As one of the first film adaptations of Mulan’s story, Mulan Joins the Army sparked a new era in the development of Mulan’s legend. This classic film made some significant alterations to Mulan’s story that soon became standard in later retellings.
Most significantly, this film glorifies warfare. Being that it was produced during a time when China needed to inspire men to rise up and defend their country (see The Legend of Mulan During Post-Imperial China), the film focused primarily on the fame and recognition soldiers receive when serving in the army. Mulan, a tomboyish girl, is continually scolded for not being more ladylike. However, in the process of serving in the army, she becomes more in touch with who she truly is. Whereas previous retellings focused on Mulan’s virtue, describing her as the perfect woman, the producers of Mulan Joins the Army sought to entice their viewers to join the army and defend China from foreign aggression. In a sense, the film promises that those who enlist will finally discover what has been missing from their lives.
Remaining consistent with their aim to extol the glories of warfare, the directors introduced a romantic subplot into Mulan’s story. Mulan, who had previously struggled to fit into society, returned a confident woman who was quickly married to the man of her dreams. None of this would have happened if she had not joined the army. Although many previous retellings conclude Mulan’s story with a wedding, her marriage was always arranged. Romance was not present in Mulan’s story up until this point.
Mulan Joins the Army proved to be a significant success. The film inspired the Chinese people to enlist and liberate their country from the Japanese occupation. Moreover, the elements which this classic motion picture introduced into Mulan’s story have now become integral to modern retellings of the legend.
Mulan is sharp-witted, a skilled hunter, and a loving daughter. Because her father is ill, Mulan decides to go hunting and returns with an impressive amount of game in hopes of restoring his appetite. When she returns, however, she is scolded by her parents for acting in such an unladylike manner. While the family is in the midst of a heated discussion, an official enters and delivers a conscription notice to Mulan’s father.
That night, Mulan’s parents stay up late worrying about what to do. Just when Mulan’s father resigns himself to his fate, Mulan enters and volunteers to take his place. Although her mother is strongly opposed to the idea, her father gives Mulan the chance to try on his armor. With some practice, she can lower her voice and imitate masculine mannerisms. Because the family has no other choice, Mulan’s mother finally agrees to allow her to go. The family says a tearful farewell as Mulan departs.
While on her way to Yan’an (where the soldiers will report for duty), Mulan runs into several other soldiers who begin poking fun at her soft complexion. When the teasing starts to get out of hand, a soldier by the name of Liu Yuandu steps in to defend Mulan from any further harassment, but Mulan demonstrates her superior martial arts abilities and forces the bullies to back off. That night, Yuandu finds Mulan standing next to the Yellow River. The two of them make conversation late into the night.
Three years later, Mulan has earned a prominent position for herself. One day, two enemy generals come forward to surrender, but both Mulan and Yuandu are suspicious of their motives. The two of them go before the supreme commander, who reluctantly allows them to investigate further into the situation.
After accepting their orders, Mulan and Yuandu discuss how they should disguise themselves. Yuandu decides to pose as a hunter and suggests that Mulan dress as a girl. Mulan pretends that her masculine ego is insulted by the idea but eventually agrees to go along with the plan. As the two of them travel together, Yuandu begins to find himself attracted to Mulan, who is now dressed as a woman. Although Mulan pretends to be offended by his advances, she is secretly flattered to have captured his interest.
When Mulan comes across two enemy soldiers, she begins to flirt with them and entices them to boast about the strength of their army. Before they suspect anything, she quickly stabs them. When an enemy messenger happens to ride by, Mulan steals the orders he is carrying and flees back to the Chinese fortress.
Upon returning, Mulan reports that the enemy will soon attack; when this happens, the “surrendered” troops which are residing inside the Chinese fortress will spring into action. Mulan warns the supreme commander that he must take precautions to avoid being assaulted from both inside and out. Just then, the military commander enters, discredits Mulan, and orders her to leave. Suddenly, she realizes that the commander must be taking bribes from the enemy.
The barbarians attack, but Mulan has ordered her men to be ready. Suddenly, a fire breaks out from within the walls—one of the “surrendered” enemy generals is the culprit. The military commander is revealed to have assisted the enemy and is sentenced to death. Although Mulan manages to defeat the enemy, the supreme commander is mortally wounded during the battle. The supreme commander admits that he should have listened to Mulan; his dying wish is that she be his successor.
Mulan leads the army on a series of successful expeditions and secures the victory over the enemy. The emperor offers Mulan a prominent position in the imperial court and promotes Yuandu to take Mulan’s place as supreme commander. However, Mulan asks that she be allowed to return home. Yuandu, desiring to remain with Mulan, requests a leave of absence.
Countless eligible young men from Mulan’s hometown eagerly await her return, but she sends them all away. Mulan resumes her feminine appearance and approaches Yuandu, who is overjoyed. Just before the film ends, we see a short clip of Mulan and Yuandu dressed as bride and groom.
An English translation of the film's transcript appears in Shiamin Kwa and Wilt Idema's Mulan: Five Versions of a Classic Chinese Legend (Hackett Publishing Company, 2010).
Although the title is best translated Mulan Joins the Army, the producers chose Maiden in Armour for the English title because Mulan was still virtually unknown to the English-speaking world at the time this film was released.