CineWomen: Niki Caro laid the groundwork for ‘Mulan’ with ‘Whale Rider’

Plus ‘Beau Travail’ by Claire Denis and ‘Good Trouble’ by Dawn Porter

Annlee Ellingson
8 min readSep 4, 2020

Earlier this year, after writing movie reviews pretty consistently for more than twenty years, I stopped.

It wasn’t by choice — my day job finally pulled the plug on my weekly indulgence. And it wasn’t unexpected. But it did happen quickly — I received word literally as I was writing my review of Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of one Harley Quinn). My last review, it turns out.

The move didn’t put me out of work, and I had a bunch of travel planned, so rather than immediately put out feelers to editors and outlets I’d freelanced for before, I decided to take a break and think about what I wanted to write about and how I wanted to contribute to the larger film conversation. No one wants or needs to read my take on Bad Boys III, for example.

Call it a sabbatical.

Then the coronavirus happened, and the economic recession that came with it, and I wasn’t the only film critic out of a gig. (Plus all those trips got canceled.)

In the meantime, inspired by the #52FilmsByWomen and #FemaleFilmmakerFriday pledges/hashtags, I came up with a concept for a monthly column focused on films directed by women.

The idea is to anchor a roundup of reviews with a major new release, such this month’s Mulan directed by Niki Caro, plus additional titles both recent and classic, documentary and international, feature and short, with an eye toward diversity — one for each Friday, so four or five per month. Then a year from now there’ll be a list of sorts of fifty-two films directed by women — I’m a sucker for a good list.

But also, who’s counting? This is the structure I’m going to play with for now — I’m not sure how well it will work with movie release dates and embargos. With no deadlines or editors, I’m going to give myself permission to experiment. (I also didn’t plan on writing this intro — I didn’t want to make any promises I may not end up keeping — but then I thought it’d help to explain what the heck I’m trying to do here.)

I’d love to do this together — let me know what you’re watching, and what I should watch. I’m on Twitter at annleee.

The chi is strong with Mulan (Liu Yifei). Photo credit: Jason Boland ©2019 Disney Enterprises Inc.


Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan, directed by Niki Caro, begs to unfurl on the big screen. Watching it at home on TV made me miss the cinema acutely this week — but then maybe that’s because this weekend’s other big new movie, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, is actually playing in theaters nearly everywhere but in Los Angeles. *FOMO*

Still, the ambition and scale of Mulan sing through in this non-musical adaptation that adheres to the animated movie’s version of the Chinese folklore “The Ballad of Mulan” in both broad plot and fine detail — with a couple of key changes to the aesthetic and spirit of the story.

Hua Mulan (Liu Yifei) is a lively child with strong chi. There’s just one problem: she’s a girl. And in the patriarchal society of ancient China, girls bring honor to their families by marrying. Like Frozen’s Elsa, she’s advised to hide her gift.

But when the emperor orders one male from each family to join the Imperial Army to defend against northern invaders, Mulan ties up her hair and binds her breasts and slips away with her injured father’s armor and sword to enroll so he doesn’t have to.

At training camp, her chi slips out, but now it’s considered a tremendous asset — you know, because she’s supposedly a boy.

Along the way, she’s guided not by Mushu, the beloved diminutive dragon of the cartoon, but a Technicolor kite-like phoenix that may or may not be visible only to her.

But the most significant diversion of this Mulan is with this chi business — our warrioress proves her mettle on the battlefield not only by being clever but by wielding magic too, which undermines the everywoman quality of the animated Mulan.

She can’t unleash her full power, however, until she fulfills all three qualities inscribed on her blade: loyal, brave, and true. Another woman with chi, the witch Xian Lang (Gong Li, in fabulous makeup and regalia), on the other side of the fight teaches her this, and it’s not until Mulan’s mane is freed like hair in a shampoo commercial that she realizes her full potential.

If it weren’t for Mulan’s chi, however, we wouldn’t get the preternatural stunts that recall (though don’t match) Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, captured with dynamic choreography and camerawork. Meanwhile, all of this unspools against stunning backdrops of otherworldly landscapes and richly ornate production design, from Mulan’s village-in-the-round to the grand Imperial Palace.

Caro has helmed an eye-popping spectacle worthy of the legend — and the big screen.

Mulan (2020), directed by Niki Caro (Disney+)

Keisha Castle-Hughes is the queen of the world in “Whale Rider.”

‘Whale Rider’

The very first note I scribbled while watching Mulan was about Whale Rider. The similarities to director Niki Caro’s first film are immediately evident and persistent, and not just because Mulan wields a fighting stick in that film’s opening scene: A girl in a patriarchal society demonstrates a proclivity for her society’s warrior culture but is prohibited from expressing it because of her gender. She secretly pursues it anyway, ultimately emerging the hero.

In the case of Whale Rider, that heroine is Paikea (Keisha Castle-Hughes, at the time the youngest-ever nominee for a Best Actress Oscar), the first-born child of the first-born son of a Māori village leader. With no male heirs in sight, Pai’s grandfather Koro (Rawiri Paratene) opens a school to find a candidate among the local boys — a motley bunch who pale in comparison to Pai’s innate talent, dedication, and reverence for their culture. A sweet, sensitive girl, still Pai cannot help herself and seeks to train on the sly with her slacker Uncle Rawiri (Grant Roa) with the support of her grandmother (Vicky Haughton).

When Koro fails to find a suitable successor, he wallows in his failure, echoed by his discovery of a pod of beached whales. It’s only Pai who can coax them back to sea, earning her place at the head of the tribe.

Caro had about 1/57th the budget for Whale Rider as for her latest film, so logistics such as how, for example, Pai gets a leviathan turned around in the sand get glossed over.

A white New Zealander, Caro does not share a culture with the characters in either film, but with Whale Rider she did build the framework as the go-to director for feminist coming-of-agers.

Whale Rider (2002), directed by Niki Caro (various streaming and digital)

Calisthenics in the French Foreign Legion in “Beau Travail.” Photo credit: Janus Films

‘Beau Travail’

Google “best films by women,” and you’ll find a couple of lists with Claire Denis’s Beau Travail near the top, yet the film has been unavailable on physical media or online — at least as far as I could find — until this month.

Janus Films has released a stunning 4K digital restoration of the tone poem loosely based on Herman Melville’s Billy Budd featuring music from Benjamin Britten’s opera also based on the novella.

Denis has set her examination of masculinity among a small troop of French Legionnaires stationed in Djibouti. Our narrator is Galoup (Denis Lavant), a sergeant with a Napoleon complex who is reflecting on the events that, it turns out, ended his career.

What there is of a story unfolds in a haze of memory and boredom as the men perform domestic chores like laundry and miserable labor such as road-building and repetitive, ritualistic training that’s reminiscent of Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia in its celebration of the human form (though definitely not its politics).

Into this hotbed of male bonding and repressed desire arrives Gilles Sentain (Grégoire Colin), a handsome, popular legionnaire whom Galoup vows to destroy out of irrational jealousy and perhaps attraction.

Tapping also into the theme of African colonialism that is characteristic of her oeuvre, Denis has crafted a psychological portrait as exquisite and harsh as the East African landscape so gorgeously captured by cinematographer Agnès Godard.

Beau Travail (1999), directed by Claire Denis (virtual cinemas, September 4; Turner Classic Movies, September 29)

John Lewis (right), getting into some “Good Trouble.” Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

‘John Lewis: Good Trouble’

Dawn Porter is having a busy year. The documentarian behind Trapped and Gideon’s Army has two new films coming out this year: John Lewis: Good Trouble, which premiered in July just a couple of weeks before the civil rights icon’s death, and The Way I See It, about Obama White House photographer Pete Souza, later this month.

I can’t talk about the latter film yet (embargos — gah!), but Good Trouble hits digital/DVD as well as CNN this month with an intimate portrait of the politician and activist. RIP.

The documentary covers a lot of the same territory as Lewis’s graphic novels March, though the story about how he developed his oratory skills by preaching to his chickens always plays. And the film struggles with pacing — spending too much time on a Freedom Singers performance and too little on Lewis’s wife.

But it’s arresting to watch some of the rare archival footage — even more so to watch Lewis watch it for the first time himself — of how he and his fellow protestors prepared for the lunch-counter sit-ins, and then how they unfolded, as well as his triumphant (though censored!) appearance at the March on Washington and the awful events that took place on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

It’s even more affecting to watch him interact with the public today — never too busy to take a selfie or accept a heartfelt thank you. In I think the only clip from an interview with his son, he’s asked, “What’s it like walking through an airport with John?” “Tedious.”

It’s a testament to Lewis’s enduring legacy that he didn’t see it that way.

Good Trouble (2020), directed by Dawn Porter (CNN, September 27; digital and DVD, September 29)



Annlee Ellingson

Writer. Reader. Film critic. Moviegoer. Traveler. Hiker. Cook. Besotted aunt to Logan, Titus, and Bodhi. Based in Los Angeles. Socials: @annleee (she/her/hers)