Everything You Need To Know About Wuxia, The Genre Dedicated To Ancient Martial Warriors

Like most wuxia stories, Mulan is a tale of honour, duty, courage and pride.

Wuxia: Everything You Need To Know About The Martial Art Film Genre

The thrill of a live-action re-imagining of an animated classic is seeing a beloved story brought to life on the big screen. There’s also the excitement of seeing an innovative take on a classic, with new elements added to elevate the story. That’s what you get with Mulan, the latest Disney classic to get the live-action treatment.

The animated version, released in 1998, is based on the epic narrative poem, The Ballad of Mulan, about a female warrior who disguises herself as a man to take her elderly father’s place in the army after he’s conscripted. The animated version captures Mulan’s fighting spirit and honour, and it has a striking animation style that’s flush with details. The animators worked hard to ensure the film resembled Chinese paintings, which mostly utilise watercolours, setting it apart from other animated features of the era.

Wuxia: Everything You Need To Know About The Martial Art Film Genre

Mulan was a vital part of Disney’s animated renaissance, which spanned a decade and comprised of hits like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King.

For the live-action version of Mulan, director Niki Caro (The Whale Rider) stays faithful to the original story but infuses elements of wuxia aided by stunning cinematography by Mandy Walker (Hidden Figures).

What’s wuxia?

Wuxia translates as ‘martial’ (wu) ‘chivalry’ (xia), and it’s a genre of Chinese fiction that focuses on martial artists in ancient China.

Often, wuxia tales focus on heroes battling each other due to different codes of honour. Throw in a little romance, poetry, and tragedy and you’ve got epic tales that have endured for centuries.

Wuxia: Everything You Need To Know About The Martial Art Film Genre

Wuxia has been around for a long, long time but has kept pace with the way we tell stories. Once, wuxia stories were passed along verbally; now, they’re blockbuster films. Wuxia-inspired filmmaking became mainstream in the 1960s and was characterised by sweeping cinematic shots and fantastical showdowns using a mixture of sword fights and martial arts.

In the decades that followed, the wuxia style would be defined and refined thanks to advances in filmmaking technology and the artistry of performers and stuntmen. Fast-paced editing helped showcase the daring stunts and high stakes of these epic films.

Wuxia hit its mainstream peak with the release of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, executive produced by Bill Kong, a producer on Mulan.

A crash course on wuxia is contained within Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; impeccably choreographed fight scenes, luscious visuals, and big fantastical drama.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a huge hit worldwide and won four of its 10 Oscar nominations, including Best Foreign Language Film and Best Cinematography. Kong followed up with Hero, The House of Flying Daggers and Fearless (add to your watch list ASAP).

Heart and high kicks

Mulan continues the wuxia tradition with an extravagant display of martial arts prowess, stunning costumes and an epic ancient kingdom of emperors, warlords and warriors. Expect the spectacular stunts and battle sequences to be as breathtaking as the scenery, because Mulan was shot on location in New Zealand and China.

Disney's Mulan

But Mulan is not just defined by its grandeur: it’s a tale of honour, duty, courage and pride. Mulan’s family is at the heart of her quest and it’s the emotional drive of this adaptation. Mulan not only fights for her nation, but to protect her family, too. The story resonates time and time again, which explains why it’s stuck around for centuries.

Mulan features an impressive cast of superstars, with Yifei Liu as Mulan, Donnie Yen as Commander Tung, Jason Scott Lee as Böri Khan, Yoson An as Cheng Honghui, and Jet Li as the Emperor. They are all wuxia film veterans and not only bring their expertise as actors, but the physicality required to handle the fight sequences and action set pieces. Caro wanted to capture the athletic superiority of these warriors and turned to experienced performers who could multitask.

Speaking to Empire Magazine, Caro said Liu’s audition included a fitness challenge because there are few Disney characters with the physical prowess of Mulan.

“I wanted to thoroughly explore this girl because I needed a warrior, and I needed a partner. So she did this gruelling audition and then we sent her straight to the physical trainer to do an equally gruelling physical assessment,” says Caro.

“Weights, push-ups, pull-ups, everything. She was brilliant in the dramatic part of the audition, and in the physical part, she never stopped, never faulted. I knew at the end of that day that I’d found my warrior.”

The spirit of an ancient warrior bursts to life in spectacular style in Disney’s Mulan. Prepare to experience a classic revitalised in true wuxia style.

Disney’s Mulan is streaming September 4. Exclusively available to Disney+ subscribers who unlock Premier Access. Additional fee required.

(Images: Disney / supplied)