By Maureen Lee Lenker
September 04, 2020 at 10:00 AM EDT
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Filmmaker Niki Caro promises a "girly martial arts extravaganza" in her live-action Mulan.

Drawing on the work of directors like Ang Lee and Ronny Yu, she and her stunt teams had to find a way to merge the sometimes brutal traditions of martial arts cinema with Disney's family-friendly brand. "What I connected to was the power, the grace, and beauty of it," she tells EW. "One of the big challenges was how to express war and epic battle, but still be real and raw and visceral." They ended up setting the film's climactic battle in a geothermal valley, allowing steam to obscure the fighting and potential graphic violence.

But Caro also chose to focus as much on the philosophy of martial arts as the practice. "The principles inherent to Mulan — brave, true, and loyal — carry over well into the martial arts warrior spirit," says Jason Scott Lee, who plays the villainous Bori Khan and initially rose to fame portraying Bruce Lee in a biopic. "It's more a classical allegory of martial arts because the cultural aspects of chi go hand in hand with the type of martial arts it is."

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Also essential? Enlisting legendary martial arts stars like Donnie Yen, Jet Li, and Gong Li to add legitimacy. Newcomer Yosan An, who portrays Mulan's comrade Chen Honghui, was admittedly a bit starstruck by his castmates. "I grew up watching Donnie Yen and Jet Li," he says. "Donnie has this epic scene where he shows the entire squadron his abilities, and getting to see it in person was surreal." He also stresses that despite some of the mysticism in the storytelling, the fight choreography itself is "grounded in reality."

Yet for An, who already had a black belt in karate when he signed on, it was a matter of pulling back from that reality. "In martial arts when we're practicing, we're learning how to take down the opponent as quickly and efficiently as possible," he says. "Whereas screen action sequences, you're not supposed to hit the other person, but you have to make it look like you are."

This required grueling training regimens for the entire cast, which are depicted in microcosm in the film's training sequences. "They were working much harder than that off screen," Caro says. "[Our trainer] trained them like they were in the army."

It was particularly grueling for Lee, who says he proudly walked into training with the body of a "family man." In only two months, he transformed into the shredded Bori Khan, adopting a diet of 10 egg whites (amid other food) at every meal, which feels more akin to another Disney villain, Gaston. "You're very clear in the head, and that was something special to go through," Lee says. "Niki had the vision to do that. A director has never pushed me that hard. Ever."

Credit: Jasin Boland/Disney

Lest you think Caro wasn't every bit as tough as her cast, she and her production team joined in the daily routine themselves, with everyone on set getting down to business. "I trained every day that we were on set," she recalls. "I got up very early."

Of her director's commitment to their martial program, star Yifei Liu (who plays Mulan) says only, "She is a true warrior."

Most crucially, the film's Chinese traditions and Disney's cinematic DNA share a central tenet: "The most important thing about this story is the idea of filial piety, devotion to family — it's the core of Chinese culture, and also the core of Disney culture, you could argue," Caro says. "It's a beautiful marriage. Under the Disney brand, we can bring honor to Chinese culture in an authentic and specific way." And bring to the screen a girl worth fighting for.

Mulan is available now at a premium price on Disney+.

Related content:

Mulan (2020 movie)

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