Disney presents “Mulan,” a live-action reimagining of the legendary female warrior immortalized in the centuries-old Chinese ballad. Honoring its Chinese roots, the film features an ensemble of ethnically Chinese talent of both established and rising stars.
Acclaimed filmmaker Niki Caro brings the epic tale of Mulan to life in an inspiring, thrilling adventure that follows a fearless young woman as she risks everything out of love for her family and her country to become one of the greatest warriors China has ever known. When the Emperor of China issues a decree that one man per family must serve in the Imperial Army to defend the country from Northern invaders, Hua Mulan, the eldest daughter of an honored warrior, steps in to take the place of her ailing father. Masquerading as a man, Hua Jun, she is tested every step of the way and must harness her inner strength and embrace her true potential. It is an epic journey that will transform her into an honored warrior and earn her the respect of a grateful nation and a proud father.
During a special screening and Q&A in March 2020, we had the opportunity to hear from Director Niki Caro and Yifie Liu who pays Mulan about what it took to bring this epic movie to life.
When did you first discover the Disney animated “Mulan”? Did this character mean a lot to you over the years as well?
Niki: I missed it the first time around. I think those were my nightclub days. But then I had children, and I had girls and of course, I watched it then, and I couldn’t believe it. And I was so grateful that in a time of princesses, here was a warrior.
This is the largest live-action film ever filmed by a female filmmaker. Was there some intimidation coming with that, or did you look at it as exciting?
Niki: The intimidating thing is my responsibility to the story, to the studio, and to the audience. As far as budget goes, with every film I’ve made, “Whale Rider” included, I had a vision that was far bigger than the budget allowed. And so, this time to be able to have a budget equal to the very epic vision in my head was just really satisfying.
What did attract you to this project? When you first heard about it, what made you think that you wanted to bring your vision to this?
Niki: Mulan herself. I love her. And I think for me it was her journey from village girl, to male soldier, to warrior and hero that felt like it spoke for all of us. And it was a story that didn’t in fact originate with the 1998 animation but is about 1300 years old. And has been resonating and relevant for centuries, and never more so than now. So, for all of those reasons.
Mulan as a character means so much to fans because of her essential nature. She’s a dutiful daughter and a loving and courageous human being, but she’s also vulnerable and fallible. Because she’s disguised as a man, she can’t rely on any of her usual skill set to further her journey, and neither could she ever rely on brute strength. She uses her smarts, her quick-wittedness, and her strong will to overcome her many challenges and to defeat a really formidable enemy.
Caro didn’t want to re-create the original animated film but rather to honor the original “Ballad of Mulan.” “‘The Ballad of Mulan’ has been told and retold countless times over centuries,” she says. “Chinese children are all taught this story. So, Mulan in China is very real and very important and very alive, even after all of this time. It’s both an honor and a thrill, and a tremendous responsibility, to bring her to life in a new way, in a new time.
After an intensive search, filmmakers were delighted to have Chinese star Yifei Liu take on the role of Mulan. Much like the character in the beloved original animated film, Mulan is determined, strong, and compassionate. When each family has to provide one man to join the battle against the invaders, Mulan takes the place of her father, who suffers from an old war wound. At first, she is totally out of her depth, but she learns fast and develops into a strong, powerful leader, forging new relationships along the way.
When did you hear that they were making this movie? And what attracted you to play such an iconic character?
Yifei: My manager told me there’s this new Mulan, and asked me if I wanted to audition for it. I’d heard that so many people were auditioned, and so I asked myself that if I go, what I can bring? Because I know, obviously, this is a role that everyone wants to play because it’s just so meaningful as a woman, and as a human being, to really be that brave and loving and accept her imperfectness to become who she really wants to be. And I really asked myself a lot of questions because I know the audition process, and it is hard. Because you need to go into a room and continuously run a few scenes that are from different sections of the script. So then, on the other side, I’m super excited and nervous, but on another side, I wanted to bring the best me. So, I needed to really get through, meditate, and do things and just calm myself and just do my auditions.
What sorts of things did you have to do for a physical audition?
Yifei: When I actually heard that after the audition, I had another one, I was relieved because I thought I did an okay job and that I was on to the next step, so that means something. I remember that the trainer was super professional. So, whenever I did pushups and squats and weights and different kinds of cardio, he went to this thick notebook and then wrote something. Then after like ninety minutes, I couldn’t walk. I think it was more intense than the actual training process. It really tested my limits. But it was fun and something to remember.
How long were you training for?
Yifei: For this movie, three and a half months. I even learned Tai Chi, and some Qigong like movements, because I understand Mulan’s Chi as the connection of her spirit and not the ego but the true self. So, I really liked to train this way.
About 4,000 weapons were made in all. These were made out of a number of different materials: some were made of aluminum with urethane handles, some were soft versions for cast-on-cast fights. For Mulan’s father’s sword, which she takes into battle, two models were made. One was a sword for close-ups, with a bronze handle and steel blade etched with the words “Loyal Brave True,” the other a sword made of lightweight rubber with carbon fiber that was crafted to be easy to handle.
You’ve done movies that featured heavy martial arts before, but the training for this must have been unlike anything else.
Yifei: I did act in some movies that had martial-arts elements, but obviously I’m not a professional. But I’m so glad that I had a long time to prepare. That flexibility helped me.
How do you prepare to play a man, basically?
Yifei: First of all, the voice. It had to be really different. But on top of that, I liked working on the layers of the character and what she was really thinking. The subtext.
With the casting in place and preproduction behind them, the film began shooting in August 2018, in Auckland, New Zealand. According to director Niki Caro, “the energy on set was overwhelmingly positive.” Continuing, she says, “People loved coming to work. When we first started shooting on day one in New Zealand, we began our shoot in the way I always would on a film shot in New Zealand, which is with a Maori blessing at dawn. It was beautiful but made even more beautiful by the fact that we also had a Chinese incense ceremony, where we gave our offerings to the ancestors. And from that moment on, through the rest of shooting the movie, I think we all did feel protected and very connected.”
And Niki, for you, what ended up being the biggest challenge?
Niki: Aside from finding Yifei, the biggest challenge for me was how to tell a story about two armies going to war, and a young woman going to war, without being able to show any real fighting or blood under the Disney brand. “Game of Thrones” has kind of changed the battle game for shooting those sorts of sequences, and it couldn’t be that. So I was really blessed that the fighting style was martial arts… Wushu… and inherently beautiful. But also, I think what unlocked it for me was that I figured out that I could set the battle sequence in a geothermal valley so that the smoke and the steam could reveal and obscure violence or could suggest it. It could also be very beautiful and very cinematic. And I’m proud of that. I’m proud that the battle sequence feels visceral and robust, but never gratuitous.
“It’s tremendously important to me in this film, and indeed in all the movies I’ve made, to be thoughtful and respectful of the culture, and to be collaborative. Every department of this movie did research into Chinese
culture, painting, history, and accounts of war,” says the director. That research gave the film, and its tone, added depth and richness, from the characterization to the action scenes to the comedy. “There’s a great deal of levity and humor in the film, but we tried to ground it in real people and real situations, like Mulan’s relationships with her comrades. We find humor in the situation of being a girl trying to hide as a boy