‘Mulan’s Star and Director Break Down the Remake’s Intensely Beautiful Martial Arts Physicality

     September 4, 2020

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From director Niki Caro, the epic tale of Mulan tells the story of a fearless young woman (Yifei Liu) whose love for her family and country send her on a journey to becoming one of China’s greatest warriors. As she learns to embrace her inner strength and true potential, she also earns respect on the battlefield, bringing true honor to her proud father.

At a press conference that was held prior to the COVID shut-down, the film’s star Yifei Liu and filmmaker Niki Caro talked about the appeal of this project, the responsibility that came with telling this story, what inspired this live-action version, the worldwide casting search for the title role, the biggest challenges in making the film, bringing the fight sequences to life, and how they were transformed by the experience of making Mulan.

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Image via Disney

Collider: Niki, what initially attracted you to this project and made you want to bring your vision to this?

NIKI CARO: Mulan herself. I love her. 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. It was a story that didn’t, in fact, originate with the 1998 animation, but is about 1300 years old, and has been resonant and relevant for centuries, and never more so now. So, it was for all of those reasons.

You’ve done Whale Rider and McFarland, USA, but all of your previous film budgets, combined, probably wouldn’t equal what you had for Mulan. This is the largest live-action film ever helmed by a female filmmaker. Was that intimidating or was that exciting?

CARO: The intimidating thing was my responsibility to the story, to the studio, and to the audience. As far as budget goes, no. With every film that I’ve made, Whale Rider included, I had a vision that was far bigger than the budget allowed. This time, to be able to have a budget equal to the vision in my head was just really satisfying.

When did you first discover the Disney animated film?

YIFEI LIU: I can’t remember how old I was when I first watched the animated version, but it’s for sure in my memory, and I loved it. In one of my auditions, I actually sang “Reflection.”

CARO: I missed it the first time around. I think those were my nightclub days. Then, I had children, and I had girls and, of course, I watched it then. I couldn’t believe it, and I was so grateful for it. In a time of princesses, here was a warrior.

How did the animated movie inspire you?

CARO: Even though, clearly, the choice to make it in live-action was to make it very different in tone from the animation, I did want to honor that work. That is a perfect film. It really is. I wanted to honor it by bringing through sequences that felt iconic, like the matchmaker sequence and the avalanche. That wasn’t in the script when I came on board, so I brought it back because I felt like that was a way we could really flex our cinematic muscles and visual effects into a really spectacular avalanche. But the trick there was to try to understand how she could be strategic enough to bring the avalanche down. What I love about Mulan is how super smart and strategic she is, so we spent quite a bit of time, as we were figuring out the avalanche sequence, figuring out how she would make it happen.

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Image via Disney

Did you go back to The Ballad of Mulan and take inspiration from that?

CARO: Yeah, we sure did. It’s very short, but it’s cinematic as well, so we tried to mine everything we could from The Ballad. Also, we just wanted to be inspired by it.

Yifei, what was it like to audition for and pursue this role?

LIU: When I first heard from my manager, who asked me, “There’s this Disney Mulan, do you want to audition for it?,” I’d heard that so many people were auditioning. So, I asked myself what I could bring. This is a role everybody wants to play, just because it’s so meaningful, as a woman and as a human being, to really be that brave and loving, and to accept her imperfectness to become what she really wants to be. I really asked myself a lot of questions because I know that the audition process is hard. You need to go into a room and continuously learn a few scenes from different sections of the script. I was super excited and nervous, but I also wanted to bring the best me, so I meditated and did things to calm myself, before meeting this beautiful director and doing my auditions.

Niki, is it true that you saw a thousand actresses for Mulan?

CARO: Yeah, we did. We did a worldwide search, and we did a really deep search in China. A lot of us, in the casting process, had this really romantic dream that we might find Mulan in a little village in China. We didn’t. We found beautiful actresses, but when it really came down to it, we didn’t feel that we had found Mulan, so we started again. We went back to China a year after we’d started [looking], and we went through the list of everybody that wasn’t available the first time around. Yifei was one of the people on that list, and she agreed to come to Los Angeles and audition. She was so terrifyingly good as an actor, but also really super strong. The audition was very demanding. On top of her jet lag and the two hours in the dramatic audition with me, she had to go to a physical audition with a trainer because I was determined to have a young woman in this role that could understand and commit to the physical nature of the work. So, she had flown for 14 hours, she hadn’t slept all night, it was 5 o’clock the next day, and she was in the gym with a trainer who had pushed her to her limits, and she never stopped, she never asked for a break, and she did everything that was asked of her. I knew then that we’d found our Mulan, and that I’d found a partner and collaborator, and really, genuinely, a warrior.

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Image via Disney

Yifei, what did you have to do for your physical audition?

LIU: I was relieved because I thought I did an okay job [at the audition], but then Niki said, “So, we’re gonna send you to this physical trainer, just to see.” I thought, “Oh, I’m on the next step. That means something.” I remember the trainer was super professional. I did push-ups, squats, weights, and different kinds of cardio, and whenever I finished one thing, he went to a notebook and wrote something. After 90 minutes, I couldn’t walk. It was more intense than the actual training process. It really tested my limits, but it was fun. It was something to remember.

You’ve done movies that have featured heavy martial arts before, but was the training for this unlike anything else?

LIU: For me, every movie is brand new and totally new to me. I have acted on some movies that have martial arts elements, but I’m not a professional. I’m so glad that I had this long time to prepare. The flexibility helped me.

How long did you spend training and what did you have to learn?

LIU: For this movie, it was three and a half months. I even learned Tai Chi because I understand Mulan’s chi as her connection of her spirit, and not the ego, but her true self. So, I agreed to train that way.

Do you still practice it?

LIU: No.

Niki, how did you round out this cast with people like Jet Li and Gong Li?

CARO: It was amazing. They all wanted to be a part of this. I think that’s a testament to Mulan herself, and the enduring nature of this character in Chinese culture and also the legacy of Disney.

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Image via Disney

Yifei, you’ve acted with some legends in the past, but what’s it like to share scenes with Jet Li and Gong Li, and not only hold your own but really stand up to them?

LIU: I’m just full of thanks. What an opportunity to be with them, not just because they’re perfect actors and actresses, but because of how kind of human beings they are. I worked with Jet, 12 years ago, on the movie Forbidden Kingdom, and he was amazing. He taught me a lot. At the time, I didn’t know how to ride a horse. We did scenes together and he helped me. And Donnie [Yen], just watching him do all of the moves on set, it was really crazy to look at. And Gong Li is one of my favorites. I love her so much.

Niki, you had a female cinematographer on this, with Mandy Walker.

CARO: Yeah, I think it’s the only movie of this scale and genre where all of the people running it were women. There was me, Mandy Walker, the cinematographer, Liz Tan, the first A.D., and the costume designer [Bina Daigeler] and make-up designer. It was very female led and, of course, being female led, we were very well prepared and communicated very effectively. We boarded it on time and slightly under budget ‘cause that’s just how we roll.

There’s been a lot of talk about improvement for female filmmakers, but are you seeing a personal improvement?

CARO: Yeah, I am. But I would say, emphatically, that there’s room for more.

Yifei, with everything you had to do for this, what ended up being the biggest challenge for you?

LIU: The hardest thing about Mulan is to put yourself in that circumstance and to have the answer be organic, and not be acting. I really want to thank Niki for everything. She’s the kindest human being that I’ve ever worked with. Speaking of that atmosphere on set, every day, I totally understand why and how people would want to work with someone who encourages you. I’m just grateful. I really see it as a whole journey. The fight sequences are also a part of her story. It’s just that the reaction is different and you’re doing different interactions.

For when Mulan goes undercover, how did you prepare to play a man?

LIU: First of all, it was the voice.

Did it take you awhile to find the voice?

LIU: That was the most simple part. You have to just lower your tone, but do it so that it belongs to you and own it. I had to discover her feelings, and be honest to her feelings. It could be the smallest detail, like a hesitation or a blink.

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Image via Disney

Niki, aside from finding Yifei Liu, what was the biggest challenge in making this film?

CARO: The biggest challenge 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 fighting, really, or any blood, under the Disney brand. Game of Thrones has changed the battle game for shooting those sorts of sequences, and it couldn’t be that. I was really blessed that the fighting style was martial arts and was inherently beautiful. I figured out that I could set the battle sequences so that the smoke and the steam could reveal and obscure violence. It could suggest it, and also be very beautiful and cinematic, and I’m proud of that. I’m very proud that the battle sequences feel visceral and robust, but never gratuitous.

Niki, how did you approach bringing the fight sequences to life?

CARO: It begins with the screenplay and a process known as pre-vis, where you make the sequences in the computer with fake computer people. And then, that work gets handed over to the stunt coordinator, Ben Cooke, who works it up with real people. Ben would shoot these sketches, and I would be able to say to him what worked and what didn’t, which might be quite unusual. We really drilled down into the action to make sure that the characters were really well represented. And then, on set, Mandy and I would shoot them in a really different way than fight scenes are normally shot. Most of the time, first unit only works with the cast, and then the second unit and stunt unit would shoot the other stuff. But Mandy and I ended up doing quite a lot of the shooting with the first unit because we loved it so much. And so, every time you see the camera spinning and following action, that is just Mandy Walker and my exuberance because we loved it. It was amazing. For me, it was just so beautiful to shoot bodies in motion, particularly with martial arts. And [Yifei] can do everything. A lot of the time, even though she had a stunt double that was incredible, we would ask Yifei to come in and do the stunt work because she has amazing grace and it was just more right when she was doing the stunt work. She’s amazing, and she can sing. If you stay all the way until the end of the credits, a Mandarin version of “Reflection” is sung by her.

Yifei, you’ve previously released albums, right?

LIU: It was when I was a teenager, which was so different. I’m a good karaoke singer, though. Recently, I’ve wanted to try [the song from] Frozen II [“Into the Unknown”], but I don’t know if I can reach that note or not.

How were you transformed by making this movie?

LIU: That’s a really good question. I feel that acting totally changed my life. I’ve always wanted to become an actress since I was a kid. After that, at the age of 21 or 22, I started to read this novel, The Girl Who Played Go, that was written by a Chinese-French author [Shan Sa]. That movie never happened, but it was offered to me. I really wanted to reach out to her, but I felt like I couldn’t because there was this space that I needed to fill. That’s when I got into Stanislavski and the professional side, which changed my life. There is no limit for our mind and imagination, and our meaning for living is really to reach for that dream and achieve that dream. Dreaming is so beautiful. So, acting really means everything to me.

CARO: There’s a line in the movie that Gong Li’s character says to Mulan, “Impossible, a woman leading a man’s army,” and that’s what I did. The film organism, even despite my best efforts, is still a man’s army. When I first started out, I didn’t think it was possible. It’s why Jane Campion is so meaningful to me. She’s the first time I saw somebody that looked like me do this work that I so desperately wanted to do. I used to think, embarrassingly now, that I would somehow have to disguise myself. So, the fact that I’m making a movie about that very thing, and the fact that I was able to tell this story in such a way – and this is a critical difference between what we did and the animation, which has Mulan disguised as a man to define herself – where Mulan learns that she can never be powerful, unless she loses that disguise. That’s what I’m the most proud of and what’s the most meaningful to me, to send that message out there.

Mulan is available to stream at Disney+ on September 4th with Premier Access.

Christina Radish is a Senior Reporter of Film, TV, and Theme Parks for Collider. You can follow her on Twitter @ChristinaRadish.

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