Disney’s Mulan brings all the action that’s been missing from months in quarantine. The newly released movie, now available on Disney+ with Premier Access, is a stimulating retelling of the legend of Hua Mulan that sticks closer to its original millennia-old poem than the 1998 animated movie. Starring an Asian cast, the namesake heroine is played by Yifei Liu, who poses as a man to serve in her disabled father’s place in the imperial army. This comes at the risk of bringing dishonor to her family and her country for disobeying the soldier’s oath of being brave, loyal, and true. As she grapples with the latter, she ultimately finds the strength to embrace her identity and save the day.
While the colorful supporting characters and musical numbers that drove the Disney cartoon are absent from the live-action adaptation, the film makes up for it in stunning visuals that twist and turn along with Mulan’s journey. Director Niki Caro (Whale Rider, The Zookeeper’s Wife) received a 0 million dollar budget for the project, a previously unheard of number for a female director. As evidenced by the striking landscapes, powerful battle scenes, and intricate costumes, she put the money to good use. Working with cinematographer Mandy Walker and costume designer Bina Daigeler, Caro sought to create an action movie with a heart. “It’s a gigantic action-adventure epic,” the director tells CR, “but it’s beautiful and it’s emotional.”
Mulan’s on-screen defiance was brought to life by a team led by women who are all too familiar with being surrounded by a pack of men. Caro remembers when she first decided to pursue filmmaking as a teenager, “there wasn’t any precedent for female directors. At 18, I thought–sort of charmingly now–that I would have to try to disguise myself in some way to do this work.” Now, as she shows the journey of a young woman who does just that, she doesn’t feel the need to hide.
“It’s not lost on me that I’m telling the Mulan story now, and, critically, that I don’t have to disguise myself. That I can lead with fierce strength that is also feminine is really meaningful,” Caro says. “There’s a line in the film where [Gong Li’s character] says to Mulan, ‘Impossible. A woman leading a man’s army.’ And that’s what I do. A film set, despite best efforts, is still pretty much a man’s army.”
Together with Walker and Daigeler, Caro translated that empowerment behind the scenes to a stunning display of Liu’s agility and strength as Mulan. In the battle scenes, where Mulan’s prowess is spotlighted, the filmmakers adapted influences from martial arts movies into dizzying visuals that follow Mulan’s quick reflexes and flair for acrobatics. Framing the shots around Mulan was prioritized throughout the film, and something that cinematographer Walker especially wanted to showcase during the action scenes.
“This wasn’t meant to be a violent action film with soldiers crashing into each other with swords,” she tells CR. “Mulan’s elite talent and abilities were very elegant and choreographed. In stunt sequences, we looked at angles on Mulan that showed her face because [Liu] did many of her stunts herself, and also how we moved the camera with her in a way that you could stop on every frame and it would be a beautiful image.”
Creating these striking scenes was also a major factor in the costume design. Wanting to capture a natural, authentic feel to the imperial army’s regalia, Daigeler referenced ancient Chinese armor and relied on a lot of handmade treatments. The movement of Mulan and the soldiers became a key consideration for the costume designer, who worked with real leather and metal to bring the warriors’ uniforms to life.
“Niki used beautiful tai chi stunts with leg splits in the air or with Mulan riding a horse, so I wanted to [create] armor that always moved beautifully on her body,” Daigeler tells CR. “We did a lot of development about how we could stitch the different pieces together so that we had movement, for all the warriors.”
Caro, Walker, and Daigeler’s collaboration pulls together seamlessly. From vibrant color palettes across the sets and costumes to sweeping shots of China’s mountains, each aspect contributes to the visual impact. In order to pay homage to traditional Chinese culture, the filmmakers, who are white, examined ancient Chinese art, historical accounts of war, and Chinese cinema to draw authentic influences. While the film has already received some criticism on its cultural accuracy, certain details, like the prominence of red–a symbolic color of joy in Chinese culture–and references to animal mythology are obvious nods that standout on screen.
The trio’s fervor becomes most apparent in an epic scene where Mulan embraces her true identity. “[Mulan] makes the decision to lose her disguise and she rides into battle as a woman. And we see her fight,” Caro says. “It’s Yifei, not a stunt performer, and she’s so strong, fierce, beautiful. It’s her own strong, female body fighting.”
For Daigeler, the literal shedding of the male armor offered a pivotal point for the costuming. “It was important that the tunic she wears under the armor had to show her feminine body, that we see that she has this beautiful form but she is a real warrior.”
More than just an action movie or a Disney revival, the film offers a tale of female empowerment in Hollywood, on both sides of the lens. “Her power is in the strength of her will, her body, her intellect, and her ability to strategize,” Caro says. “I’m so happy to put it out there in the world–it’s a very fine example for young women and men to be inspired by.”
Mulan is now available to stream on Disney+.END
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createdAt:Fri, 04 Sep 2020 16:40:38 +0000
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