Disney’s live-action “Mulan” was supposed to be a huge win for under-represented groups in Hollywood. The $200 million-budgeted film is among the most expensive ever directed by a woman, and it features an all-Asian cast — a first for productions of such scale.
Despite well-intentioned ambitions, however, the film has exposed the difficulties of representation in a world of complex geopolitics. Disney primarily cast Asian rather than Asian American stars in lead roles to appeal to Chinese consumers, yet Chinese viewers rejected the movie as inauthentic and American. Then, politics ensnared the production as stars Liu Yifei, who plays Mulan, and Donnie Yen professed support for Hong Kong police during the brutal crackdown on protesters in 2019. Later, Disney issued “special thanks” in the credits to government bodies in China’s Xinjiang region that are directly involved in perpetrating major human rights abuses against the minority Uighur population.
“Mulan” inadvertently reveals why it’s so difficult to create multicultural content with global appeal in 2020. It highlights the vast disconnect between Asian Americans in Hollywood and Chinese nationals in China, as well as the extent to which Hollywood fails to acknowledge the difference between their aesthetics, tastes and politics. It also underscores the limits of the American conversation on representation in a global world.
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In conversations with several Asian-American creatives, Variety found that many feel caught between fighting against underrepresentation in Hollywood and being accidentally complicit in China’s authoritarian politics, with no easy answers for how to deal with the moral questions “Mulan” poses.
“When do we care about representation versus fundamental civil rights? This is not a simple question,” says Bing Chen, co-founder of Gold House, a collective that mobilizes the Asian American community to help diverse films, including “Mulan,” achieve opening weekend box office success via its #GoldOpen movement. “An impossible duality faces us. We absolutely acknowledge the terrible and unacceptable nature of what’s going on [with the genocide of the Uyghur community], but we also understand what’s at stake on the industry side.”
The film leaves the Asian American community at “the intersection of choosing between surface-level representation — faces that look like ours — versus values and other cultural nuances that don’t reflect ours,” says Lulu Wang, director of “The Farewell.”
In a business in which past box office success determines what future projects are bankrolled, those with their eyes squarely on the prize of increasing opportunities for Asian Americans say they feel a responsibility to support “Mulan” no matter what. That support is often very personal amid the industry’s close-knit community of Asian Americans, where people don’t want to tear down the hard work of peers and friends.
Others say they wouldn’t have given Disney their $30 if they’d known about the controversial end credits.
“‘Mulan’ is actually the first film where the Asian American community is really split,” says sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen, who examines racism in Hollywood. “For people who are more global and consume more global news, maybe they’re thinking, ‘We shouldn’t sell our soul in order to get affirmation from Hollywood.’ But we have this scarcity mentality.
“I felt like I couldn’t completely lambast ‘Mulan’ because I personally felt solidarity with the Asian American actors,” Yuen continues. “I wanted to see them do well. But at what cost?”
This scarcity mentality is particularly acute for Asian American actors, who find roles few and far between. Lulu Wang notes that many “have built their career on a film like ‘Mulan’ and other crossovers, because they might not speak the native language — Japanese, Chinese, Korean or Hindi — to actually do a role overseas, but there’s no role being written for them in America.”
Certainly, the actors in “Mulan,” who have seen major career breakthroughs tainted by the film’s political backlash, feel this acutely. “You have to understand the tough position that we are in here as the cast, and that Disney is in too,” says actor Chen Tang, who plays Mulan’s army buddy Yao.
There’s not much he can do except keep trying to nail the roles he lands in hopes of paving the way for others. “The more I can do great work, the more likely there’s going to be somebody like me [for kids to look at and say], ‘Maybe someday that could be me.’”
Part of the problem is that what’s happening in China feels very distant to Americans. “The Chinese-speaking market is impenetrable to people in the West; they don’t know what’s going on or what those people are saying,” says Daniel York Loh of British East Asians and South East Asians in Theatre and Screen (BEATS), a U.K. nonprofit seeking greater on-screen Asian representation.
York Loh offers a provocative comparison to illustrate the West’s milquetoast reaction to “Mulan” principal Liu’s pro-police comments. “The equivalent would be, say, someone like Emma Roberts going, ‘Yeah, the cops in Portland should beat those protesters.’ That would be huge — there’d be no getting around that.”
Some of the disconnect is understandable: With information overload at home, it’s hard to muster the energy to care about faraway problems. But part of it is a broader failure to grasp the real lack of overlap between issues that matter to the mainland’s majority Han Chinese versus minority Chinese Americans. They may look similar, but they have been shaped in diametrically different political and social contexts.
“China’s nationalist pride is very different from the Asian American pride, which is one of overcoming racism and inequality. It’s hard for Chinese to relate to that,” Yuen says.
Beijing-born Wang points out she often has more in common with first-generation Muslim Americans, Jamaican Americans or other immigrants than with Chinese nationals who’ve always lived in China and never left.
If the “Mulan” debacle has taught us anything, in a world where we’re still too quick to equate “American” with “white,” it’s that “we definitely have to separate out the Asian American perspective from the Asian one,” says Wang. “We have to separate race, nationality and culture. We have to talk about these things separately. True representation is about capturing specificities.”
She ran up against the industry’s inability to make these distinctions while creating “The Farewell.” Americans felt it was a Chinese film because of its subtitles, Chinese cast and location, while Chinese producers considered it an American film because it wasn’t fully Chinese. The endeavor to simply tell a personal family story became a “political fight to claim a space that doesn’t yet exist.”
In the search for authentic storytelling, “the key is to lean into the in-betweenness,” she said. “More and more, people won’t fit into these neat boxes, so in-betweenness is exactly what we need.”
However, it may prove harder for Chinese Americans to carve out a space for their “in-betweenness” than for other minority groups, given China’s growing economic clout.
Notes author and writer-producer Charles Yu, whose latest novel about Asian representation in Hollywood, “Interior Chinatown,” is a National Book Award finalist, “As Asian Americans continue on what I feel is a little bit of an island over here, the world is changing over in Asia; in some ways the center of gravity is shifting over there and away from here, economically and culturally.”
With the Chinese film market set to surpass the US as the world’s largest this year, the question thus arises: “Will the cumulative impact of Asian American audiences be such a small drop in the bucket compared to the China market that it’ll just be overwhelmed, in terms of what gets made or financed?”
As with “Mulan,” more parochial, American conversations on race will inevitably run up against other global issues as U.S. studios continue to target China. Some say Asian American creators should be prepared to meet the challenge by broadening their outlook.
“Most people in this industry think, ‘I’d love for there to be Hollywood-China co-productions if it meant a job for me. I believe in free speech, and censorship is terrible, but it’s not my battle. I just want to get my pilot sold,’” says actor-producer Brian Yang (“Hawaii Five-0,” “Linsanity”), who’s worked for more than a decade between the two countries. “But the world’s getting smaller. Streamers make shows for the world now. For anyone that works in this business, it would behoove them to study and understand the challenges that are happening in and [among] other countries.”
Gold House’s Chen agrees. “We need to speak even more thoughtfully and try to understand how the world does not function as it does in our zip code,” he says. “We still have so much soft power coming from the U.S. What we say matters. This is not the problem and burden any of us as Asian Americans asked for, but this is on us, unfortunately. We just have to fight harder. And every step we take, we’re going to be right and we’re going to be wrong.”