'Mulan' director Niki Caro represents a smart step forward, if not a perfect one
Disney's live-action adaptation of Mulan has found its director — and she's a rarity in Hollywood.
The Zookeeper's Wife director Niki Caro has been chosen to helm the studio's November 2018 tentpole, according to the Hollywood Reporter. This makes her Disney's second female director to helm a project over $100 million, after Ava DuVernay became the first black woman ever to direct that high-budget a film when she took on A Wrinkle in Time.
Caro's hiring, as well as their purported consideration of Chinese directors as well, is a hugely positive sign that Disney is thinking deeply about how representation behind the camera affects a film. It's not a perfect step, but it's a move in the right direction.
Caro, a New Zealander, has worked as a director for film, TV, documentaries and music videos for just shy of three decades. Her most significant film credit is Oscar nominee Whale Rider, while she previously worked with Disney on McFarland, USA, which was one of the only high-profile movies with a Latino cast in 2015.
No less than Jessica Chastain has praised Caro for her inclusive sets. In an open letter published in the Hollywood Reporter, the actress praised Caro for hiring so many women on the set of The Zookeeper's Wife. The headline asked if it was "the most female-populated film set ever."
For some, however, Caro may be a reminder of rumors that white actress Jennifer Lawrence was to play Mulan. (Those rumors were completely false; Disney is committed to hiring a Chinese actress.) A story not just about a woman, but about a Chinese woman, is being helmed by a Kiwi director.
Most indicative here is the Hollywood Reporter's story, which reported that before hiring Caro, Disney was also considering hiring an Asian director. However, the names in consideration for that search were Ang Lee and Jiang Wen, both men. It's possible Disney also looked at Asian women to direct, but that's not reflected in any of the reporting.
Mulan is a story of how two different identities intersect — how Han Dynasty culture affected Chinese legend Hua Mulan's ability to fight in her country's army, and the steps she had to take to disguise herself as a man to serve. Certainly, the Han Dynasty's values are not identical to modern China's, but a Chinese woman would likely bring a great deal of insight to the project.
Consider Zhao Wei, whose directorial debut So Young broke box office records in China. Consider award-winning directors like Xu Jinglei, Li Yu and Xue Xiaolu. None of them are famous in the United States, obviously, but Caro's hardly a household name anyway.
We can't know how these women would fare directing Mulan, because they won't have the chance to direct Mulan. We do know how they've fared in China: pretty damn well. When a studio like Disney is looking to hire inclusively, particularly when the story being told is an intersectional one like Mulan, it makes sense to consider not just successful women and Chinese directors, but women, Chinese directors.
Make no mistake: Caro is a smart, savvy choice on Disney's part. They're hiring women for giant tentpole projects, something very few other studios are doing. Encouraging them to broaden their thinking a bit is not the same as discounting the merits of Caro's hiring.
Keep this in mind: Sony also has a Mulan movie in development, and they, too, were considering Asian directors. They hired white male director Alex Graves instead. Disney's choice may not be perfect, but at least they're moving in the right direction.