were being honored as they were entering the Imperial City. I believe this was necessary because of the nature of the scene, where traditional Chinese festivities were being shown. Other than that, the composer did not make any other effort to be “historically accurate” and just used modern instruments and musical styles. In addition, there are no actual performances of music or “concerts” within the film itself.
Mulan and the Reflections sequence
In the sequence where Mulan comes home disappointed from being disgraced during her visit to the matchmaker, she sings the most famous song from the soundtrack, Reflections. She does this as she goes around the family garden and eventually in her father’s shrine, where she sees her reflection in the marble plates with ancient Chinese inscriptions. The music used was able to convey the emotions of despair and disappointment that Mulan was feeling at that moment. The chorus part was able to highlight the height of Mulan’s depression; the increasing tempo and energy seem to gradually advance towards this point. However, despite mirroring the emotions in the sequence, I believe that the music here merely served as background music rather than move the scene forward; the scene was like a music video in this respect.
The instrumentation, primarily the use of the monophonic violin and the flute, is associated with the “soft side” of Mulan’s character, and is used throughout the film whenever she shows this side of her personality. This kind of music or instrumentation is likewise used in scenes without the character Mulan, to highlight certain parts of ancient Chinese culture.
In the part where Captain Li Shang and his troops are being attacked by Shan Yu’s groups, the battle comes to life and practically jumps off the screen, thanks to the music. The music was initially that of monophonic notes from the flute and the violin, to showcase the pain that the troops felt upon seeing the destruction that Shan Yu’s group made to a village. This was also used to emphasize the grief of discovering that the death of General Li, Captain Li Shang’s father, and that of the General’s soldiers.
The music then transitions again to the usual western classical style when the sequence progresses into the battle between Li Shang and Shan Yu’s troops. The music here is practically the lifeblood of the whole battle scene. Without it, the movie would not have been able to convey the emotions and the suspense associated with the scene and it definitely was not merely background music, it really pushed the scene and the story forward. The music was able to achieve this by strenghtening the use of the large brass instruments, such as the tuba, during the scene’s major highlights, giving the scene the amplitude and energy that it needs. This was also achieved by increasing the tempo and volume during the more suspenseful parts of the sequence. It could be particularly observed when the music highlighted the part where Mulan and Li Shang were about to, and eventually fell, off the cliff. Such musical arrangement was associated with fighting scenes in the throughout the movie, but not with a particular character.
“Mulan.” 6 October 2008. Wikipedia. 7 October 2008 <http//www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mulan/>.