Live-Action Mulan Movie Coming to Theaters

May 27, 2017
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In the past decade, the number of Asian characters in Western media has certainly increased, but their portrayal is still largely based off of stereotypes and cultural appropriation. Asian characters are often used as a source of fear, exoticness, and crude comedy in Western cinema, in spite of Asian disapproval and outcry.

In the classic American movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s, for instance, the Asian male character Mr. I.Y. Yunioshi, played by actor Mickey Rooney, is depicted as eccentric, capricious, and inferior to his white counterparts when it comes to vying for the love of the beautiful white woman. To transform Mickey Rooney into what was believed to be the standard “Asian” appearance, the movie crew taped his eyelids so his eyes would be smaller, made him wear a set of fake buck teeth, and instructed him to speak in a sibilant accent. Paramount, the studio that released the movie, has since apologized for its offensive depiction of Mr. I.Y. Yunioshi, but to this day it is brought up as an epitome of Hollywood racism. Even in the Kung Fu Panda movie series, all stereotypical “Chinese” elements are present: it is set in ancient China, the main character’s dream is to become a kung fu master, village life is centered around a noodle shop, and there the archetypal “Dragon Lady” persona is represented by the fierce Tigress.
Rarely in Western media does one see an Asian-American person who has no cringe-worthy accent or flamboyant cultural clothing. And to American-Born-Chinese people such as myself, the inaccuracy of Asian representation in Western media can be embarrassing and even offensive at times. 

When I first heard that one of my favorite Disney movies, Mulan, would be remade into a live-action film, I immediately  feared several things. As other movies such as Godzilla and Planet of the Apes have proven, remakes can pale in comparison to the movies they were based on, and I did not want the remake to taint my precious childhood memories of Mulan. Also, would the remake simply be another movie in which Chinese people are terribly misrepresented by the Western media?

The latter of my fears was answered soon after, as rumors arose that Disney had a white male lead planned for the remake. Naturally, this upset many people within the Asian community, as people complained that having a white male lead for a movie about Chinese culture would suggest Caucasian superiority.

While Disney now affirms that there is no white lead in the film, Asian actor Joel de la Fuente confirmed on his Twitter account that the draft of the movie did indeed include a white male protagonist. According to him, the draft of the movie entailed a white protagonist who goes on a business endeavor that brings him into a legendary Asian conflict, then he courageously helps to save the day while winning the heart of the Asian female.

To me, it is ridiculous that such a draft was ever created. The original Disney film Mulan was based on the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan, in which a woman secretly fills her aging father’s place in the army during the turbulent Southern and Northern Dynasties of China. Mulan, as well as its predecessor Pocahontas, were both hailed as feminist turning points when they were first released, as they showed that Disney princesses did not need male heroes to save them. To remake Mulan with a white male lead would totally contradict the Chinese tale that Mulan is based on.

However, it is also interesting to consider the opposite perspective. When it was announced that Zendaya Coleman, a young mixed-race actress who has appeared on Disney’s Shake It Up and KC Undercover, would be Mary Jane Watson in Spider-Man: Homecoming, similar controversy also arose. Mary Jane is the love interest/spouse of Spider-Man, and in the comic books, she is usually portrayed a white red-head. Thus, some traditional Spider-Man fans denounced the casting choice because Coleman  is not white and she does not have red hair, and so she would not be a suitable choice for the iconic character. But others countered this inherently racist criticism by calling Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures “progressive” and reminding fans that other actresses who played Mary Jane such as Sara Ballantine, Kirsten Dunst, and Shailene Woodley were all not natural red-heads. Ultimately, most news sources agreed with the latter argument.

Why is it that with the live-action remake of Mulan, almost everyone condemned Disney’s initial choice to twist the plot and incorporate a white male lead, but with Spider-Man: Homecoming,  most people are siding with Zendaya though her ethnicity and hair color are distinct from that of the iconic character? Needless to say, the two situations do not exactly parallel each other, but it is still rather hypocritical. In my opinion, these two situations show how modern society has changed to become much more protective of different cultures.

Currently, Disney is conducting a worldwide search for a Chinese actress to play the coveted role of Mulan, and the Internet is eager to help. Fan Bingbing and Zhang Ziyi, both Chinese actresses who have been in Hollywood movies before, are top contenders, as they have tremendous acting abilities and experience in playing strong female character roles. Other contenders include Brenda Song, renowned for her title role in Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior, and Katie Leung, who played Cho Chang in the Harry Potter movie series.

With the right script and cast, this movie is bound to be a global success in the box offices. Disney’s Maleficent and Cinderella, both live-action versions of their originals, were in the top ten in the domestic box office in 2014 and 2015, respectively. The remake is scheduled to arrive in theaters on November 2nd, 2018.

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