By Gill Pringle

First making her name with the poetic 2002 New Zealand-set drama Whale Rider, Niki Caro has forged a fascinating career in the past near-to-twenty years, cutting across genres and formats with seeming ease. From the tough, uncompromising North Country (a powerful treatise on horrific workplace discrimination starring Charlize Theron) and the potent period drama The Vintner’s Luck through to the Disney sports drama McFarland USA and the moving WW2 tale The Zookeeper’s Wife, along with eps of quality TV like Anne With An E and the upcoming Daisy & The Six, Niki Caro has proven adept at achieving maximum emotional resonance across a wide array of projects. The director has now been handed the reins on Mulan, Disney’s epic remake of its 1998 animated classic. The tale of Mulan (Yifei Liu), a young girl in feudal-era China who disguises herself as a boy in order to take up arms against the tyrant threatening her village, this sweeping epic places Niki Caro in a very small club, with the filmmaker one of only a handful of women to helm a film with a budget over $100 million…

Niki Caro

Could you take us through the journey of you making the film? There was talk of the studio going with an Asian director…how did it end up in your hands?

“It’s probably a question better answered by the studio because they made the decision. But I think they were looking for a director that could handle two cultures: the Chinese culture, and in fact, the Disney culture. 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, and I drive for authenticity and specificity. I had made a film for Disney called McFarland, USA, and I think that they felt that in me they had somebody that could satisfy both the cultural requirements and the requirements of a Disney movie.”

How important was it for you to bring the film to New Zealand, where you shot?

“It is very meaningful. New Zealand has a very, very fine, world-class filmmaking infrastructure, with 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, which are, of course, very accessible to a film crew in a way that the vast continent of China is not.”

Yifei Liu in Mulan.

In which ways does Yifei Liu embody Mulan the most?

“In every way, but mostly it’s her spirit, her heart, and her mind. She’s incredibly smart and sensitive. She’s a brilliant, brilliant actor. And most importantly, she’s a warrior. Many, many female warriors made this film. But she also 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, and she is vulnerable. She has softness and tenderness. She is all colours, as we all are as women. So I look forward to a time when female characters that take the lead role in films don’t all have to be strong female characters, but that can be real female characters. And 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 – to be loyal, brave, and true, that she recognises that she is not true whilst being disguised as a man. She then commits to the idea of her own authentic power, and she then becomes truly powerful and truly effective. We send that message out into the world to young women and young men: we are at our most powerful when we recognise that we are powerful, and we are the most powerful when we are wholly ourselves. That’s really strong.”

Yifei Liu and Donnie Yen in Mulan.

On that note, was that why the original character of Li Shang was cut from the film?

“We actually divided Li Shang into two characters. In the 1998 animation, Mulan had a relationship with Li Shang, who was her commanding officer. That idea troubles me in this time, obviously. The decision to change the character actually predated my involvement though. We now have Commander Tung, played by Donnie Yen, who functions as a father figure to Mulan through the middle of the movie. He trains her, and helps her connect to her chi and to her own power. That was very important. Then there is Mulan’s relationship with Honghui, played by Yoson An. She forms a very, very close bond with him when she’s Hua Jun, disguised as a young man. This is a bond of real openness and tenderness, and confidence. The movie is richer for splitting the initial character into those two roles.”

What’s the biggest difference between your film and the animation? And also, were there any moments from the original that you wanted to keep in this film?

“The biggest philosophical difference is that in the animation, Mulan discovered who she really was when she pretended to be a boy. In our interpretation, Mulan discovers her own power when she stops pretending to be a man and commits to her authentic self as a powerful young woman. The most exciting things for me as a filmmaker to reinterpret in live action were things like the avalanche which, of course, with all the tools at our disposal in the visual effects world, we can make truly explosive and magnificent. There was also just the idea that we could make this story real, and that we could commit to the real story of a real young woman, and what it meant to make that decision to go to war in order to save her father’s life, to disguise herself as a man in order to train as a warrior, and then to commit to her own power and become that warrior. That was an amazing privilege to tell that story on a canvas this big.”

Niki Caro

You use Christina Aguilera’s song “Reflection” from the original film in interesting ways in the film…

“Yes, we have a huge orchestral interpretation of that song in the most iconic moment of the film. Christina Aguilera re-recorded ‘Reflection’ for us, and it plays in the credits. Christina desperately wanted to re-record it for our movie. Because the first time she sang it, that’s what made her a star. She was a young singer with a huge range and she was the one chosen to sing it, and it made her career. It was important for her to sing it again because she was a girl when she sang it in 1998. And now she has sung it as a woman, and she felt that she had so much more to bring to it.”

The original film had so much humour, but this is much more the very serious drama. At what point did you make the decision to go in that direction?

“At the point when we decided that it wasn’t a comedy. When we committed to the live action version, we committed to the real story. We took tremendous inspiration from a character like Mushu [the dragon voiced by Eddie Murphy in the original], for instance, who brought real heart and humour and levity to the story. But we wanted Mulan to find that for herself, and not to have a default animated character providing that for her. We wanted to put Mulan at the centre of the film, and we wanted to challenge her to find those moments in her real relationships with her colleagues.”

Mulan will be available to stream for purchase on Disney+ from September 4, 2020.

1 Comment
  • Angela
    3 September 2020 at 5:39 pm

    Have been waiting to see this film & now wonder how long it will be?

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