Review: The Legend of Mulan, Southbank Centre

Anyone who remotely sees themselves as a Disney fan will sing-scream at the top of their lungs when hearing that famous opening “let’s get down to business”. Mulan is such a legend of 90s childhood that it’s hard to get the score out of your head once it’s in there. And as far as representation goes, there’s probably no better role model for young girls than a woman defying the social conventions and doing a man’s job to save her father – and then excelling in it. Bringing the original legend to the stage seems like the ideal way to spread the dance culture of Hong Kong, and the Hong Kong Dance Company surely don’t disappoint with their interpretation of The Legend of Mulan.

Blending contemporary dance with martial arts, Yang Yuntao brings an authentic feel of Mulan’s China with a choreography that’s as elegant as it is fierce, as skilful as it is inventive. Presenting the gritty legend rather than the sanitised Disney picture the chaotic movement of war is depicted terrifically, demonstrating how it affects the bodies involved, transforming a space from beauty to cruel terror, aided by Yuen Hon-wai’s sharp set design, a towering mountain that could be an ancient paper cut-out.

The piece depicts the stark contrast between Mulan’s two worlds in the style of movement, with life at home expressed through elegance and fluidity, and her life at war in sharp tempos, staccato and with influences from martial arts. Pan Lingjuan’s Mulan transforms from one to the other with precision and ease, a perfect cast for a woman not only emotionally conflicted by the potency of her choice, but also a dancer full of elegance and passion. Her and Yuntao bring Mulan to life with authentic grace and “gut”, and the ensemble creates a world that’s visually fascinating and engaging to watch. Matthew Ma’s score is dramatic and exciting though slightly melodramatic in Mulan’s home scenes which then reflect on the dancing. Some gestures lend themselves a little to cliché which is a shame as the war movement is such a striking mechanism. That said, the contrasts are effective and the skill of these performers is remarkable.  Like exploring a painting of the legend, the Hong Kong Dance Company gives us a taste of Mulan’s world and the beauty of Chinese tradition and dance. It’s not Disney – there’s no sing-a-long at this one – but despite the occasional sugar sweet moments it’s a journey worth watching.

The Legend of Mulan played at Southbank Centre on April 15.

Photo: Henry Wong