"What drew me to this project was Mulan herself, her journey from village girl to soldier, to warrior, to hero," said director Niki Caro, explaining why she decided to helm Disney's 200-million-U.S. dollar live-action remake of "Mulan."
During the making of the movie, many Chinese advisors shared their knowledge of this beautiful, amazing and incredible culture with her, and in many ways the movie is "a love letter to China," Caro said in an exclusive interview with Xinhua.
Premiering on Disney+ on Friday, the long-awaited Disney blockbuster is based on the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan, a revered female warrior hero who lived during a tumultuous era in the Chinese history more than 1,400 years ago. Mulan disguised herself as a man to serve in the army in place of her aged father and fight for her country.
"On Mulan father's sword in the film, there are three Chinese characters, 'Loyal,' 'Brave,' and 'True.' I was very inspired by the 'True' part of that," Caro said.
Caro told Xinhua that it has always been important to have strong female characters at the center of a film and never more important than now.
"Particularly female characters that are complex. Not just strong, but complicated, vulnerable, smart, honest, and loving," she asserted. "Mulan is all of those things."
"As a woman, I got to lead the mighty army of 1,000 people that helped make this movie," she said.
"With sensitivity, kindness, and I hope some grace to go along with general strength and badassery," she joked.
There are many important cultural differences between Chinese and Western cultures, both subtle and overt, that made making this film so challenging.
"Disney recognized they needed a director who could convey the cultural imperatives of the Chinese culture while honoring Disney's own unique culture and style," Caro told Xinhua.
While Caro may have been born and raised in New Zealand, she is skilled at interpreting cultures very different from her own.
"I've done a number of films not of my own culture and have developed a way of doing that respectfully and Disney noticed that," she said.
"Niki will bring to the world a different feel and a different human hero than we expect. She has great sensitivity," executive producer Bill Kong said of Caro. "She loves Mulan and she understands Mulan. She's the right choice, and I very much look forward to her bringing out a very special Mulan."
"I'm very sensitive to the nuance and beliefs of a foreign culture. I thought a lot about that when I made Whale Rider and that has really similar DNA to Mulan," explained Caro, who is known for Oscar-nominated films "Whale Rider" and "North Country."
She feels that the more specific and authentic she is as a director about a culture, the more universal the story becomes. "When you are honest and authentic, it touches more people. And that's what I strive to do," she noted.
"I had to develop a way of working where I strived for authenticity and specificity always," she explained. "And to achieve that I had an army of Chinese advisors who were so gracious and so open with sharing their knowledge of this beautiful, amazing and incredible culture with me, so in many ways this movie is a love letter to China."
Disney's talent line up for the film included the lead actress Liu Yifei, and many leading actors of Chinese descent, including Jet Li, Gong Li, Donnie Yen, Jason Scott Lee, Yoson An, and Chen Tang.
"Niki was perfect," Liu told Xinhua in an exclusive interview. "I think she respects every actor and helps them to create the character. She will ask what you want, but she will always tell you if she wants something. I noticed that she likes a real and natural performance."
Caro likes collaborating with actors in a way that encourages them to bring her their best work. "What they often bring is very fresh and something I haven't thought of and something I want to see in a different way," Caro said.
Directing a film this enormous, Caro said, "is sort of the dichotomy of being incredibly well-prepared, but also being very open and responsive to the things you can never be prepared for, which are the things that come up in the moment with an actor on set. Which happened a lot in 'Mulan,'" she revealed.
Liu also told Xinhua that Caro's personality also had a big impact on set.
"She is very positive," said Liu. "Her personality just shines. I understand the amount of work that a director takes on, so I can imagine that she was tied and stressed sometimes. But whenever she showed up, she was so light and happy that she made everybody feel confident."
Chen Tang, who plays Yao, a manly warrior buddy of title character Mulan in the film, also weighed in on what it was like working with Caro personally and with female directors in general.
"I loved working with Niki," he told Xinhua. "There is a distinct difference of energy between male and female directors. I think it has to do with masculine and feminine ways of looking at the world."
"For Niki, the process was everything, which made it more intimate, more about the importance of finding the 'emotional truth' behind the characters," he continued. "Niki is a character-driven director."
Caro commented on the increased awareness and opportunities that the "Time's Up" and "Me Too" movements have given female directors.
"It's not that we don't have great female directors. We do. It's that they aren't given enough opportunities," she told Xinhua. "But I hope Mulan will help change that. Now the spotlight is on us, we need to hold it and keep having this conversation until we have a real impact."
"Mulan" has been delayed multiple times amid the global pandemic. Disney debuted "Mulan" online rather than in theaters in the United States and to release the film in theaters in markets without Disney+.
"Mulan" has been approved to hit the big screen in the Chinese mainland on Sept. 11, according to Disney.