A point of armoured horses gallop furiously along a dusty stretch of land towards a towering stone gate. Their riders, clad in black 15th century Chinese armour lean forward, pushing them faster, faster to the castle's entrance. But try as they might the beasts legs just don't have enough horse power to catch the jet black Porsche Cayenne which zips along just ahead of them, completely untroubled by the hefty camera rig perched on its roof.
As the horses close in on the gate the Porsche pulls away and the riders slow their steeds to a gentle walk before turning them and trotting back to their starting position. As they saunter back down the path a swarm of people armed with brooms rush onto the path, meticulously sweeping it clean behind them.
On this hot summer's afternoon they'll stampede down this single stretch of path again and again and again under the sizzle of the Manukau sun and the watchful eye of director Niki Caro.
We're on one of the Auckland sets of Disney's remake of their animated favourite Mulan, itself a retelling of the Chinese legend Hua Mulan. Disney had planned for this to be their major blockbuster release of the year. It's production budget was a massive US$200million, the largest amount ever afforded a woman director. But the covid-19 pandemic saw it's global cinematic rollout delayed multiple times before Disney rolled it up completely by announcing that Mulan would instead be released on its streaming service Disney+ this Friday, costing subscribers an additional $39.99 fee.
But on this sunny afternoon the pandemic is still two years away and the only corona anyone's thinking about is best served chilled with a slice of lime.
For those that don't know, Mulan is a legend about a fearless young woman who disguises herself as a man to take the place of her ailing father during a general conscription to repel an incoming attack by the Huns.
While the 1998 film tempered its story with goofy humour, mostly from Eddie Murphy's wise-cracking dragon Mushu, Caro's vision befits the time by being more respectful to the source material and to Chinese culture.
I retreat into a small tent that's been set up to the side of the track to provide refuge from the sun and to act as a makeshift press room for the movie's stars to come and have a quick chat in between takes. Most are in costume, with the exception of Donnie Yen, the legendary Hong Kong action star, who bowls in, cool as ice, in aviator shades, a stylish leather jacket and good humour.
"I'm not going to lie to you, I was indecisive when they approached me to be in Mulan," he reveals. "My agent called, he was really excited. I said, I don't know. I know it will be great. I watched [the animated] Mulan over a hundred times with my daughter, since she was a one-year old. She's 15 now. I can sing all the tunes from the movie."
"In fact, the first question I asked him was, 'is there going to be any singing? Sign me up!" he laughs. "I found out they weren't going to go in a musical direction and I was a little disappointed. I told my daughters, 'No, papa's not gonna be in this film, I don't get to sing."
He's joking, of course, although he does say that ultimately he did take the role for his daughters, "for sure".
Yen plays Mulan's mentor Commander Tung but doesn't want to reveal too much about his character.
"That's the whole fun of keeping this movie in suspense," he grins. "But I'm the commander who teaches Mulan all the cool moves."
After brushing aside the publicist to take some more questions, "I can talk a bit longer," he's eventually pulled out of the tent. "I'm just getting into the conversation," he protests with a smile, before sliding on his shades and slipping out.
Niki Caro drops by to welcome us to the set and for a casual chat, but with a dozen or so grand horses and heavily armoured actors waiting for her to call action she can't stay for long. But she's warm and welcoming and looks totally at ease commanding one of Disney's biggest releases of 2020.
We're called back to the tent for an audience with Mulan herself. We don't have long with Liu Yifei, she's in the middle of shooting, but when she enters her star power is immediate. It's little wonder she beat out 1000 other hopeful actors to secure the part.
"We all watched the animation, such a cute character and such cute animation," she smiles. "This positive energy is inspiring for all ages and all kinds of people. I'm very honoured to play this character."
While she grew up watching the cartoon she says she wanted to put her own stamp on China's legend.
"It's a story about a woman finding herself growing and finding love to just float naturally. She didn't think she did something really brave or very big. That's just her intuition and her decision," she says. "There's a lot of choices but what you feel is the most subtle might be the closest to the character and be the most interesting. Not the obvious changes - her boy look, her voice, her tone, her attitude."
Then she smiles and says, "I'm more into her mind."