It Took Over Two Years to Bring the Hair and Makeup for Mulan to Life

But it was well worth the wait.

Mulan MUA Interview
Photo: Courtesy

The Ballad of Mulan has captivated the world for over 1500 years, but many unfamiliar with its epic story were enchanted for the first time when Disney released the animated adaptation in 1998.

And the world is set to be dazzled yet again when the movie hits Disney+ on Sept. 4 with a live action remake, starring Liu Yifei as Mulan, alongside icons like Donnie Yen, Jet Li, and Li Gong.

Despite the fact that the big-budget film was set to be released in the U.S. in late March, the COVID-19 pandemic delayed its efforts until now, with many theaters around the country still closed. However, the classic is still expected to do record streaming numbers, with Niki Caro as director of the $200 million flick.

To add to the magic, Caro tapped one of her longtime collaborators Denise Kum to come onboard for Mulan as its hair, makeup, and prosthetics designer. However, the undertaking was literal years in the making, as preparation and research for a movie of this magnitude took Kum around two years, starting long before the film’s lead had even been chosen.

“What I love about Mulan is that as much as it’s a Chinese story, it’s also an incredibly universal story,” Kum tells InStyle. “It can fit into any culture that has ideas of oppression, but also ideas of freedom. It’s very much a story about self-discovery, empowerment, and in essence, doing what’s right. It sounds very moral, but it’s really a reawakening of yourself and that can happen in any culture.”

We spoke with Kum to find out more about taking on such an epic story, how she honored the Tang Dynasty through her hair and makeup design, what working through a public health crisis is like, and more.

We're so excited about Mulan! It feels like we’ve been waiting a long time for this to be released, and the aesthetics of the movie are incredible. We’d love to hear more about how you prepped to take on a film of this magnitude.

It felt never-ending to be honest. When I first got involved with the film, at that stage, Niki hadn’t cast and found her Mulan. So, we started doing some preparation, but then the film got postponed because the casting was so essential to find our heroine. I kept doing a lot of historical research, but I was on another project at the time because the film got pushed quite significantly. My initial research was finding out about the original Ballad of Mulan and its importance to China. I knew about it as a little girl, as I’m Chinese and born in New Zealand, so it was quite nice to have a personal connection to it, apart from knowing it was this huge Disney animation movie with historical significance. I was aware of the magnitude through all of that and from a makeup perspective, I just started reading about the art of that time and looking at when the ballad was written, as well as other culturally significant stories around that time — starting at the source really. I was looking at a lot of the artwork at the time because, of course, there were no photographs.

Then, when we started to go into pre-production, substantial research had already been undertaken by all the departments because the art department had been up and running for some time. We also had cultural advisors from an early stage we could consult or run ideas past. We are all aware of just how important of a Chinese story it is to Chinese people, let alone what it represents to Disney. I started looking at the social anthropology of ancient China to picture how things may have looked back then. So, when we started putting things together for the film, I wanted to mix this history with a modern edge to engage a contemporary audience and a new audience.

How long was the process of researching and putting things together before you started to shoot?

I probably started thinking about it a couple of years before we went into production. Niki also had to do a presentation to the studios, so they had a pre-shoot and she had a model she wanted to do iconic looks on. She consulted me for a bit of that. Then, we had breaks in between before we went into production. I did a few weeks in London researching and in pre-production and then we were 16 weeks in proper pre-production on the ground.


Over the last few years, I’ve really been getting into a lot of dynastic Asian dramas. Hair and makeup were so important to these dynasties. When it came to the Tang Dynasty, how did you honor it?

People are documenting social history through their paintings, sculptures, and scrolls, so I was looking at and collecting a lot of artifacts. You start to see symbolism that’s often repeated and you’re dealing with a time when people had belief structures — the Chinese are very big on things bringing them luck and having symbolic meaning. This is also true of color, which I used to inform the makeup. In terms of the authenticity, you can soak yourself in history. So many of the stories of why things happened trace back to a myth or legend, like a plum falling from a tree onto the emperor’s concubine’s face, making a mark, and that turning into the red cherry blossom mark. Things like this are documented and shaped through whispers, so makeup really formed based on events that had transpired to important people in royal courts. So, I played with some of these ideas.

There’s also so much research from Chinese scholars on what hairstyles meant. In any social structure, people emulate those who are revered whether they’re gods, myths, legends, or the upper class. So, we wanted to have fun with that, particularly in the matchmaker scene. The hair we did there and in the emperor’s palace generally when it comes to women’s hair, it was related to a lot of the sculptures of that period. And for the men’s hair, it harks back to the terracotta warriors and a lot of the people that have been documented socially at that time.

VIDEO: 'Mulan' Star Liu Yifei Wore the Most Glamorous Ballgown to Her Film's Premiere

What type of makeup did you use? Were there specific brands that you wanted to work with?

When we were airbrushing white to get a certain look, we were just looking at what’s available and looking at what we could mix with it. We basically called in various products and did a big think thank to test. We had to experiment because you also have to find what will work with the skin and how it will layer with other ideas. I wanted the makeup to look like pigments and like nature from the rice flower or the idea of something being ground into a paste and applied. It was a mix of using pigments, fashion makeup, and conventional makeup. We also mixed in some theatrical makeup, so there were a lot of brands we used. It was more painterly I’d say.

It certainly looks artful! Even just from the trailer, I know one of the most stunning scenes for hair and makeup was the betrothal scene or as you’ve called it the matchmaking scene. Could you explain the look in more detail for us?

In all the research I did, China absolutely had and still has ideals of beauty. During the Tang Dynasty period, there was always this idea that you had to be presentable. If you look at a lot of the old scrolls, there’s an artist called Zhou Fang and I looked at a lot of his paintings of women. Women were always adorned with a white panel on the top of their forehead and the bridge of their nose. This was said to have then inspired the geisha makeup which happened later in Japan, though their whiteness spanned their entire face. And then even to pre-Victorian times when they would mix it with lead powder to get that whitening. It has existed in many different cultures. In China when it originated, it had a bit of lead, but was mainly rice powder which they pressed onto their face to get that pale complexion which was thought to be very beautiful. I took that idea because it was so prevalent in the depictions of ladies and courtesans at the time and included yellow which was very popular in the Tang dynasty because it was believed that yellow had a certain aura around the forehead and it was thought to be extremely auspicious.

So in the story, this mom was trying to help her daughter bring good luck and auspiciousness to the family by marrying well. ‘Chuck that in for good measure, too’ was kind of the idea because why not have more good luck? That’s where the yellow on the forehead comes from. Her eyebrows are painted blue based on a dark blue pigment that was inspired by peacock feathers to bring a colorful decoration to the look. The red rouge was then added and each stage was layered on to be painterly. I wanted it to also be pigments that the mom would find if she had mixed them with paste or the rice flower. That’s why there’s a bit of a humor in it that she’s being painted so elaborately. And then the forehead decoration has a very lovely story with it. It’s called a Huadian and sometimes it was made with flecks of gold, silver, or even feathers. And they’re always a little motif, like a moon or a coin. We just went for a simplified flower. The origin story is that a princess had gone for a walk and a cherry blossom fell from a tree, leaving an imprint.

I wanted to ask you about that because the betrothal scene hair and makeup became this viral makeup challenge in China after the trailer was released. Had you naturally seen that while browsing social media or did someone tell you about it, and how do you feel about it?

I agree! I’m not someone who lives vicariously through social media at all and I’m always amazed by how some people are just great at it. It’s its own living thing to be honest, isn’t it? But I found out about it because Niki emailed me with a very generous and cute message because I often keep in touch with her, the costume designer Bina, and our director of photography Mandy. It was this fantastic moment of not quite breaking the internet, but look what this has done by them trying to outdo one another and interpret the makeup. I thought it was fantastic, from little kids, to men, to professionals, to the outrageous.


Aside from Mulan, you’ve worked on some incredible films like Aeon Flux and Captain America: The First Avenger. But we're living in strange times right now, where we're not able to be close to people and that's kind of the essence of your job. How have you felt throughout this time when things have been at a standstill?

We’ve just picked things back up a few weeks ago and I’m in Prague now, which feels a lot safer than it does in London. But I do think there’s a lot of generosity towards people wanting to work, however, it’s difficult in my line of work because it requires touch. I started doing a lot of research about safety and COVID-19, but more than that with our department which is hair, makeup, and prosthetics, we’ve always been incredibly conscious of others, your space around them, and hygiene. So, we’re even more aware of it now and I have an incredible amount of respect for those working in hospitals because we too are working in full PPE including the KN95 masks, eye goggles, and shields. We’re carrying on with our jobs, but we’ve got less comfort and we’re more unencumbered. You have to often take breaks to breathe. We’re being tested all the time and the actors are being tested all the time.

It’s great to be back at work, but you’re constantly being reminded of being careful and aware of each other because there’s so much still unknown about COVID-19. As much as all the studios need content — which is why we’re working — it's also very different because when will we go to a cinema again?

A lot of harmful and hurtful things are being said about China and Chinese people and I think Mulan presents an opportunity to bring us back to the right place with an appreciation of culture, free of the insults. There’s the chance it will give people an idea, however artful, of what it means to be Chinese and insight into Chinese history. Have you talked about that impact with anyone else on the crew?

I think you’re bang on there because I think everyone has felt like it’s full-on lately. At times it seems we’ve got too much information, too much reaction, and too much news — though rightfully so in some cases. What I love about Mulan is that as much as it’s a Chinese story, it’s also an incredibly universal story. It can fit into any culture that has ideas of oppression, but also ideas of freedom. It’s very much a story about self-discovery, empowerment, and in essence, doing what’s right. It sounds very moral, but it’s really a reawakening of yourself and that can happen in any culture. It’s really a strength that the director Niki has, making a story true to a culture, but also making it universal. She has done this in many of the films she’s done and it’s a tough thing to do, to give that open perspective. With COVID-19 and the U.S. president calling it the “Chinese virus," it’s not great. People must grow themselves and grow a greater compassion and understanding for others.

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