The filmmakers found in Liu Yifei the actress who not only embodies the beauty and grace of Chinese women but who is also fearless, confident and physical enough to be capable of giving life and heart to one of China’s most revered cultural heroes
The girl who dreams to be Mulan
CONVERSATIONS - Ricky Lo (The Philippine Star) - March 8, 2020 - 12:00am

It is said that when filmmakers set out to find the perfect actress to play the title role in Disney’s live-action version of Mulan, what they had in mind was an actress who not only embodied the beauty and grace of Chinese women but who was also fearless, confident and physical enough to be capable of giving life and heart to one of China’s most revered cultural heroes.

They found her in Liu Yifei, a.k.a. Crystal Liu, a Chinese-American actress/singer/model widely known as Fairy Sister in the entertainment industry who was named one of the New Four Dan actresses of China years back. Turning 33 on Aug. 25, Yifei is making her second Hollywood film, after Forbidden Kingdom in which she starred with Jackie Chan and Jet Li who is in the cast of Mulan with Donnie Yen, Yoson An and Gong Li.

Get to know more about Yifei in the following Q&A furnished to Conversations by those behind the movie which is showing nationwide starting on March 25 (Wednesday).

The Ballad of Mulan has been a part of Chinese culture for centuries. When did you first learn about it?

“I can’t remember exactly when, but definitely in my childhood. Doing this, I get the opportunity to really learn who she is.”

Why do you think the legend of Mulan has lasted and is still relevant today?

“First of all, it’s a really dramatic and epic story — a girl disguised as a man in the army. I’m really curious about what she’s been through and beyond that legendary description, what kind of human being she is.”

Tell us about your audition process when you were trying to get the role.

“I got to L.A., and then they took me straight to the audition studio. I remember how I prepared myself. I drank lots of coffee to get over jet lag and tried to meditate. I tried to be focused as we were doing four scenes. It was in one small room, and I had to pretend I had just finished riding a horse. There was a scene with the witch, and I remember that there was also a scene where Mulan had to look dirty, so the casting director put dirt on my face, with my eye shadow. It was interesting!”

What’s the difference between making Mulan and other movies you’ve made in China?

“I think that the differences are in style and locations, but at the center, I don’t feel that much of a difference. I feel like no matter whether people are from the East or West, when they come to make a movie, it’s more like your experience is your language. Like your attitude and your thought, no matter if it’s Mandarin or English. It’s what you think is important to bring to it.”

Audiences in Asia are excited about this film. Why do you think Mulan resonates so well with Asian audiences?

“It’s a very well-known, legendary story to everyone in China, but I think it works well in the States, too, because it’s universal, and we’re all human beings, and human emotions are universal languages. Mulan represents honor and bravery, but for me, it’s also that she’s willing to discover herself and willing to go forward. I think that’s important to audiences, too. Not many people would be willing to do that in the first place. Mulan doesn’t really know what she’s facing but she’s still going with her instincts.”

How do you feel about being the first Asian to front a Disney live-action film like this?

“I’m honored, and I also think actors, no matter where they’re from, deserve the best opportunities to perform and let more people see them. So, this opportunity is precious to me. We’ve really got the best team; people who are the best at what they’re doing. I absorbed a lot every day from everyone. We didn’t have to actually yell on set and be always rushing. We worked elegantly. We could do what we had to, but at the same time be graceful and beautiful. And that energy also is very helpful on the creative side, no matter which department you are in. We all need trust and love, and I think that’s what Disney gives me. That trust and love relieved my pressure and gave me space to perform.”

What aspects of Mulan do you admire the most as a character?

“Mulan never imagined all those experiences that would come after she made her decision, but when she’s in those circumstances, I admire how she handles them, and how she still puts love in first place, and she learns, even from hatred and conflict, that what she feels and what drives her is the love.”

Do you think you share any traits with Mulan?

“From my perspective, I would say as an actress, I’m like a warrior, too. I always want to go forward, and I want to break my limits and I want to live in the now. And I want to learn more each day.”

How would you describe Mulan, the one on screen that you helped create?

“We see many sides of her, beyond The Ballad of Mulan. We see her as a human being; as a girl; as a young woman. Everybody admires her as a warrior but is there a fragile side to her? Will she sometimes hesitate or be afraid, but still choose to carry on? Yes, and we see that.”

Mulan is brave, loyal and true. In what ways will that empower girls and women who are watching it? What do you hope they’ll take from her?

“I hope they will not focus on just what they get in life, but will trust their instincts. Be true to themselves for sure, because they are the only ones who can surprise themselves in their lives.”

How did you find the male voice and make it believable?

“I just have to drop my voice down to the level I feel comfortable at. Sometimes I would lose myself and forget. Then Niki would say, ‘Yifei, lower your voice’.”

What was it like being surrounded by men in the training camp? What was it like playing a man on set?

“I felt like I am a man because I fit in so well. One day, we were working and we were all dressed in costume and an actor patted my shoulder, and asked me a question but when I turned around, he realized it was me and not the guy he wanted to address. He was so surprised and apologetic. So when you’re surrounded by men, you feel like they’re your buddies. They don’t treat me like a girl. I’m just one of the guys to them.

What was like working with Donnie Yen, Gong Li and Jet Li? What did you take away from working with them?

“I admire Donnie’s work, not just as a Kung Fu superstar. He’s also really good at performing and acting. And he’s a really warm guy. Gong Li is like the queen of movies. So, people think I’m so lucky to have the opportunity to work with her, and it is a great opportunity. She is as good in person as the character she plays on screen. You don’t think that she’s a superstar when you talk to her. She’s really real.”

And then Jet Li. You got to rescue Jet Li.

“Oh, speaking of that, Jet even laughed that day when I had to rescue him. It was the other way around this time because last time he had to save me in The Forbidden Kingdom. He and Jackie Chan.

You have a lot of action scenes in this movie. How did you train for that?

“This time we had to train differently. On some projects, you only train with a sword or only martial arts. But this time, they really wanted to get my body prepared overall, so I did basic physical training. It was really helpful but tough. Every day in the morning, the first thing I did was work out two hours. And then I had to change for riding instruction for another hour. And then maybe two hours again for martial arts. So one day is five to six hours of physical work to prepare for the part.”

What kind of martial arts did they teach you?

“What we were aiming for was real fighting, nothing too fancy. It’s more real war combat because Mulan was more of a soldier in a war.”

Did you already know how to ride a horse or did you have to train for that?

“I would never say I know how to ride a horse because I think a horse has its own spirit! You can’t really control it, but you can practice. I practiced before for a few projects, and for Mulan, I practiced for three months.”

What does honoring your family look like to a Chinese person today, and is it still important, like it is in this movie, to Chinese culture?

“I think it’s important in every culture that we treat family respectfully. We’re being thankful and we’re showing love. I think if you ask me what family means, I would say it is unconditional love. So at this point in time, I think it’s still another universal language.”

What was it like working with director Niki Caro?

“Niki is perfect, I will say. Her personality just shines. I realize the amount of work that a director takes on. I can imagine that she was tired and stressed sometimes, but whenever she showed up, she was so light and happy that she made everybody feel confident. I’m a fan of hers. When I saw North Country, I was a teenager, but I still was touched by the actors’ performances and by the end-goal they achieved.”

What did you do together to help find the character of Mulan?

“We didn’t say one thing or another, but I would sometimes ask Niki if I could freestyle. And she really supported me that way. I could take some takes and go wherever I wanted. I could take my time for my lines. Or even I could say something that was not in the script, and she would be okay with it. I’m just thankful for that.”

What did you enjoy the most about making this movie?

“I’m the kind of actress that doesn’t speak a lot on set. I really appreciated how people understood me and how brilliant they were, individually. I watched and learned. It was the small things that made me feel that I was really in the best hands.”

What do you hope audiences experience when they see the movie? What do you want them to think?

“I will respect whatever opinion they give because individuals all feel differently. But if there’s some moment in the movie that touches them, even for some reason they don’t know, I will think that we did something good. And I hope that they open up and dream well about themselves, which is a theme in this movie, too.”

(E-mail reactions at For more updates, photos and videos, visit or follow me on Instagram @therealrickylo.)



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