In an interview with Awards Daily’s Shadan Larki, makeup designer Denise Kum discusses creating makeup looks worthy of Disney’s warrior princess.
As with all of their live-action remakes, Disney’s Mulan comes with the monumental challenge of reintroducing audiences to a beloved character. Yes, our 2020 Mulan is no longer animated, but what this new iteration lacks in Eddie Murphy-voiced sidekicks and catchy tunes, it makes up for in lush cinematography, brilliantly choreographed action sequences, and a richly-imagined new world.
For Denise Kum, being tasked with designing prosthetics, hair, and makeup for Mulan meant turning the handsome Jason Scott Lee into the menacing Böri Khan, Gong Li into Xianniang, a shape-shifting witch, and, of course, taking the titular (played by Yifei Liu) from a misfit teen to a woman warrior. Kum conducted extensive research on Chinese history, combining tradition and modern makeup techniques to bring each character definition and nuance.
Kum details her work in our interview below:
Awards Daily: You have a lot of experience in prosthetics and I believe that the intricate scarring on Jason’s face was prosthetics as well?
Denise Kum: Yes, that’s right. Jason Scott Lee has prosthetics, as does Gong Li. Those are probably are our two main, subtle prosthetics. And then we did very subtle makeup effects on Mulan’s mom and dad when they get older. We just did some very subtle aging and de-aging makeup.
When you’ve got the matchmaker sequence, that’s a really extreme look, but then also with Böri Khan [Lee] and Xianniang [Li], the witch — those are very, very big looks. And in a way that kind of gives texture to the film, I think.
I really liked how they bring a supernatural element to the film. Bizarrely, because Mulan can do all these things. We believe she’s real and she can really do these things, but it takes someone like Böri Khan or Xianniang, who has a more supernatural kind of element to normalize Mulan, and makes you really believe in her.
We tried to do that a lot with the costume and the makeup —round out the film and make it more of an unusual world.
AD: The matchmaker scene is another major sequence that I have to ask you about. What research went into that? Can you tell me about the aesthetic and the actual filming process?
DK: So, you probably noticed that with a lot of the makeup in that sequence, it’s very heightened.
On Yifei Liu, obviously, with the central character of Mulan, it’s an incredible occasion to be taken to the matchmaker. It’s kind of like a coming-of-age. When people had to go to be matched, it almost like going to be accepted. And her sister and her mother also prepared for the visitation.
A lot of the makeup is based on traditional Tang dynasty and the dynasties around that period. The actual rice powder, the white central panel, and all the colors are very symbolic and denote different things.
Red is used as a very auspicious color and for good luck. A yellow forehead was seen as extremely popular. The face readers, you know, how you get Chinese face readers who read your fortune? They asserted that a yellow aura around the forehead was extremely auspicious. There were also details of that rouge that were common practice. And a heightening of the eyebrows was amongst the favored eyebrow shapes.
So, a lot of these things about the actual symbolism comes from the color, but the actual depiction of every little detail comes from fables and stories from the old times, because obviously, there are no photographs and everything is handed down like Chinese whispers, all through fables.
A Hua Dian is a forehead decoration. We have a little red flower symbol in the middle of Mulan’s forehead. And that was said to have originated in the Song dynasty. The Shouyang Princess was taking a walk in the palace in early spring, and it was said that a plum blossom fell onto her forehead.
Now how this happens, no one knows, but for some reason, the story goes that the composite could not be washed off or removed. Fortunately, it looked beautiful on her and became the latest trend and therefore got nicknamed Plum Blossom makeup which was popular among many women for a long time during the Tang and the Song dynasties.
I started reading a lot of Chinese literature. There were lots of stories as you research about makeup and about people’s appearance at that time. You find these little stories. So, I would just take these little stories and paint them — and bring them all together.
I really looked at artwork —a lot of sculptures, a lot of scroll paintings and embroideries. And a lot of the lovely little sculptures I researched had these same markings on their faces and the same kind of central panels. I mean, it’s pretty amazing that a lot of them have lasted.
Also, in that scene, before she gets to the matchmaker, you see her mother preparing her. We wanted everything to be quite ritualistic—there’s powder in the air, pressing it on the face, the painting of the pigments. It’s all done in layers.
The actual matchmaker, we wanted her to be even larger than life. And if you’ve seen the film, you’ve seen how over-the-top and how wonderful Pei-Pei [Cheng] plays the matchmaker. She’s very colorful. She’s kind of like a scary, old, matriarchal Auntie that we all have in Chinese families, somewhere or other. There’s always someone whose approval is sought. I think she’s just a great character. I really wanted her to look very theatrical.
The color had to not just be symbolic and be important from what those things represent in Chinese culture, but also, I really liked how the heightened color is very redolent of classic Disney and their use of primary colors.
AD: Another major cornerstone of the makeup in the film is Mulan’s own transformation. When she’s in her warrior phase, she’s trying to look more masculine versus, obviously, when she reveals herself, she has more feminine touches and that long flowing hair. Can you talk me through that in terms of the makeup?
DK: I think what’s lovely with you mentioning the matchmaker scene —It was a place where we could really sink Yifei, Mulan, into that world before she goes off. It’s a very extreme look for her before we do all the other very, very subtle things. Before that, you only see her as a young teenage girl. She has to go from a teenager to this matchmaker look, then go off with her dad’s armor disguising herself as a boy at the training camp, then later on, as you’ve mentioned, becoming a woman warrior.
There were a lot of subtle things that I had to do to other people around her to make her very believable. The makeup and hair decisions that are made are not done lightly — they have to be seamless. We used a lot of very subtle techniques. I did lots of dirt shading to flatten her face and make her look more masculine.
Details like her eyebrows are very different when she’s a male. And we enhanced those when we wanted her to look more feminine. It’s just about the contouring and what you bring out in someone’s face. I used cosmetics and we made a lot of things —I had different specks of dirt that we would put on in different textures— stippled on, inflicted on, and washed on, to basically flatten someone’s face or someone’s features to make them look less feminine and more androgynous.
When she’s at the training camp and she’s looking like a conscript and more androgynous, I would make some of the other soldiers more feminine or give them a bit more contouring —make the eyebrows slightly feminine. So therefore she sits well with them. There is also the comedic element of the boys, you know, one of them is the romantic, one of them is the clown, one of them is a wisecracker—they all have different personalities. And I think that age group is quite lovely to work with, we would have fun with who would have patchy facial hair and who wouldn’t, or who just couldn’t grow facial hair, which also really helped us with Yifei, because of course, she’s not got an obvious thing, like a beard or mustache to symbolize masculinity.
They’ve also all kind of pretty much got the same conscript attire and the headwear that Bina Daigeler, our costume designer’s team designed, which helped us give a sense of uniformity to them all. And then they all had slight variances in the top knot, which is actually the historically accurate hair for the period. So, therefore, when you take away somebody’s long flowing locks, it’s great because we can introduce that as a defining feature when she unbinds herself from her chest binding, and from her uniform.
It’s part of the concept, really —when the hair comes out, it’s breaking out of restraint. And the hair was very much a part of that. And obviously, it’s quite hard to maintain the hairpieces with all of that stunt work because everything has to be set, pre-dressed, and put it in. And Yifei was working in many different environments—not only just on the set, but we were working in places like China, and South Island of New Zealand, the North Island of New Zealand, and in L.A. So, you’re dealing with incredible moisture in the air, other times with gust and heat, the California Santa Ana winds from the fire, and you’re dealing with incredible humidity in New Zealand or snow in the South Island.
Hair is a fiber that does not react the same in all conditions. So, you’d have to mitigate how to get the hair to look the same in all these different countries.
And, obviously, nobody ever sees it when they look on screen, but it was quite a lot of work to get it to work and to make it look like nothing had been done.
Niki [Caro] always has a really good eye, she’ll know and say, ‘Oh, she doesn’t look dirty enough.’ Because she’s also thinking all the time about how she’s going to cut the scenes together. It was very much about the subtlety of things so that nothing would take you out of believing, and nothing would be distracting—so that you were completely focused on Yifei’s performance.