When Disney first announced they would be making a live-action film of my favorite movie ever, Mulan, to follow in the footsteps of commercial successes Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast, I was beyond ecstatic. But I was also concerned– not about the possibility that they would fail to cast an Asian actress as many people feared for some reason, but that they would cast the wrong one. After Disney announced at the end of last year that the actress to play the titular heroine would be none other than Chinese star Liu Yifei after an “extensive auditioning process,” my ecstasy dwindled and my concern grew. Although I believe the actress has the right look to play Mulan, she does not hold a reputation as a great actress, leaving Chinese people familiar with her work perplexed by the choice. More than that, my disappointment that Disney shied away from the many Chinese-Americans within the country who were dying for a chance at representation is likely second only to that of the actual Chinese-Americans who auditioned with false hope.
Growing up, I absolutely loved Mulan. Yes, as an Asian-American, it was exciting to see someone from my ethnic background represented in the forefront of an American screen. Yes, I could empathize with her struggle for individuality in a very traditional and filial culture. But it was more than that. Millions of girls of all ethnicities across the United States fell in love with Mulan because she was more than her background. She was a woman trying to make it in a man’s world. She was a woman trying to find herself and her worth. All of her issues and her challenges go beyond the borders of cultural lines. All in all, she can be deemed an American heroine because of Disney’s original interpretation of her legendary counterpart, so we need someone who encompasses this duality, and who better than a Chinese-American? Someone who not only gets the culture and history of China but also the culture and spirit of America?
My concern stems from this very fact: Disney is not making a historical rendition of Mulan. Disney is remaking their own rendition of the Mulan of Chinese ballads and tales. Why are they taking the same route China already took when making their own movie about the heroine in 2009? After all, Disney’s animated movie actually tanked in the box office when released in China back in the late ‘90s. According to a report that was actually written in 1999, the Chinese audience did not enjoy the movie, complaining about her “individualism” and distance from Chinese culture. Once again, this Disney movie may take place in China, but it was meant primarily for the American audience, and who better to address America than Americans? It was never so much about the accuracy of the portrayal of the culture and historical figure as it was about the universal story of finding and proving oneself.
Additionally, Hollywood always had a tendency to make anything remotely foreign as foreign as possible, as if there could never be a possible overlap or middleground. Often, Asian actors have to speak another language (not even their own country’s) or fake foreign accents even though their English is perfect. What I like about the animated Mulan is that she has no accent–she sounds and acts just like any spunky American teen with a dose of self-doubt. The culture is often appropriated for a sense of exoticism while the people are likewise stereotyped or forgotten altogether. For example, Bladerunner 2049 has been criticized for heavily borrowing from Asian culture while featuring no prominent Asian actors. Of course I would like to give the benefit of the doubt, but I have misgivings Disney is going down that same path of making it all about the culture, aesthetics, and exoticism.
This brings me to the next and possibly most important point: Hollywood keeps choosing to under-represent Asian-Americans and Asian-American actors by outsourcing to foreign actors who have already made names for themselves overseas. These actors do not need these opportunities, but Asian-Americans do. They haven’t been able to move as quickly up the ladder because they aren’t given such opportunities, and this would have been the perfect chance for a Chinese-American star or aspiring actress to rise and gain experience and exposure. However, Disney takes the safe route, much like other production companies, by hiring outside the country to someone who already has a good resume and standing. Even though she is virtually unknown in the States, she is somehow a safer bet for a blockbuster because of her prior success. This is the excuse of Hollywood. Ghost in the Shell writer Max Landis said there was no A-list Asian-American star who could be cast, so the character was whitewashed. If this goes on, however, there will never be an A-list Asian-American star.
According to one report by LA Times, “Asian actors have been getting more work these days, in large part because of the flow of money from China…China, the world’s second-largest film market, have rounded out their casts with Asian faces.” While this is wonderful, you have to keep in mind who is looking out for whom. While America keeps whitewashing or type-casting, China is understandably looking out for their own stars–leaving, once again, the forgotten minority of Asian-Americans in an awkward limbo with no one to look out for them. There is a rigid system of either-or: a White-American or an Asian. There is no such thing as an Asian-American.
Yes, there is a difference between being Asian and being Asian-American, just like there is less of a difference between being American and Asian-American than some may think. Yes, it was nice as a child to see an Asian on the big screen. It was a step toward change, I once thought. But that change has long since stalled, and now what I need more of are the faces of Asian-Americans on the screen. Growing up, I never belonged one hundred percent to the Asian culture or the American culture. I had always felt like I was in a strange middleground of belonging to both and neither at the same time. I would visit South Korea and be immediately recognized as an American. I reside in United States, constantly being asked where I am from. This cannot continue to be proliferated as the norm in media, and it is time for us Asian-Americans to be better represented.
Yes, Mulan may have originally been a Chinese hero, but Disney had turned her into an American one a long time ago, and that Mulan is the one we need to see more of today. Disney so far is continuing to let me down, what with the delayed release date and the apparent additions of characters like a witch and a sister. It appears they don’t know what to do with the movie to make it a success, so they are adding more and more flashy tidbits to the storyline out of concern about the all-Asian cast. They are forgetting about what’s really important, what’s at the heart of Mulan.
Will they continue to let down the ones who need this heroine the most, as their role model, as their icon, as an important precedent? We shall see.