Denise Kum, Makeup Designer, Hair Designer, and Prosthetics Designer for Disney’s Mulan spoke to The Natural Aristocrat about her diligent, academic-like exploration of historic Chinese culture for the live-action film adaption.
Denise Kum is a well researched student of history, incorporating classical Chinese culture in every element of her designs from the days of the Tang Dynasty, Five Dynasties, Qin Dynasty, Han Dynasty. Occasionally, also being inspired by an Alexander McQueen runway show or two. Each aspect of Kum’s design work is intricately though out, there’s always a reason for its existence.
Whether it’s Xianniang’s white makeup matching the color palette of a Hawk well with the Chinese symbolism of a mysterious, cunning, powerful individual or Böri Khan’s personifying scars… Which she drew directly on actor Jason Scott Lee’s face while he did live facial expressions. There is an exceptional amount of sophistication behind crafting a ‘face in motion’ visually.
Interview with Mulan’s Denise Kum:
The Natural Aristocrat [Nir Regev]: The matchmaker scene is one of the film’s most visually aesthetic moments, and there’s a lot in this movie, preciously because of the way the makeup is styled on Mulan. What did you use as a reference or inspiration for the colors to vividly burst like that? I particularly noticed the blueish-green eyebrows.
Denise Kum: It’s quite a fun scene and a comedic moment too! I mean, one thing we really wanted was to have something with not just visual dynamism but a lot of fun in it. So that lots of little girls would watch it, or anybody really and just laugh. I think the way that Pei-Pei [Cheng] plays matchmaker was just so endearing for those of us that are Chinese. We can all really relate to living with a stern, patriarchal figure… From the matriarch. (laughs) The matchmaker was this stern matriarchal figure, that we were all afraid of.
For the matchmaker, we really wanted her to be quite over the top. You probably noticed that a lot of the makeup, whether it’s the makeup that’s on the matchmaker or the ceremonial makeup that’s put onto Yifei [Liu] as Mulan is being presented up for marriage… A lot of those colors & the hair ornamentation kind of come from the late Tang & Five Dynasties time. The structure of all the hair, the high buns & the shapes, are often decorated with different kinds of flowers and ornamentation. Many opted to buy wigs in that particular time. So we really wanted to make use of that and I looked at a lot of sculptures & figurines of that early period where they have these kind of hair styles.
We just pushed it over the edge a little bit more. Often in that time too, they wore very heavy Rouge, often covering the cheek along the jaw line. They often refer to this look as red clouds at dawn and it’s kind of been associated with the story of the female musician at the palace. You know, put her face on the screen and there was like scatter marks running down your face. A lot of these lovely stories come up when you start researching about lyrical ideas to makeup I suppose.
In any particular society, people kind of copy things that well-known people or aristocrats have done. Also on the actual matchmaker are little scar-like crescents on her face. Every mark comes from a little fable. These scar-like marks emerged from the northern and southern dynasty. Apparently, because we don’t know what’s true and what’s fiction, a palace maiden was doted on by an emperor because she injured herself which left scars on the side of her face but the emperor continued to adore her. (laughs)
In any particular society, people kind of copy things that well-known people or aristocrats have done.
This serves as an endorsement for this kind of trend of beauty and then fiction, where I had these very symbolic shapes, which also look slightly cartoony. I would draw them onto the matchmaker, she also has these little dimples on both sides of her mouth, these kind of beauty marks. On Yifei herself in that scene, the props we used for the makeup application when she’s getting ready. The white powder is whittled into rice powder, and then you’ve got the yellow, the blue, and the red.
It’s all very much Primary Colors, I also wanted them to pop because those are the colors were used in early Disney. Mickey Mouse & Donald Duck. The primary colors are the beginning of all color palettes, alls colors are mixed out of those. It was also to be very heightened. There’s a lovely joke in the film, ‘That winter storm could not ruin this makeup!’ So, it is the fact that it is really over the top. She has so much makeup on because she’s being presented & the fact that she’s like, ‘This is my happy face! This is my sad face!’ (laughs)
The primary colors are the beginning of all color palettes, alls colors are mixed out of those.
It was really about working within the tone of that. The eyebrows, that bluey-green pigment that you mentioned, it’s like a peacock color. We used the yellow because the yellow forehead was extremely popular around the time of the Tang Dynasty. There was an idea in the Tang Dynasty that it exuded an auspicious aura as well as a symbol of good luck in Chinese culture. I really also wanted to use not just what the primary colors were but the symbolism of every single color, particularly in Chinese culture. A mix of symbolism and primarily palette.
Was that you directly applying the makeup on Mulan in the film? And if it wasn’t… Do you wish it was? It seemed like art imitating life, full circle.
It was actually meant to be me because we had written a little script for what we were going to do and Niki [Caro], the director & Mandy [Walker], the DOP. We discussed with them what they wanted to see, what would be good because it’s very much a visual scene with the powder in the air, the fabric being wrapped. But on that particular day, I was also working with Gong Li (Xianniang). So, the lovely Georgia [Lockhart-Adams], who was the makeup artist who was helping to look after Yifei, that was her doing that.
She was heavily pregnant at the time so she had to kind of keep her belly out & stretch her arm out because obviously we couldn’t risk to have her in the frame! (laughs) It was supposed to be Rosalind [Chao] (Mulan’s mother), and when we did shoot the scene, Rosalind did a few pickups where we had her in the frame. But all the closeups were done by the makeup artist.
You mentioned scars before. I felt the scars/eyeliner on Böri Khan [Jason Scott Lee] went a long way into furthering his look of ‘villainy’. Do you generally have a playbook for creative touches like that or is it typically directly referenced in a film script?
Well, it kind of came about from early discussion about his character and at that stage also, Niki [Caro] had said to me that she wanted his whole group to be ground dwelling. They’re tribal & nomadic and they move around. Obviously, we wanted Böri to have a history, so the history of him was that people have tried to kill him many times but have not succeeded.
There’s one shot where you can see scarring not just on his face but on his body, I think when he’s washing in the tent. He has quite a big keloid scar, the whole thing is the group just keeps stitching themselves back up and carrying on being bad guys! (laughs) Early on also, when people do scars on the face it’s always the go-to types of scars where they may have had an injury. But with him, we really wanted to think about how those scars might have occurred. When he first started to do facial expressions like pulling faces, he was also practicing a Māori dance which is done with a stick, called a Taiaha. I know that Jason had been practicing that while over in New Zealand, it’s like a martial art.
It’s similar to when the Māori people do what’s called the haka, if you ever watch Rugby they do a version that at the beginning of the game. It’s like a welcome or a blessing but also a challenge. Often warriors would use the Taiaha, it’s quite a powerful, for a lack of a better term, a welcome. When you do that as a warrior, you have a lot of facial expressions, you stick your tongue out & move your face, and Jason would be doing this in the makeup chair. That really informed where I felt I wanted a lot of the prosthetics. Basically, I would get him to move his face and then I would just draw directly on, before we made attempts to do sculptures. You know, sculpt out the appliances of where the scars should be.
So they should look like nicks, gouges, and old scars. But they were very much designed around his face. I don’t recall if any scar was mentioned in the script, at all actually. I think we just built that directly out of his character and Niki [Caro] wanting to tell the story of him having had a history. It’s definitely something we developed for his total look as was his guy liner & his hair pieces so that he doesn’t look as refined and as handsome as he is in real life! We wanted to make him a little larger than life and villain-like.
It’s definitely something we developed for his total look as was his guy liner & his hair pieces so that he doesn’t look as refined and as handsome as he is in real life!
That’s pretty amazing Jason did live facial expressions while you applied the preliminary prosthetics!
Yeah, it was just the approach that I took with this because it’s a face in motion. How he would screw up his nose, how he would move his mouth, how he’d do things. Also, because you have to think critically how it will all come together.
What was the inspiration for Xianniang’s [Gong Li] half painted face? I felt it greatly enhanced a sense of mystery around her.
It was quite a few different things for inspiration. When I started to look at a lot of artwork for that time, particularly from 600 to 800 AD, which is kind of loosely the high period of the Tang Dynasty, there’s a lot of pottery figures that have dancers. There’s an artist named Zhou Fang, and he used to make scroll paintings because there was no photos in that time. All the women had like a white central panel on their face and across their forehead.
This of course is probably the idea of the rice powder that is patted on the face, similar to what we were doing in the matchmaker scene. We decided to isolate that particular central panel and if you look at a lot of the old pottery, not only did they have them with bright red cheeks, they also have like a little veil of white. I liked how this was very of that period but also symbolically, white is kind of the color of mourning in Chinese culture.
It’s seen as one of the five elements, which is indicative also of moral purity. On the stage in Chinese culture, a white face can denote treacherous cunning but dignified person. So I liked how, there were these motifs with the color white, that there had been the symbolism in these paintings.
Around a little bit earlier than that, probably during the Qin & the Han Dynasties from 200 B.C. to about 200 AD, there was quite a nice little feminist thing where the woman’s morals were much more cherished as opposed to her physical beauty during this period. And how the Chinese woman would dress in clothes similar to men, and the Chinese began to relate the White complexion with power. So I quite like all these different notes that kept seeming to pop up. So, it wasn’t just like, ‘give her a mask,’ I wanted to decide how that would set conceptually.
The whole idea of the mask came because we wanted it to be mysterious. It also came from the theatrical idea of having a disguise to hide by because we don’t really know who Xianniang is when we first meet her. There was a fantastic runway show by the fashion designer Alexander McQueen and he had a very similar panel of white across the face.
So I kind of merged all of those things together really. And then we kind of put it through the strain of doing illustration and thinking about it very much with the costume & the crown. The crown wasn’t developed so it was set really well within that. It’s much more a process of bringing together a lot of different influences, from Avant-garde fashion to Chinese symbolism.
It’s much more a process of bringing together a lot of different influences, from Avant-garde fashion to Chinese symbolism.
The idea of what a disguise would offer rather than do eyeshadow and lipstick.
So is white both a color of mourning and power in Chinese culture?
The color white has always changed through time. It’s indicative of moral purity but it’s also seen on the stage with the Peking Opera, a lot of the Chinese there wear a white mask with things painted on it. It’s also denoting as I said, a cunning & treacherous person. Through time, people related that when people would use a lot of white on their face, became something that was related to power. Taking all these different histories of what white means to Chinese culture is why I decided on that color as opposed to any other color.
Also, it just really, really worked well with her color palette because her look is based off the hawk. The way that her eye shadow is slanted and the kind of spine that goes around her crown and forms her hair. It’s all additive, everything is related to everything. It’s not like ‘this is a good idea, let’s do that!’ there’s many, many layers into how to build a character.
Looking at good old fashioned tomb pottery had good references in there! (laughs) That’s how we built our witch! I mean she has prosthetic talons as well, which are weapons and come out. She’s a bit of a shapeshifter. I really wanted the makeup on her to be very supernatural and very eye-catching.
She’s a bit of a shapeshifter. I really wanted the makeup on her to be very supernatural and very eye-catching.
Mulan’s long locks flow eloquently after she reveals her true identity. What kind of work was invested in creating this look of freedom in femininity?
Long hair with wind machines, wire work, working on horses, and doing stunts is always very difficult so all the individual hair pieces had to be set & baked every day. Yifei’s own hair had been treated with three types of product to get her curls to set properly. Which we had to change out depending if we were shooting in snow, humidity, or the very dry climate of LA. You’ve got three different elements which with hair is very different. It’s a lot like baking a cake, to make sure it would rise at any different type of window with any type of situation.
There was some old fashioned fishing-line truth be known, to pull things out in the matchmaker scene when her hair tumbles down. And also again when her hair is released after Mulan decides, ‘Stuff this, I’m going to reveal myself!’
It’s good you noticed that because it’s not something happens without thought and a lot of prep.
Yeah, no one wakes up with their hair looking like that.
(laughs) But of of course, it has to be seamlessly done, and all of that had to be replicated on her stunt doubles & stand-ins. Even though she did the majority of things herself.
How many stunt doubles did Yifei [Liu] have?
Oh gosh, I can’t remember off the top of my head because it depends if we were shooting on unit or two. She had running doubles, riding doubles, some of them are used just for trick scenes. Pretty much Yifei was in almost every single scene.
When we were filming in China we had to have a double do a lot of the running on the roof tops and stairs. We obviously had a lot of stand ins for the actors because while they get ready, someone has to be on set and to lineup.
What did it mean to you personally to showcase Mulan’s story to a new generation? Particularly, the transformation from restriction (dirt on the face, hair always covered up, shame) to Mulan embracing who she really was and acceptance.
It’s really fantastic! I think even though the story is very endemically at its heart Chinese, it’s incredibly universal. It’s a very timely story. I think for me, what I like about it is she’s probably less of a princess and more of a warrior, which I think is a modern interpretation of a Disney princess or Disney story.
The key central female role plays very strongly with how the world is now. Showing her emotional journey, there is that worry about being found out and then obviously, relinquishing that. But of course, there were threats in that time and that’s show in the film.
Expulsion and death were real threats that would happen to you if you had betrayed.
The key central female role plays very strongly with how the world is now.
So, it’s not necessarily just because she was in shame or embarrassed. She knew she would dishonor her family get killed, or expulsion which is actually worse than death. Bringing shame to the family is I think the main thing she was trying to avoid.
How much did you use the 1998 animated film adaptation of Mulan (if at all) as a reference point?
Well, there were iconic scenes that we referred to but not really. I didn’t ever try to copy every frame. There were a few images like the reflection scene, that really had more to do with iconic things like her hair comb. That plays quite heavily in the animation and we obviously have that in our film, the father knows when she’s left because it’s the same hair comb Mulan wears when she goes to the matchmaker.
We also had Ming-Na Wen, who’s the original voice of Mulan. She had a cameo in our film, there were nice little parallels like that. Ming-Na Wen appears in the scene in the palace, when Mulan comes in to meet the Emperor [Jet Li], Wen presents her. She says ‘Your excellency, introducing Hua Mulan!’ There’s a very hidden layers like that as you go through the film. Wen was hugely influential in terms of the first two animated films.
The scene where Mulan is praised by the Emperor is visually stunning all around, looks practically like a painting. Was that the scene that took longest to put together? It felt like it had an incredible amount of investment in every detail.
The set was really incredible! All of the costumes, it was so stunning to just be in there. I mean, of course, we have brevity, the scene has to be shorter on-screen but everything was so beautiful. It did look a lot like a painting.
Everybody had clothes and hair accessories & wigs that were all bespoke, so everything was built. Every single person was individually ‘fine tuned.’ We had the monks and the scroll writers, we really wanted the scene to be quite opulent to show the status of the Emperor. Yeah, it did take quite a long time to put together. I don’t think it gets as much screen time as is allowable but it’s great you liked it!
Every single person was individually ‘fine tuned.’
You can definitely tell you’re watching a big budget Disney production in that scene. It makes an impression instantly.
Yeah, it took a long time to get everyone’s hair and makeup because a lot of the women had hair that was built on hair cages, which are quite difficult to wear. The wigs were built over a structure more like sculpture some of them because a lot of the hair is very big.
We just finished pickups for Operation Mincemeat in London, we did all of the principle photography right before the lockdown actually. So, we just managed to finish it! And we’ve only had five days of reshoots.
What was the spark that made you want to pursue a career in hair, makeup, and prosthetics?
It’s kind of similar to how life is a funny twist of fate really. I mean my background is as an artist, I’m an exhibiting artist and I pretty much make sculpture, painting, and Installation art. When I was an art school, we would make our own little short films, music videos, the typical art school kind of way. We all bunk in and you all do things for each other. I would always be tasked with doing the makeup, the hair, the wardrobe the art department.
That kind of segued into being very interested in developing that further and doing more training. I kind of did it alongside my art career & then I was asked to work on films and be paid to do it! So, it kind of grew out of that. It wasn’t me deciding, I’m going to be a makeup artist. I think it’s also that language you learn visually to paint and sculpt. As a conceptual artist, it’s having the ideas of how to build something together.
About Denise Kum
View more of Denise Kum’s impressive portfolio of film work at Casarotto Ramsay & Associates!
Watch Mulan on Disney+ right now with Premier Access!
Be sure to read:
– The Natural Aristocrat®’s Mulan Review: Gorgeous, dazzling visuals paint sublime action (2020 Film)
– The Natural Aristocrat®’s Interview with Mulan and Mrs. America costume designer Bina Daigeler
Check out more interviews with the top talent in the entertainment industry in The Natural Aristocrat®’s Interview Articles section!