Yifei Liu as the fearless warrior woman Mulan.
Yifei Liu as the fearless warrior woman Mulan.

What to expect from Disney’s new Mulan

In a windy valley surrounded by snow-capped peaks, the sound of clashing spears rings out across a military camp as fresh-faced young men train for a date with destiny.

This is I'll Make a Man Out of You come to life - the musical sequence from the 1998 Disney animated favourite Mulan reimagined in live action for a new era.

And it's coming to life just across the ditch on New Zealand's South Island, with Kiwi director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) at the helm.

"Disney has been incredibly successful at taking the old animated movies and reinventing them on a grander scale - starting with Alice In Wonderland, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, and we're modelling our path forward based on those movies," says producer Jason Reed. "But we're also doing something completely fresh, which is a location-based, epic action-adventure movie."

Based on a ballad from Chinese folklore, Mulan is a tale of duty and honour centred on a girl who disguises herself as a man to take her ailing father's place in the Imperial Army.

Of the reported 1000 young women Disney saw to find the "real" Mulan, chosen to wield her sword - Loyal, Brave, True etched in gold on its blade - was Yifei Liu, a 32-year-old born in Wuhan, China.

"I'm very lucky but I don't want to put on too much pressure," laughs Liu, "because pressure means doubt. For me, the spirit of Mulan is the simpleness and the unspeakable belief and strength. This power inspires me."

Huddling from the wind in a mini van, Liu may not have the fierce exterior of a warrior ("I love the sheeps!" she exclaims, when asked about NZ), but colleagues attest to her inner steel.

"She IS Mulan," says costume designer Bina Daigeler. "What she achieves with her body and her strength … she's an example for all."

Adds Reed: "Yifei has been unbelievable. No one works out as much as she does, no one trains as hard as she does, no one works as many days as she does on this movie and she is indefatigable. What Niki honed in on was this determination, this fierceness of spirit."

Liu, who lived in New York from age 10-15 before being accepted into the Beijing Film Institute, believes Mulan is a "spirit" that lives "in every one of us".

"Bravery is instinct," she says. "Mulan doesn't think complicated, she just follows her feelings. She feels the love for her family and on the journey finds out who she really is."

While the production captured scenery in China, it found more accessible stand-ins in NZ's Southern Alps - including this location in Ahuriri Valley, between Queenstown and Mount Cook.

While the mountains are majestic, they won't exactly be alive with the sound of music in Mulan.

Kiwi director Niki Caro (right) made the most of her homeland’s beauty by shooting the Chinese legend of Mulan in New Zealand.
Kiwi director Niki Caro (right) made the most of her homeland’s beauty by shooting the Chinese legend of Mulan in New Zealand.

"It's not a traditional break-into-song musical," says Reed. While he confirms "many of the songs you love from the original movie will be present" they'll be in a different form.

Extensive cultural consulting also led to some of the more problematic aspects of the animated movie being discarded - like Mushu the dragon, voiced by Eddie Murphy.

"We all love Mushu, but it turns out that isn't the most culturally appropriate way to represent a dragon in Chinese culture," says Reed.

Research also determined "the treatment of the Emperor in the original movie was not accurate or respectful". Enter Jet Li to bring the requisite "respect and gravitas to the role".

"He also happens to be one of the greatest Wushu masters of all time," says Reed, "so the Emperor does not just sit on the throne and read scrolls in our movie."

The prospect of Mulan falling for a senior officer has also been removed with the purpose of the animation's Li Shang now split across two characters: Hong Kong action superstar Donnie Yen plays Mulan's mentor, Commander Tung, and Yoson An is Honghui, a fellow conscript and love interest.

An, 27, remembers thinking, "Wouldn't it be cool if I got to play the love interest?" when Mulan was announced. He figured it wouldn't happen, yet here he is - starring in a Hollywood blockbuster with a full-blown Asian cast, filming in his homeland. "It's a very exciting time for cultural representation and diversity," An says.

Of course, Mulan would never have joined the army were it not for the threat posed by the Northern Invaders. They're gathering on horseback down a winding road from the military camp. Leading the charge is Bori Khan, played by Hawaiian Jason Scott Lee.

Lee has history with Disney, playing Mowgli in the 1994 version of The Jungle Book and lending his voice to Lilo & Stitch. But when he auditioned for the villain of Mulan, many thought the 53-year-old was too nice for the part.

To discover his inner "savage warrior energy", Caro sent Lee to Rotorua to train with a Maori kapa haka master.

"The warrior essence is still strong with the Maori people and Niki wanted me to tap into that," Lee explains.

Backing up Bori Khan is a foreboding force in black, known as the Shadow Warriors. "They're my ninja guys, my elite fighters," says Lee of the horsemen portrayed by Mongolian and Kazakhstani trick riders.

"They're riding at a full gallop and they can jump off the side, come back up, land backwards in the saddle and then shoot arrows," marvels Reed. "If I wasn't watching it on the playback I wouldn't believe it."

Also riding high in the action stakes is the film's leading lady. Liu performed many of her own stunts, honing her skills over three months of horse riding, strength and conditioning training.

"I'm not a big muscle girl," Liu laughs. "There are some muscles but not extreme."

Besides, she adds, Mulan's strength is not in her muscles. "One word for Mulan? It's always love."

Mulan opens March 26.