How the 'Mulan' Cast Gave New Life to Disney's Animated Classic (Exclusive)
By John Boone
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When actress Yifei Liu was younger, she found herself in need of a song to perform for a school audition. She chose one from a movie she loved as a child: "Reflection," sung by Lea Salonga and Christina Aguilera for Mulan. Years later, Liu would fly halfway around the world to audition for the titular role in Disney's live-action remake.
Director Niki Caro and her team were nearly a year into a global casting search to find their Hua Mulan -- and after seeing thousands of actresses, had delayed production in order to continue the casting process -- when Liu arrived from China. "I still had jetlag," she remembers of her first audition for Disney. "I'm like, 'I haven't been asleep for, like, 20 hours." Caro immediately knew Liu was the one.
"It's her spirit. She's highly intelligent, she's very strong, she kicks ass with a sword and she's incredibly beautiful, which doesn't hurt -- but she's also really handsome, so as a guy, she fits in within an army," Caro said. "She was worth waiting for."
Cut to a year later, Liu was on set in New Zealand when ET visited. Caro, a native Kiwi, chose the South Island to double as China, the backdrop of the Ahuriri Valley mountains at once too awe-inspiring to be real and something green screened-CGI would never be able to replicate. In the gorge, a military camp had been built from the ground up, with Liu disguised in Mulan's male drag to film training sequences.
The 32-year-old rewatched the animated version with her mother, Xiaoli, after booking the role, and "it was a moment," she recalled. And for that moment, she felt the magnitude of it all sink in. But suited up as Mulan on set -- dressed in crimson robes, her shock of shoulder-length hair surreptitiously tucked under a wrap -- Liu wouldn't allow herself to feel the pressure of bringing one of Disney's most iconic princesses/warriors/superheroes to life.
"Because I think [Mulan's] bravery and spirit is in every one of us," she told ET's Nischelle Turner between takes. "Which is the very theme that we want to express. Like, it's nothing so unreachable. It's within every one of us and it's that very precious essence of every human being."
It helps too that she's not playing the exact same character so "brilliantly" (as Liu put it) voiced by Ming-Na Wen in the 1998 classic. This Mulan incorporates elements from that, but also returns to the original source material, The Ballad of Mulan, the 5th century fable of a Chinese warrior who disguises herself as a man to join the army in her father's stead.
"Everybody's in love with the animated movie, and for good reason. This is another version," Caro said. "We are certainly paying homage to the animated version, but equally, we are honoring the fact that it's an iconic Chinese story -- Mulan is almost their Mary Magdalene -- so our job is to honor both the Chinese culture, the culture of Disney, and bring them together in a whole new way. I think it's going to be very exciting for the audience of the animation."
The backbone of the story remains consistent through every iteration: Mulan masquerades as a male soldier when the Emperor (the late Pat Morita in the animated version, Jet Li here) issues a decree that one man from each family must enlist in the army, get down to business and defeat the Northern invaders. (The Huns have been replaced by the more historically accurate Rouran forces.)
From there, the differences are both relatively minor (there is no live-action equivalent to Eddie Murphy's Mushu) and foundational: This Mulan is not a musical, something cast member Donnie Yen was initially upset by. "When I was approached to be in this movie, the first thing I asked is, 'Are we going to sing?' I was expecting a musical!" exclaimed Yen, who noted that he'd watched the animated version "a couple hundred times" with his daughter. "I wanted to do music!"
Not least of which is because it's Yen's character who would likely sing "I'll Make a Man Out of You." He plays Commander Tung, a character reimaged from General Li Shang. Tung leads Mulan's battalion and serves as her mentor over the course of the film, while Yen proved such a master of tai chi behind the scenes that he actually gave guidance to the stunt people brought in for the fight sequences.
Li Shang also served as inspiration for the character Chen Honghui, a fellow soldier played by newcomer Yoson An. "It was actually very strange, when I heard Niki Caro was set to direct this movie in 2014, I had this thought, 'Wouldn't it be cool if I played the love interest?'" he revealed. "Now I'm here."
In lieu of musical numbers about what mysteries are held by the dark side of the moon, the movie leans into the war epic at the heart of the ballad, requiring months of training for both Liu and An in order to learn the fight choreography, sword training, horseback riding and wirework, among other skills, required of their characters.
"The training has been pretty vigorous," An said. "I went from very skinny, no muscle to having something. It's hard, man. I think I passed out at least two or three times. [It was] a lot of high-intensity interval training. I've never done anything like that before, but it really helps. Because the armor is, like, eight kilos, and we have to carry that for 12 to 14 hours sometimes."
Liu is humbler in discussing the physical transformation she went through for Mulan. "I'm not that kind of person who looks at the mirror and says, 'Mmmm,'" she giggled. "But the inner strength, yes."
That strength of character is what was most important to capture in the end, and it's what Caro, Liu and the rest of the Mulan team feels makes this story stand the test of time. Whether soldiers break into song or dragons drop clever one-liners, Mulan has to have the strength and courage to fight for her family, to fight for her country, to fight for love. "There's a massive theme of female empowerment," An said. "Just be true to who you are and you're as powerful -- if not more powerful -- than any other men out there."
When Mulan debuts on Disney+ on Sept. 4 (it was originally set to premiere in theaters March 27 before the release strategy changed due to the coronavirus pandemic), it will mark another milestone for Asian-fronted stories being told in Hollywood. Onscreen, the all-Chinese cast -- comprising legends and new faces alike assembled from around the globe -- continues to expand representation following the release of films such as Crazy Rich Asians and preceding Disney's first Marvel movie with an Asian superhero at the lead, 2021's Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
And though Caro is not Chinese, the director says she "felt that responsibility very keenly," with her cast praising her approach to authentic cultural representation -- as opposed to diversity for diversity's sake.
"Stories and acting and the expression of humanity is really not divided by nationalities and countries," Liu said, while Yen added, "I've been in this business for a long time -- I've made many, many movies -- and I think finally, finally there will be recognition of Asian talents, especially in a movie this size and with Disney... It's a long time coming."
Mulan premieres Friday, Sept. 4 on Disney+ with Premier Access.