As Disney and Sony begin the casting process for their live-action “Mulan,” I worry that 1) She’ll be white or 2) She won’t be Chinese
Today Disney announced the release date for its live-action Mulan, based loosely off the classic Chinese ballad and the truly classic 1998 animated movie. They announced the movie’s development late 2015, and immediately faced heavy expectations to cast the lead roles as Asian Americans — because of course the heroine of China should be Asian. But I also contend that Mulan should be Chinese.
There was so much anticipation that Disney (and now Sony’s own live-action take on Mulan) would whitewash this cast that a petition went around the internet, and gained over 90 thousand signatures. Natalie Molnar, who started the petition, wrote that “The character, story and fans deserve the best retelling of the story Disney can produce and although the film was only announced 30 March  this disturbing trend of whitewashing in big-budget movies can’t get a chance to take root in Mulan as well.”
After the mess that was Emma Stone in Aloha, Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, Tilda Swinton in Dr. Strange, the whole cast of The Last Airbender, and most recently Matt Damon in next year’s The Great Wall, the Asian American community isn’t taking any chances with Mulan’s casting. There have already been a number of dream cast lists circling around the internet for the perfect Mulan and now it’s only a waiting game to see what Disney and Sony do next.
In that waiting, three big names have already come up as the fan-favorites for Mulan: Constance Wu, Arden Cho, and Jamie Chung. All wonderful actresses whom I love, but none really stand out to me as my ideal Mulan. Constance Wu doesn’t strike me as the fierce warrior the same way Ming-Na Wen, the original voice actress in 1998, does. To me, Constance Wu is fierce in a different, less physical ass-kicking way (but if she does get the part I’m 110% on board). I know Jamie Chung already played Mulan on TV, but for this live-action, return-to-the-big-screen Mulan, it’s different. Because yeah, Arden Cho and Jamie Chung are totally fierce warrior types, but I don’t picture them as Mulan for one obvious (and biased) reason — they’re Korean American.
Is it prejudiced to say that I, as a Chinese American (adoptee), don’t want a Disney-fied Chinese heroine portrayed by an amazing Korean American woman? I think it’s a bit petty and unfair. It’s just when I heard that Arden Cho was being heavily suggested for the part, I cringed. Any other role in the movie could be cast with amazing Asian Americans, but not Mulan. Which doesn’t make any sense because any other time I don’t have a problem with Asian Americans playing other Asian roles. Like Randall Park as Louis Huang — he’s doing a great job and he approached the role with respect.
“After we did the pilot, and the show got picked up … I started wondering about my place in the show. Should I be playing this father, especially as a Korean-American actor?” He told NPR in 2015. After a phone call with the real Eddie Huang who assured him was a fine Louis, Park decided to stay in the show. “As long as I come at this with respect and work as hard as I can to make sure this character is as real as I can, then it would be fine.”
And I know Arden Cho, Jamie Chung, and any other actress Chinese or not, would approach the role of Mulan with the same respect. Not only because it’s a great leading role, but also because it’s a role that means so much to the Asian American community. Every little kid in America since ’98 has grown up knowing the words to “Reflection” and “I’ll Make a Man Out of You.” I was born three years before Disney’s Mulan came out, so I’ve only ever known a world with the most kick-ass Disney heroine. When my fifteen year-old cousin, also adopted from China, told me she had never seen Mulan, you can bet we sat down right then and there for movie night. It’s a rite of passage.
But it’s not only momentous for Chinese Americans. One of my Korean American friends told me about how her babysitter took her to see it in theaters, and my friend got really excited. She kept talking about what it was like to see someone on screen who looked like her. That’s the same story I’ve heard from many of my Asian American friends, because no matter who you are as a little kid, good representation in the media matters. Mulan is a great heroine, her story is awesome, the songs are even better, and who doesn’t love Mushu? Mulan is one of Disney’s best classic animated films and for Asian American kids it also matters when a Chinese heroine is all you’re going to get.
Think of it like the rule of “there can only be one” from Masters of None. Disney has been trying to check diversity off its princess list (some sooner than others) and since we, the Asians, have Mulan that means we don’t need a Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Indian, Burmese, Malay, Thai… another Asian princess. This November there’s the first Pacific Islander heroine, Moana, and most people (some within our own community, tbh) probably don’t even realize that Pacific Islander is the PI when we say AAPI. We had to wait nearly 18 years for another AAPI heroine, so I wouldn’t hold my breath for a more diverse Asian princess representation.
Now I have no idea how Disney or Sony is planning on going about their Mulan. NBC Asian America reported that Disney at least is “global casting search for a Chinese actress,” so I don’t know if that means they plan on going Memoirs of a Geisha-style or they’ll just end up casting Fan Bingbing. I’m of course rooting for a Chinese American actress because I think if it’s Disney’s version, the “— American” is an important factor in the story. Regardless, I realize that if they cast Mulan as a non-Chinese woman, it’s not the end of days. I can be an adult 20 year old woman and share my Disney princess. Mulan is one of my favorite characters, so I’ll love whoever they cast as long as she’s written well and the movie does fans — and the story — justice.