Mulan Joins the Army (1939 film)

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Mulan Joins the Army
Traditional 木蘭從軍
Simplified 木兰从军
Mandarin Mùlán cóng jūn
Directed by Bu Wancang
Produced by Zhang Shankun
Written by Ouyang Yuqian
Starring Chen Yunshang
Huacheng Film Company
Xinhua Film Company
Release date
  • February 1939 (1939-02)
Country China
Language Mandarin

Mulan Joins the Army is a 1939 Chinese historical war film. It is one of several film adaptations of the Hua Mulan legend, which have included two silent versions: Hua Mulan Joins the Army (1927) by Tianyi Film Company, and a less successful Mulan Joins the Army (1928) produced by Minxin. The story was also the basis for the 1998 Disney animated film, Mulan.

The film was directed by Bu Wancang and stars Chen Yunshang as the title character, a young woman who disguises herself as a man in order to take her father's place in the army. The screenplay was by Ouyang Yuqian. The film was produced in Shanghai by the Huacheng Film Company (華成), a subsidiary of the Xinhua Film Company.[1][2][3]



Hua Mulan, the heroine, is a young maiden who lives with her elderly father during the Northern Wei dynasty. When China is invaded by evil nomads, her father is called into service by the Emperor. In a scene of filial piety, Mulan dons her father's old armor and takes his place in the army.

During training, the "feminine" Mulan is teased and harassed by other draftees whom she promptly beats one by one to the ground. Admonishing them to unite instead of harassing one another, she reminds them that the true enemy are the nomads invading their country. Also during training, she meets Liu Yuandu who becomes her loyal friend. The two feel a natural attraction, even if Liu is unsure why (believing Mulan to be a man). These scenes therefore provide some comic relief and romantic intrigue.

Eventually Mulan is sent to the front line where she meets with the army's weak commanders who flirt with the idea of cooperating with the nomads rather than fighting with them. In particular, the advisor to the general pushes for collaboration. Feeling disgusted, Mulan dresses as a nomad and spies on the enemy when she learns that an attack is imminent. Returning to her home camp, her warnings are ignored by the general to disastrous results. When the attack finally happens, the General is killed, but not before putting Mulan in charge. Mulan regroups the Chinese forces and defeats the nomads, but not before Mulan herself kills the General's erstwhile advisor.

Returning to the Imperial capital, Mulan is offered a position in the Emperor's court. She turns the position down, asking only to return to her home. Returning to her feminine persona, she marries Liu Yuandu.

Production history[edit]

Film production in late 1930s Shanghai was a tricky business. With most of the established talent having fled to Hong Kong and the interior after the Japanese invasion in 1937, one of the remaining production companies, the Xinhua Film Company, hoped to relaunch a "Hollywood of the East."[4] The first step was the release of the costume epic, Diao Chan directed by Bu Wancang. The film proved to be an enormous success, a success that Xinhua's chief Zhang Shankun wished to replicate it with a second costume epic.[5]

By 1939, nearly all of Shanghai's big stars such as Jin Yan or Zhao Dan had fled to Chongqing.[6] Zhang attempted to recruit Hu Die in Hong Kong for his studio's newest venture but failed.[6] While in Hong Kong, however, he managed to sign with the playwright Ouyang Yuqian to pen his film, and Cantonese actress Chen Yunshang to star.[6] Zhang very much focused on making the actress a fresh face for Shanghai, and publicity for Chen began before the studio even saw the script.[7]

Ouyang's script was based on the traditional story of Hua Mulan, a story that most of the Shanghai audience would have already been familiar with.[7] At the same time Ouyang infused the film with subtle nationalist undertones.[7] Impressed with the script, Zhang and Xinhua invested heavily in both production and publicity of the film.[7]


Mulan Joins the Army was made during the Japanese occupation of China and the so-called "Solitary Island" period of Chinese cinema. Given the film's subtle patriotism, it proved extremely popular with domestic audiences. Premiering in Shanghai's newest theater, the Astor in February 1939,[5] in time for the Chinese New Year, Mulan Joins the Army ended up being a critical success.[8] It was moreover, a major commercial success, playing to full theaters in Shanghai, as well as making its lead, Chen Yunshang, into a bona-fide star.[9]

Today the film is seen as an obvious appeal to the Shanghai audience's own wartime sensibilities. The weak Chinese generals, the outside nomad invaders all would have reminded the audience of the country's woes at that time, namely the Second Sino-Japanese War. As one scholar posits, the film was seen as a call to arms, with the Chinese hero (or in this case, heroine) rising up to defeat foreign attackers striking a particularly resonant chord.[10]

See also[edit]

  • Hua Mulan, the original legend on which the film was based.
  • Second Sino-Japanese War, political background for the making of the film.
  • Diao Chan, earlier Xinhua film that laid the groundwork for Mulan Joins the Army.


  1. ^ Kwa & Idema 2010, Mulan:Five Versions
  2. ^ Zhang, Yingjin (2004). Chinese National Cinema. Routledge. p. 86. ISBN 1134690878. 
  3. ^ Tan, Ye; Yun, Zhu. Historical Dictionary of Chinese Cinema. p. 203. ISBN 1134690878. 
  4. ^ Fu, p. 6.
  5. ^ a b Fu, p. 11.
  6. ^ a b c Fu, p. 12.
  7. ^ a b c d Fu, p. 13.
  8. ^ Fu, p. 21
  9. ^ Hung, p. 72
  10. ^ Fu, p. 21-22


  • Fu, Poshek. Between Shanghai and Hong Kong: The Politics of Chinese Cinemas. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003.
  • Hung, Chang-tai. War and Popular Culture: Resistance in Modern China, 1937-1945. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.
  • Kwa, Shiamin; Idema, Wilt L. (2010), Mulan: Five Versions of a Classic Chinese Legend with Related Texts, Hackett Publishing, ISBN 1603848711  - Ouyang's screenplay is included in the anthology.

External links[edit]