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Disney’s Mulan starring Liu Yifei is perfect for the #MeToo era

Mulan may tell a timely tale of a woman infiltrating and ultimately triumphing in a man’s world, but it will perhaps always be remembered as the film that never got the cinematic release it deserved.

After multiple theatrical delays due to COVID-19, the highly anticipated and visually stunning live-action remake of the 1998 animated movie, Mulan will finally drop on Disney’s streaming service Disney+ on September 4.

The updated version stars Liu Yifei, 32, in the title role, and is directed by New Zealand’s Niki Caro (Whale Rider, The Zookeeper’s Wife), who promises an adrenaline-fuelled ride set against spectacular landscapes, all the while remaining faithful to its origins.

“It was such a privilege to tell a story that’s been relevant for hundreds and hundreds of years — over a millennium, actually. And both myself and the studio were really committed to honour the DNA of the 1998 animation film and the centuries-old Ballad Of Mulan, on which the story is based, but we always knew we wanted to make something completely new in a live-action version,” Caro says.

Stills from the live action Disney film Mulan
Camera IconStills from the live action Disney film Mulan Credit: Disney

For those unversed in the Mulan mythology, the story follows a brave young girl who joins the Chinese Emperor’s army after the Emperor issued a decree mandating that one man per family must serve to protect the country against the northern invaders. As the man in Mulan’s family is her ailing father, she has no choice but to step in for him, even if it means masquerading as a man.

In our current #MeToo culture, Mulan’s release couldn’t be more timely.

“To commit to the real journey of a young woman who goes to war to save her father’s life, disguises herself as a man and then commits to her own authentic power and fights as a woman, to tell that story now feels very relevant,” Caro concurs.

Producers embarked on an exhaustive search to find someone suitable to play the beloved heroine.

“We saw in excess of a thousand people during the casting,” Caro sighs. “We almost went from village to village in China because I had this romantic idea that we might find her that way. I thought we’d find that needle in a haystack there, because that’s the way I searched for Keisha Castle-Hughes when I made Whale Rider. We searched for a year. We found some beautiful actresses, but we didn’t find Mulan.”

Enter Liu, an actress, martial artist and accomplished singer, who flew 14 hours to Los Angeles from Beijing for her two-hour audition in English — which, of course, is not her native language.

“I’m so proud to be one of the cast, and to show Mulan on screen is a big honour,” the soft-spoken Liu says.

It was a process to find her inner warrior, and in doing so Liu had to learn a wide range of skills.

“I had to build up strength to play the character and (to increase) how fast I can move and how I can use my strength to do the action sequences. The training really helped me get there,” she says.

Her schedule began months before production, with Liu spending hours in the gym every day, not unlike actors who train for a superhero movie.

Stills from Mulan
Camera IconStills from Mulan Credit: Disney

“A lot of it is your mind controlling your body, so you learn that connection through meditation as well as training,” she says. “You need to really focus.”

During the film, we see her engage in battles and leap across rooftops.

“The harness is very secure and I’ve had to wear them before in movies, but I’m not a professional athlete, so it wasn’t easy.”

Liu was supported by stunt people and physical trainers; however there must have been an element of fear in executing some of those action scenes? “My passion for the movie is so pure, and you throw yourself into the character, so you can’t think of anything else at the time.”

Born in Wuhan, Liu is an only child. Her father worked in the Chinese Embassy in France, and is now a French language university professor. Her mother is a dancer and stage performer.

Yes, Mulan, like me, never gives up. She has the courage to look deep inside herself and makes the kinds of choices (necessary) to become the best version of herself.

Her parents divorced when she was 10 years old, at which point she and her mother moved to New York City. Five years later, in 2002, they returned to China and Liu decided to pursue an acting career. She studied at the Performance Institute of the Beijing Film Academy, where she graduated in 2006.

Liu was cast in numerous Chinese TV and film productions, and in 2014 she landed a role in the American-Chinese action film, Outcast, starring Nicolas Cage. In 2017, she starred in The Chinese Widow, for which she was nominated for a Best Actress trophy by the Shanghai Film Festival. Later that year, she landed the role of Mulan.

“I’m so happy and thankful for this beautiful opportunity,” she says of the coveted role. “It opens up my imagination and it tells me that I’m on the right path. I love acting and I will never give it up.” Liu admits she shares some character traits with her onscreen character.

“Yes, Mulan, like me, never gives up,” she says. “She has the courage to look deep inside herself and makes the kinds of choices (necessary) to become the best version of herself.”

Stills from Mulan
Camera IconStills from Mulan Credit: Disney, Unknown

Shot in Auckland and various locations in China, the film also stars Donnie Yen, Jason Scott Lee and Yoson An. Jet Li plays the wise and benevolent Chinese Emperor. Initially Li, a veteran actor and martial artist, who we last saw in Expendables 3 in 2014, turned down the role. “I said, ‘Mulan, everybody knows. Why make another one?’” Li laughs. “But then my 15-year-old daughter said, ‘Can you make the movie for me?’ So then I called Donnie (Yen) and said, ‘Did you take the job?’ And he said, ‘I don’t want to do it’.” He pauses. “Then a few days later, Donnie called me back and said, ‘My daughter wants me to do it, too’. So then we decided to do it for our daughters. I’m really glad now that I took the job.”

Yen, who starred in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, in 2016, and most recently, xXx: Return of Xander Cage, in 2017, plays Commander Tung, a high-ranking officer in the Imperial Army and mentor to Mulan.

“I have a special attachment to this particular subject of a female hero,” Yen explains. “My first martial arts teacher was my mother, and she taught MIT professors as well as Harvard students. She was my mentor. She used to get me up in the morning and use a wooden sword and whip me if I didn’t work out before I went to school.

“Secondly, as Jet said, my daughter said to me, ‘Poppa, you have to be in it’,” he laughs. “It’s important for a movie to come out like Mulan because, unfortunately, there are still many places in the world where females do not have the same opportunities as the opposite gender.

Stills from Mulan
Camera IconStills from Mulan Credit: Disney

“I think a film like Mulan, produced by Disney on a grand scale that everyone can see, is something that gives hope. It supports and inspires young girls to be anybody they want to be. It doesn’t matter what gender you are.”

Much ado has been made of Caro helming the most expensive film ever made by a female director, budgeted at more than $US200 million.

“There’s a line in the film that really stands out to me,” Caro says. “One of the characters says to Mulan: ‘It’s impossible for a woman to lead a man’s army.’ I love that line. That line speaks to me because that’s my job; I lead a man’s army. But in this ‘filmmaker’ army, all my generals are women, so the storytelling is very female led and I’m so happy and satisfied about that.

“It feels fantastic to have a new example of what a movie looks like when it’s run by women. It looks exactly like this. It’s this big, it’s this spectacular, and the action is this adrenalised. Plus, it is a movie that is filled with hope, depth and emotion. I’m very, very, very proud of it.”

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