BY EMILY DJOHAN
There are few movies that truly leave an impact on the young asian youth. One of the movies that left an impact for younger me was the 1998 Mulan film from Disney. Although the film was half a decade older than me, I felt more seen and heard than most of the TV shows I saw on screen. Disney has always been a magical musical sensation from a very young age, to see a powerful asian female inspired me. Whenever my naive elementary school classmates said I had “funny eyes”, my response was that Mulan looked like me and that she was amazing. She didn’t have blonde hair and blue eyes, she looked like me. I was the only asian in that elementary school, but I was never alone because Mulan was the same as me. It was me and Mulan against my elementary school bullies. The character Mulan was all that I wanted to be, she was courageous despite her own fears, she was true to herself, and most importantly, she built her own strength up.
With Mulan being such an important icon for my younger self, I was excited when Disney announced it was going to give Mulan the live-action treatment. I was excited to see my culture on the big screen. However, I became heartbroken announcement after announcement that came out about Mulan. I realized that the live-action Mulan movie was going to be a money grabber, there would be no legitimate care into how the movie was planned. It's important to acknowledge that the full cast of the live-action is asian, this isn’t something Disney should be praised for. This is what should be done, nobody should get praise for doing the bare minimum.
The announcement that truly broke my heart occurred early on, before the movie was released in 2020. This one came in the form of an early draft of the script written by Lauren Hynek and Elizabeth Martin. An anonymous open letter to Disney from the website Angry Asian Man summarizes it best, “The man is a 30-something European trader who initially cares only for the pleasure of women and money. The only reason why he and his entourage decide to help the Chinese Imperial Army is because he sets eyes on Mulan. That's right. Our white savior has come to the aid of Ancient China due to a classic case of Yellow Fever. In this script written by Lauren Hynek and Elizabeth Martin, more than half of its pages are dedicated to this merchant who develops a mutual attraction with Mulan and fights to protect her in the ensuing battles. To top it all off, this man gets the honor of defeating the primary enemy of China, not Mulan.” This is the moment that I knew that Mulan will never get the shot it deserves. Our heroic leading lady has become the sidekick in her own story, to a white man who could be twice her age. This version completely lacks the power that Asian-Americans felt from the original all asian cast and voice actors. The open letter summarizes this disappointing feeling the best writing, “the beloved Disney classic rejects the cultural consciousness of its predecessor by featuring a white male lead, once again perpetuating the myth that cultural stories are not worth telling without a western lens or star.” Of course, Mulan fans were angered and banded together to pressure Disney to fix the script, using the power of social media and communicating this message through online petitions and the hashtag #MakeMulanRight. This change came about and rightfully so, Mulan’s love interest was changed back to an asian man. Despite this, the movie still held other controversies including its majority non-asian crew.
I was personally livid when I realized that most of the crew of the Mulan movie wasn’t asian. All of the major players of the crew weren’t chinese, or even asian for the most part. I invite you to scroll through the IMDb (which lists all of the crew involved in the movie).You should count how many asian crew members were a part of the project, then count how many of those cast members held a significant role. The only significant one I could find is William Kong. Niki Caro, the director, explains why she was the better choice over an asian director. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Niki Caro said, “Although it's a critically important Chinese story and it's set in Chinese culture and history, there is another culture at play here, which is the culture of Disney. And that the director, whoever they were, needed to be able to handle both—and here I am.” Caro is implying that out of all the talented asian filmmakers, there is not one who can master the culture of Disney. Nancy Wang Yuen, a sociologist who teaches at Biola’s University’s School of Cinema and Media Art, explains it best writing, “I think that what we're seeing here is some of the growing pains of Hollywood wanting to be inclusive in terms of storytelling, and yet behind the scenes are not able to or wanting to.” Furthermore, when NBC reached out to Disney for a demographic breakdown of the crew, Disney refused.
Recently, another controversy about Mulan was found in the closing credits of the movie. It's customary for filmmakers to thank governments for allowing filming to occur in that place. Therefore, Disney thanked several local governments in the Xinjiang province. However, Xinjiang is currently the location of detention camps in China, which is housing a million ethnic minority Turkish muslims. This is an important humanitarian issue that has been significant over the last two years. This proves that the filmmakers have a blatant disregard for humanitarian issues, even though Disney openly supports the Black Lives Matter movement (by posting a video on its “ Disney Channel” youtube channel) and the #MeToo movement (which was the reason why they dropped the character Li Shang from the movie).
If you chose to watch the live-action Mulan movie, I support that. I think it's wonderful to support the all-asian cast and it's a shame that the cast doesn’t get the recognition they deserve for the movie because of the issues with the “behind-the-scenes.” Enjoy the movie for what it is, because I’m sure that a live retelling of the 1998 Mulan will surely be a fun and interesting piece. However, please keep in mind of what happens beyond what's seen on the screen.