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Niki Caro (right) on the set of Mulan Photo: Supplied via RNZ
Niki Caro (right) on the set of Mulan Photo: Supplied via RNZ
All the qualities that made Whale Rider so special have gone into the making of the Disney blockbuster Mulan, says acclaimed film-maker Niki Caro. 

One of the most anticipated movies of 2020, Mulan was shot on location in New Zealand, with a cast that included 17 Kiwis and a crew that was 90 percent local. But it will also be remembered for the fact that Caro helmed a production team that also included a producer, first assistant director and director of photography who are also women.

Mulan is a live action remake of the Disney animated movie released just over 20 years ago and now ready for huge theatrical release in China where it's set. The release was originally scheduled for March but has been postponed because of Covid-19.

Speaking from LA, Caro told RNZ's Sunday Morning  she is excited and hopeful Chinese people will "feel the love" for their culture.

"This completes the circle for me from Whale Rider because this is so similar a story. It feels like Whale Rider on steroids - all the heart and instinct that went into Whale Rider is in play here with Mulan and I'm just so grateful to have had the experience of making Whale Rider in New Zealand which will always be like my best, fondest film-making experience.

"But this one for all its muscularity comes pretty damn close."

Challenge to industry to use more women in senior roles

Speaking from Los Angeles, Caro told Sunday Morning 49 sets were built, six local film facilities were used, and filming took 143 days, so it proved very beneficial for small towns to have the crews and cast spending money for months on end.

"The fact that somebody who looks like me and sounds like me can helm a movie of this size and bring it home to New Zealand sends a very good message to the film community and the industry and the country. Film-making of this scale is now achieved by women. My crew was led by women and that's something I'm really proud of."

Yifei Liu plays the lead role. Photo: Disney
Yifei Liu plays the lead role. Photo: Disney
It was "highly unusual" for women to play such leading roles in production of such a major film, Caro said.

She said the women she worked with were the best people for the job and the production came in on time and slightly under-budget.

"The really big upside in having women run a production of this size is that it all runs very smoothly. Everybody communicated very well, we were very well-prepared... I throw down to the industry and defy them not to hire women at the highest levels of every movie."

'No-brainer' to film in NZ

It had not been hard to convince studio bosses that it should be mainly shot in New Zealand.

"New Zealand has incredibly dramatic and diverse scenery which allows it to stand in for all manner of other locations and while we were really determined to make Mulan as authentic as possible in the Chinese sense, we did need a really solid infrastructure to mount this incredibly complex production.  It was a no-brainer to bring it to New Zealand..."

She pointed out that two film units in China augmented what was shot in New Zealand.

For a location such as the clay cliffs in Omarama, Chinese people swear it's identical to a place in their country so this helped the production have a "seamless" feel.

Kiwi Grant Major's production design is showcased in Mulan. Photo: Disney
Kiwi Grant Major's production design is showcased in Mulan. Photo: Disney
The Mulan story has been told countless times in China, but never by Disney as live action.

It is being released on DisneyPlus and audiences around the world will be able to see it at a time of great upheaval due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In many places it was not possible to go to the movies and while people might miss out on the epic big-screen experience, it was pleasing it could be shared with families at home, Caro said.

"I hope the intimacy of watching it in this way will be really powerful in this moment."

Mulan as a character is a "bad-ass warrior", a daughter, a soldier and a leader who faces challenges out of love for her family, community and country.

"In many ways I think particularly right now she reminds us of the value of being loyal and brave and true in our own lives."

A career worth of experience and a big budget equipped her with the crew and the tools to realise the vision for a big action movie although she felt a tremendous responsibility "not to screw it up".

It was difficult to find the Chinese actress who could handle the physical aspects of the film shoot as well as switch from being a woman to a man. It took a year to find Yifei Liu and production was delayed another six months until she became available.

Chinese-born Aucklander Yoson An who plays Mulan's love interest is destined to be a star, Caro said. "So many people are going to fall in love with that young man."

As a Chinese story, there were many sensitivities that had to be considered. These included how "the baddies" looked.

"Every single aspect of this movie has been so deeply and thoroughly researched by every department and we have had every expert."

Precautions included having a Han dynasty adviser on the team, so the story could remain authentic while being presented as a Disney spectacle.


There is now a move, globally, to boycott this movie and you are urged to support the boycott. The lead actor is a supporter of Police brutality in Hong Kong, and therefore of the Chinese regime that sanctions it.

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