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How Niki Caro transformed Disney's Mulan into a warrior epic
Disney has been storming through its back catalog of animations to bring live-action versions of them to the big screen, and, for the most part, they have been a resounding box-office success. However, with the remake of Mulan, the titular heroine has been rebranded as a Disney warrior rather than a Disney Princess.
It's certainly a more fitting label for the beloved figure of Chinese history; Mulan is not a damsel in distress who needs to be saved. She's the one doing the rescuing and has to go to war to do so. It's this transformative journey that compelled director Niki Caro to get involved in the project in the first place.
"Her journey from a village girl to a male soldier to a warrior and then to become the hero is a journey for all of us," Caro said during a Q&A after a presentation of footage from the film. "That story is as resonant and as relevant now as it was when it was first written 1500 years ago."
There has been a lot of discussion over Caro's hiring for the job. On the one hand, it's wonderful to see a woman direct a major studio blockbuster — she's one of only four women who have handled a budget over $100 million — but on the other, she's a white person telling the story of a culture she is not a part of. "I'm not Chinese," Caro said, "but I have made a lot of movies outside of my culture and I have a way of doing it where I take the responsibility of the cultural authenticity very, very seriously."
The New Zealander earned critical acclaim for her movie Whale Rider, which tells the story of a Māori girl who wants to be the leader of her Whangara tribe despite tradition dictating it be a role filled by men only. The film shares obvious similarities to Mulan, including a backlash over Caro telling the story. An editorial in Maori magazine Mana criticized the film before production had begun, but Caro had support from the people of Whangara, where it and the book takes place.
"The chief of the community to my production office, quite unannounced, shut the door and said: 'You have to understand two things: Firstly, we have chosen you. The second thing is, now you have to be a chief,'" she recalled in a 2017 interview. "The person who wrote the original editorial saw the film and wrote another one taking it back."
So to tell as authentic a Mulan story as she could, Caro did her prep, did her research (Hero and Saving General Yang were particularly influential), and enlisted the help of celebrated producer Bill Kong. The Hong Kong icon has made over 45 films in his career, including the internationally recognized hits Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers.
"Bill was the first person I spoke to," Caro said. "He feels like my fairy godfather in this filmmaking process. When I got this job, I spoke to Bill and really started down those conversations about how I might deliver a film that everybody loves, but in particular, Chinese and Asian people too."
One of the most important parts of that was finding their leading lady. Caro said they did "a deep and intense search of all of China and a worldwide search" to find the right actor to play Mulan because she had a lot of boxes to tick.
"We looked everywhere in the world for a year [because of] what this actress has to be and be able to do," Caro told us. "[She has to be] from China, a fluent English speaker, brilliant actress, able to pass as a man and then all the things that I insisted she brings to the movie, which is real physical prowess.
"I didn't want to have a wispy actress pretending I wanted to find a woman, a partner for me, who was genuinely strong," she added.
According to Caro, Liu Yifei wasn't available the first time they approached her, but after a year of not finding the right actor, the studio went back to find she was now free to sign on. The filmmaker described the Chinese-American star as "perfect" and mentioned that she's a classically trained singer too, although fans of the original 1998 film shouldn't expect a lot of singing in this remake.
"We don't tend to break into song when we go to war," Caro explained. "We do honor the music from the animation in a very significant way."
The filmmaker also wanted to honor the original sixth-century Ballad of Mulan, which served as the basis for the Disney animated film. One of these "little touches" involves a rabbit metaphor toward the end of the song. "They say the male rabbit likes to hop and leap, while the female rabbit prefers to sit still," it reads. "But in times of danger, when the two rabbits scurry by, who can tell male from female?"
"We have those rabbits," Caro said. They also have a lot of action. There are some epic fight sequences in the original animation, from Mulan's training to battling the Huns, and Caro wanted it to look as real as possible.
"I've never done an action movie before, but I loved it, it was really like a duck to water," Caro recalled. "I think a lot of action films, and I'm just saying this as a moviegoer, the default setting on action films seems to be how could it be cooler?
"That's OK, but with this responsibility to tell Mulan's story, her action is so intrinsic to who she is and to the character that I was creating the action sequences with the stunt coordinator, right from the word go."
Part of this action storytelling is focused on the power that Mulan wields. In traditional Chinese culture, ch'i is an energy force within every living entity, and in this film she has more than most and it becomes an integral part of her story.
"We find her as a little girl," Caro revealed, "and what's apparent to her family is that she is very powerful. Too much ch'i in a girl is considered to be a bad thing, so she's told by her father that ch'i is for warriors, not for daughters, and that she has to hide her light.
"And yet, the strength in her, this ch'i, inadvertently comes out and everybody sees how powerful she is," the filmmaker added. "But by being [herself she] risks blowing everything."
Audiences will be in awe of some of the power on display, as a few of the battle and fight sequences SYFY FANGRRLS witnessed at this presentation were utterly jaw-dropping and breathtaking to watch. It certainly bucks the trend of remakes copying every element of the animation it is based on and could certainly stand up against the blockbuster action films from Disney's Marvel and Star Wars franchises.
Caro certainly wants Mulan to be considered more as a war epic rather than a Disney Princess movie, but the most important thing is for the movie to deliver the message that women are powerful.
"This movie sets us up the very important idea, particularly for women, that we are strongest when we are ourselves," the filmmaker said. "And that strength is limitless, so watch out."