One of Hollywood’s earliest victims of the pandemic, Mulan’s stars and Kiwi director Niki Caro were half way through a dizzying global publicity tour in early March, when the world ground to a halt, cinemas suddenly shuttered.
Reportedly, some of the Mulan party were sickened with the virus in London and after the team returned to their respective countries, the film’s star, Yifei Liu, was quarantined at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills in semi-limbo as Disney decided what to do with their hotly anticipated live-action remake.
If Caro’s grand, sweeping panoramas were intended to be viewed on the big screen, then like so much of this year’s fare, the film would debut on Disney+ for a premium price before finally making its way to 4K UHD, Blu-ray and DVD formats this month.
Catching up with Caro back in March, the director fended off criticism about a white woman taking on another culture. “I think they were looking for a director that could handle two cultures, the Chinese culture, and in fact, the Disney culture. And I have done a lot of work in my career making movies in cultures not my own. I have a very specific way of working that drives for authenticity and specificity,” she told STACK.
While the story remains the same as the 1998 animated classic – Mulan (Liu) disguises herself as a man and joins the army to protect the emperor of China from feuding armies in the North – this time there is no Mushu and little of the humour that made the original such a hit.
“When we committed to the live-action version, we committed to the real story. We took tremendous inspiration from a character like Mushu, for instance, who brought real heart and humour and levity to the story. But we wanted Mulan to find that for herself and not have a default animated character providing that for her; actually put Mulan at the center and challenge her to find those moments in her real relationships with her colleagues,” explains Caro, whose previous films include Whale Rider, The Zookeeper’s Wife and North Country.
Eagle-eyed Kiwi viewers will note that New Zealand doubles for several Chinese locations.
“It is very meaningful for me to bring a lot of the film back to New Zealand to shoot,” she says. “New Zealand has a very fine, world-class filmmaking infrastructure, world-class crew, and incredible locations so that I could depict ancient China. I could augment what we were actually shooting in China with amazing locations in New Zealand, that of course are very accessible to a film crew in a way that the vast continent of China is not,” she adds.
Lui hopes her Mulan will provide inspiration not just to women but for men, too. “I think no matter whether you’re a man or woman, you need to know who you are first. And the path is always your responsibility to take, or the decisions you make. Are you willing to be the best version of yourself and not who other people want you to be?” she posits.
“When you are truly yourself you are the most powerful. And it will always surprise you. And then you can love people, love your family better. ”
Caro says she was impressed with Liu from their first meeting. “Mostly by her spirit and her heart and mind although in so many other ways. She’s incredibly smart and sensitive, a brilliant actor and, most importantly, she’s a warrior.
“She deeply understands humanity and vulnerability. One thing that troubles me as we move into a time where we’re seeing more female characters onscreen, and we should, is this idea that all female characters have to be strong and badass. And yes, of course Mulan’s the archetype of that, but she is also a real girl, so she is vulnerable. She has softness and tenderness.
“This was a very big part of our interpretation of Mulan, allowing her to be a real young woman with all the vulnerabilities and insecurities whilst telling the story of a young woman that comes to recognise and appreciate how powerful she is. And it’s only when she commits to that authenticity, on her father’s sword, loyal, brave, true, that she recognises she is not true whilst being disguised as a man, and commits to the idea of her own authentic power. Only then does she become truly powerful and truly effective.”
Fighting words indeed.