A reflection on the DGA’s presentation of “Mulan” amidst the shutting down of Hollywood.
“The light! The light!”
Those are the first, nearly incoherent pen-written scribbles produced in my screening notebook from the night of March 7th, 2020. That date feels like 10 years ago.
On that date, The Directors Guild of America hosted a set of “Mulan” press screenings, complete with a discussion with Niki Caro and the star of the film, Yifei Liu. It was the day before “Mulan’s” red carpet premiere, and what would have been three weeks before its movie premiere date.
We were in the initial stage of accepting that Covid-19 was about to change everyday life; not yet accepting, really. The truth came out in tiny moments: a container of Clorox wipes on the sign-in desk, chatter and laughter about whether we were allowed to shake hands with newly-met strangers, tiny bottles of sanitizer hanging from key chains. It was an unseen and not fully acknowledged elephant in a room and yet, it was still the invisible elephant that caused the cancellation of SXSW just the day before.
And yet, when you have the unique opportunity to escape, especially into a world as visceral and colorful and meaningful as “Mulan,” you do it.
And so, with energy and an eagerness to know what the new world was going to be like, enveloped by the soundtrack of Christina Aguilera’s new contribution to the Mulan soundtrack, and fueled with special treats, such as egg tarts and a crafted cocktail called A Warrior’s Wish, we set out to learn more about Mulan.
Wishes feel different in a time like this. Now we’re making them from limbo in quarantined spaces. Back then, my wish, besides getting a repeat of the Warriors Wish cocktail at a screening, was for Mulan to be seen in a real theater, with the biggest screen and the loudest speaker that you can find. For Caro, it may be to continue to jump in and elevate male-dominated spaces with “on-time and under budget” productions.
“There’s a line in the movie where Gong Li’s character says to Mulan, ‘Impossible. A woman leading a man’s army.’ And that’s what I did.” Caro shared. “The film organism is, even despite my best efforts, still a man’s army…when I first started out I didn’t think it was possible, you know.”
And just like Mulan, Caro used to consider an alternate identity to work in this space. “I used to think that I would somehow have to disguise myself. So the fact that I’m making a movie about this very thing, and the fact that I was able to tell the story in such a way and this is a critical difference between what we did and what the animation did. The animation has Mulan disguised as a man to find herself. In our version, Mulan learns that she can never be powerful unless she loses that disguise. That’s what I’m proud of, I think, and what is the most meaningful to me, to send that message out there.”
A tiny warrior, a young audience member, piped up to ask a question after the screening of the film. With her question and her presence, Caro’s message may have found its rightful home.
A tiny female voice came from the speakers: “How did it feel to be like the character Mulan … when you go into the movie and you start acting but then you kind of get to feel like you’re actually the person?” she asked.
Star of the new live-action Mulan, Liu Yifei, was delighted to share.
“It’s magic,” Liu started. “Sometimes I feel like, you know, it open[s] up a new gate. It’s like, you know, when you’re a kid, you feel like ‘oh this is the world that this is my understanding,’ right? And as you grow older, you feel like you have [a] different view. But in a character, it’s like, the learning process. It’s, of course, learning new stuff that you’ve never experienced before. So this aspect is a gift.”
We had been given a gift in an early screening of the film, and, an opportunity to hear Caro and Liu reflect on the film and characters, too. Even in her moments of conflict, Mulan’s journey is shared.
“I really see [it] as a whole journey.” Liu shared. “I’ve felt that fighting sequence is also part of her story. It’s just the reaction is different and you’re doing different interactions.”
Speaking of fighting, the updated Mulan didn’t come without its challenges, namely, attempting to show a live-action depiction of war without any violence, courtesy of the Disney umbrella
“The biggest challenge for me was how to tell a story about two armies going to war, a young woman going to war, without being able to show any fighting really or blood under the Disney brand,” Caro shared. “I’m proud that the battle sequences, that it feels, you know, visceral and robust but it’s never gratuitous.”
At the end of the evening, warriors of all kinds likely held wishes. We may have new wishes now. I have a wish that “Mulan,” and other films like it, have the possibility of being seen in a theater. I wish for more female cinematographers, like Mandy Walker, who captured and elevated the story of Mulan. I wish for women to feel like they don’t have to be disguised to do the work they want to do. And, perhaps, just perhaps, we wish for a world to create more films like these, with women creating dazzling spectacles of light.
So, here’s to your wishes, too.