The 1960s was a turbulent time for Hong Kong. After World War II ended and Britain reclaimed Hong Kong from the Japanese, the residents were left confused about whether they would identify with China, which as now under communist rule, or with Britain. Because the British were ill-equipped to provide Hong Kong with the infrastructure needed to sustain a growing society, there was much concern about unrest.
Amid this uncertainty, the film Lady General Hua Mu-Lan was released. The directors used the iconic hero Mulan to urge the Chinese residents of Hong Kong to remember that although these political concerns were important, they were all secondary to being united with their brethren.
In this film, none of the characters achieve greatness. Instead, each member makes a small contribution to a great cause.
The film opens with Mulan returning from a successful hunting trip to find her father, Hua Hu, in shock over having received a conscription notice. Although Hua Hu was once a skilled warrior, he is now old and afraid that going on a military expedition will cost his life. Although Mulan immediately offers to take her father’s place, her parents scorn the idea.
Meanwhile, Mulan’s uncle is also drafted into the army. When Mulan finds that her uncle’s son, Hua Ping, is going in place of his father, Mulan asks Ping for help. After Ping coaches Mulan on how to speak to her father, Ping approaches Hua Hu and introduces him to a “comrade” (who is actually Mulan dressed as a man). Hua Hu, who is unable to see through his own daughter’s disguise, spars with Mulan and is defeated. Just as Mulan disarms her father, her hat falls to the ground. Shocked to realize that his daughter is such a skilled fighter, Hua Hu finally admits that a woman can be just as valuable as a man when it comes to defending the country.
Mulan and Ping say tearful farewells to their families. As the two of them travel together, Mulan repeatedly finds that a woman in a man’s world will find herself in many awkward situations. Each time, Ping finds a way to assist her while protecting her secret.
When the soldiers are expected to sleep together in the same bed, Ping fights for a separate bed and then gives it to Mulan. When the soldiers drink together, Ping insists that she refrain. Nevertheless, Mulan naively thinks that drinking a few glasses of alcohol will establish her manliness. However, the result is the men pressuring her to drink in excess. When the drunken Mulan begins to change clothes in front of the other soldiers, Ping patiently restrains her and waits for her to become sober again.
Mulan performs well in training exercises and is tasked with guarding the military warehouse. Although she expects to continue advancing, her military career begins to plateau. She confides her insecurities in General Li Guang, who assures her that all positions are equally important. Under the encouragement of General Li, Mulan begins to study flocking patterns of birds and soon learns how to infer the location of the enemy. In this way, Mulan discovers that the enemy is preparing for a nighttime ambush and alerts the supreme commander, who immediately makes preparations. Thanks to Mulan, the army avoids a significant defeat and, instead, captures the enemy.
Mulan returns from the battle with an arrow wound in her shoulder. In an attempt to treat the injury, her comrades begin to rip her shirt apart. Mulan panics and refuses to allow anyone to tend to her shoulder. Ping, who is the only person who understands the true reason behind Mulan’s actions, tears a whole in Mulan’s shirt, which is just wide enough to allow her wound to be treated without revealing her true gender.
After Mulan’s shoulder has healed, the supreme commander asks to speak with her privately. He praises her for being a valiant soldier and offers to grant her whatever she desires. Mulan’s only request is that she be allowed to return home to care for her elderly parents. The supreme commander agrees and, in addition, proposes to give his daughter to her in marriage. If Mulan were actually a man, she would have been flattered by this magnanimous gesture. Unable to decline the supreme commander’s offer without offending him, Mulan pretends that her shoulder has suddenly become painful again to escape the awkward situation.
Throughout her time in the army, Mulan has been growing increasingly fond of General Li. Now that her time remaining with the general is limited, Mulan must reveal her true feelings or risk being forever separated from him. Mulan tries several times to cause Li to realize that she is in love with him. Despite her best efforts, Li ends up entirely confused, as he still sees Mulan as a man.
The supreme commander orders Mulan’s comrades (including General Li) to accompany her home to deliver extravagant gifts in hopes that this will convince Mulan to marry the supreme commander’s daughter. As soon as she has finished greeting her family, Mulan resumes her feminine appearance. Her comrades are bewildered. General Li’s eyes are finally opened, and he agrees to marry Mulan. However, he is still under orders to return to the supreme commander.
Mulan and General Li exchange gifts as tokens of their betrothal. As Mulan watches her lover ride off into the distance, she holds Li Guang’s sword close to her chest and then raises it toward the sky.