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The Truth About The Battle Scene In Mulan - Exclusive

There are a lot of things that make the story of Mulan compelling, from the title character's personal journey to the period setting to the epic scope of its adventure. This being a historical war drama, however, you're also guaranteed at least one sweeping battle scene. Disney's live-action remake of its animated classic Mulan delivers on that front, too — with a face-off between the Imperial army and the invading horde that threaten China.

Of course, living in a post-Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings world, fans have seen all these things rendered on screen before. It seems one of the big lessons studios and filmmakers learned from that epic fantasy trilogy was that the best way to impart stakes is to put two enormous armies in a wide-open space and smash them into each other. It's a template that's been utilized over and over again in everything from Game of Thrones to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

But 2020's Mulan handles things a little differently, as Looper learned in an exclusive interview with actor Chen Tang, who plays Mulan's wise-cracking squad-mate Yao. According to Tang, it's what Mulan actually didn't do that sets it apart from its sword-swinging peers.

Mulan makes the practical choice

In the aforementioned Lord of the Rings trilogy, visual effects company Weta Digital (co-founded by Peter Jackson himself) pioneered the use of CGI to create realistic-looking clashes between massive armies, to great effect. When it came time to set Mulan's military forces against each other, director Niki Caro apparently chose a different tactic: practical effects. 

"I think most people nowadays are used to seeing this CGI thing. You see a giant, 150-person army, and you think, 'Okay, they'll just take a couple of people in there. They'll probably just add it in with CGI.' No, on ours, it was mostly practical," Tang explained to Looper. "They had a casting and a callback and a movement callback for the 150-strong background army, and then they gave them their own training camp — a couple of weeks [long]. We worked with them, they had their own squadrons and divisions and everything."

Tang also shared that he hopes audiences will recognize the authenticity this approach offers. 

"What you see on there on the screen, that is it. They're all there. And I think what a lot of people probably don't realize is just the amount of teamwork it actually takes to actually shoot something like that," he said. "The entire time, we were all lined up in the South Island [of New Zealand]. It's freezing because it's winter, and we're just standing there and they got to make it just right, just to get that nice shot. They have to put all these giant fans on us, so it's even more freezing. We're really there."

Making Mulan's most memorable moment

Getting the movie's cast ready for this kind of gigantic scene required a great deal of training, both physical and mental. "[There was a] lot of in-formation marching," Tang recalled. "Basically, you have a shield and a spear, and then how do we get into formation like that, and stand a cavalry charge, things like that." 

The production also made an effort to get the historical details as in-line as possible. "We actually had a military historian come," revealed Tang. "And he said, 'You know what, Tang dynasty, right around that time, medieval China, we're not fully sure about the specifics of exactly how they fought.' So, we took a little bit of artistic leeway with that, but it was quite accurate."

All of these factors combined to make the scene in question Tang's peak moment on the Mulan set. 

"It's probably got to be that epic battle where we line up and meet the Rouran army for the first time," the actor recalled when asked for his personal highlight. "We are there in the glaciers, mountains as far as you can see, and it started snowing a little bit. For me, that's what I think an actor dreams of — just being so in it that you're lost in it. How can you not be? We're all in armor, we're all in formation, there's horses, and drums are beating, and you just feel like dum, dum, dum in your chest. I'll never forget it."

Mulan is available on Disney+ now.