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Chen Tang On Why A Female-Led Crew Was Perfect For Mulan - Exclusive

One of the big themes of Disney's Mulan in both its animated and live-action forms is the challenge the title character faces as a woman operating in a male-dominated culture. Expected to occupy a subservient role despite her obvious skills as a warrior, she's forced to disguise who she is in order to fulfill her destiny and save the family and country that she loves from the ravages of an invading horde.

It sure is a good thing we live in a society that has progressed far beyond that in terms of gender roles, right? Unfortunately, talk to many women operating in Hollywood, and they can tell you that, while things have certainly been improving, it still often is a case of operating in spaces that have typically been reserved for men — spaces like the director's chair of a big, action-heavy epic. Disney took a step in the right direction on this front by hiring New Zealand-born director Niki Caro to helm their new take on Mulan, and according to at least one member of the cast, a woman occupying that role brought something special to bear behind the scenes.

Looper spoke with actor Chen Tang, who plays the wise-cracking Yao, about why he thinks Caro's particular directing style was the right fit for the film, and what having a female perspective behind the camera did for him as a part of the Mulan cast.

Niki Caro's emotional intelligence made Mulan special

According to Tang, Caro was able to tap into the emotional side of the film in a way that made a huge impact on the actors bringing the film to life. "Not that one is better or worse than the other, but I think with a female-led crew, there was an intuitive way that Niki would work with us, in the way she would speak to us," he recalls. "Sometimes, honestly, it didn't really make sense logically, but it hits you in a way that will allow you to bring out something unexpected. That's exactly what I mean by when I say it was a different touch. It was just a different feel."

Tang chalks that difference up to a level of what he calls "emotional intelligence" brought to bear through Caro's leadership in the movie's more character-driven scenes. "I genuinely believe that one of the things that women do better than us men is, there's an emotional intelligence about the way they relate to people," he asserts. "And when it comes time to do some of these more intimate scenes and more intimate, relationship-based things, sometimes that feel is exactly what you need to hear. It's not just A to B to C to D, click, click, click, click. Sometimes, it might be from A to Y and then back to B."

What Niki Caro brought to Mulan's most intimate scene

While it's certainly a big, booming war epic complete with battle scenes between teeming armies, Mulan has no shortage of the kind of intimate, relationship-driving interactions Tang's talking about. One of the most affecting takes place between the members of Mulan's squad as they gather around a campfire the night before their first big military action. Tang recalls that Caro's efforts helped put each actor in an emotionally specific place, as she honed in on what the different characters might be thinking about in that particularly difficult moment.

"It was right before the big battle," he says. "We think we're going to die, we're right around the fire, and it's just not a good time. And every single person is just sort of in this little zone of just thinking about dying, and she just would come over to each and every single person. She would just whisper. Nobody else can hear what she's saying. She's just whispering, 'How do you feel about this? Remember your family back home,' or something. These little things, and that light touch with such strength. It's just what we all need right there."

You can see both Tang's performance as Yao and the fruits of Niki Caro's directorial labor in Mulan, which is currently streaming on Disney+.