Mulan was a game-changer in a myriad of ways. It was the first time many women had seen a female hero and the first time Asian-Americans had seen themselves on film - she was also Disney’s first-ever Asian princess. But while the 1998 animation may have been the first time the rest of the world heard of Mulan, in China, the legend of her story has been one of the most popular for over 1500 years. “Depending on who you talk to, Mulan was a real woman,” producer Jason Reed says from the set in Queenstown, New Zealand, where some of the film’s biggest battle scenes were shot to a picturesque mountain-filled backdrop similar to that in many scenes of Lord of the Rings. “There are many, many versions of the Mulanstory in China, all taking the central theme and playing with it to reflect their timeline”. To ensure they were honouring such an important story, filmmakers did extensive research on multiple different versions of Mulan’s legacy and looked to various Chinese animated TV shows which have been made over the years. “We are working with the Walt Disney company and we’re under the auspices of remaking the animated film, but what we really did was go back to the original source material and looked at all of that material alongside the Disney animated movie and created our own telling of the story,” Reed explains. “Disney has been incredibly successful in their remakes of animated classics and we have been modelling our path forward based on all of those movies but we’re also doing something completely new and fresh, which is we’re doing a location-based, big epic action-adventure movie, on top of all the fun you’d expect from a Disney movie.”
When Reed says epic, he means it. Filmmakers flew in some of the best horse riders from around the world - namely, Mongolia and Kazakhstan - to make up Mulan’s Shadow Warriors. The former, Mongolian trick riders, can jump off the side of a horse’s saddle before hurling themselves back up so they’re riding backwards and shoot arrows off the back - at full gallop. Two of the world’s biggest martial arts superstars, Donnie Yen and Jet Li, have also signed on as Commander Tung, head of the Chinese Imperial Army which Mulan joins in place of her father, and The Emperor respectively. The latter, producers confirm, means The Emperor will do more than just sit on a throne like he did when animated.
The creation of this live-action version of Mulan came at a timely moment in society. While it explores traditional Chinese family values, such as honour and duty, at its core, Mulan is a film about the role of women in society - something which is being examined closer than ever before in the wake of the 2016 US Presidential Election and the likes of the #MeToo movement. “The script and the basic story we decided to tell hasn’t really changed from the initial conception, but oddly, it becomes more relevant every single day, unfortunately, because of the things we’re seeing in current events,” Reed says. “It speaks to the classic nature of the story, in that this has been an issue for a really long time. Obviously, [Mulan is] a story about a woman operating in a man’s world, so there’s a lot of relevance.”
After meeting over 1,000 women in their quest to cast the perfect Mulan, 32-year-old American-Chinese actress Liu Yifei came along. A casting decision which halted production for months until Yifei had wrapped up her current project, but something everyone unanimously agrees was worth it a thousand times over. On the film set, everyone echoed the same sentiments about their lead actress: that of her dedication and incredible work ethic through rain, snow, hail and freezing temperatures. “She’s very smart, she’s very thoughtful and she’s very talented, but what’s really impressive - and what I think Niki really honed in on the first time she met her - is that she has this determination, this sort of fierceness of spirit that really is the story that we’re trying to tell of Mulan,” Reed explains. “She has been unbelievable, no one trains as much as she does, no one works as many days as she does on this movie, she is indefatigable. I’ve never had the pleasure of working with someone as dedicated as Yifei is.”
Yifei, though acutely aware of the pressure of playing such an iconic character, is attempting to not let the gravity of her role distract her on set. When we speak in between takes, the actress, who was born in China before moving to the United States aged 10, was quick to note that while this project is “a very special opportunity,” she puts the same amount of effort into every job she does. “I’m very lucky, but I don’t want to put too much pressure [on myself], she says. “Every movie, every job that I do, I put in the same effort because I love to act, I love being an actress. Every journey for me is brand new, what’s more important for me is these people,” she gestures to the crew around us who are patiently waiting for their lead so the next scene to begin. On Mulan’s story being an example for women and young girls everywhere, Yifei, who says she remembers “loving the song” as a child says, “It’s very important. I think that’s really inspiring for young girls, no matter what age you are or what you do… Mulan’s spirit is in every one of us, she’s really just about brave instinct. She didn’t think too much about it, she just followed her feeling.” She pauses, before explaining herself further, perhaps worried she’s not conveying herself in the best way in the brief minutes we have before she’s rushed back to set. “It’s about the conscious choices she makes. I think that’s really inspiring for young girls - no matter what age you are or what you do, it’s the choices we make really make who we are. And the faith in ourselves shows how far we can go.”
Mulan is available to stream from September 4. Exclusively available to Disney+ subscribers with Premier Access*
*Additional fee required.