Disney’s Live-Action "Mulan" Finally Rolling

Of all the Disney live-action remakes of their classic cartoons, I have been most excited about Mulan since the first announcement of its existence back in 2010 with the well-known Zhang Ziyi to star as Mulan. Considering Zhang’s filmography such as Memoirs of a Geisha, House of Flying Daggers and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, to have this strong actress spearhead the live-action would have been phenomenal. Filming was supposed to start in 2010, but it unfortunately fell through. 

Discussion started up again in 2015 and in February 2017, Niki Caro was confirmed to direct. Recently, Caro directed The Zookeeper’s Wife and the Netflix series Anne with an E, and is the second woman directing a Disney film with a budget over $100 million. It is great to see more feminine representation even in the higher up position of director, especially since Disney films reach such a wide audience. 

The animated Mulan was also one of the first Disney cartoons where the end goal of the protagonist was not true love or marrying her prince. She only wanted to bring honor to her family, and in the process saved China. Mulan went through struggles on her own, and overcame them on her own. If she is not an early feminist role model for young girls, all the way in 1998, I don’t know who is. 

Mulan has garnered a loyal fanbase years after its release, especially in the Asian American community as one of the only Disney cartoons to feature a princess of Asian descent and for Mulan herself being an early feminist figure. Even now, plenty of fans recognize the lyrics of “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” as soon the opening line, “Let’s get down to business” is mentioned.

In the past year or so, casting decisions have been finalized and various changes have been made to the storyline of the original animated cartoon. In its early years, the live-action had a possibility of whitewashing the cast, even Mulan herself, to which fans angrily took to the web, signing petitions to plead for true cultural representation. In response to that, Caro has stated she wants to make the film as culturally authentic and representative as possible, and so far the cast has reflected that statement. There was another a rumor that the film may not feature any of the iconic songs the animated version is so well-known for, but Caro has not yet confirmed or denied this rumor. The film was supposed to be released in 2018, but has been pushed back to 2020 with filming beginning November 2018. With so many details being released about the film in recent months, it seems like the ball is finally rolling and the excitement is palpable. 

As of November 2017, Liu Yifei was confirmed to play Mulan. Liu was born in China and moved to New York City at age 10 after the divorce of her parents, raised by her mother. Liu started off in television, branching out to music and modeling, then film. She has already starred in a few Hollywood films such as The Forbidden Kingdom and Outcast. Many of Liu’s roles, including her critically acclaimed one in The Assassins, were period pieces and she had to practice a fair amount of Chinese martial arts for her films.

With her childhood and filmography already transnational, Liu speaks fluent English, making her the perfect candidate to play Mulan, a respected heroine across all cultures since her introduction into Western popular culture with the animated film. Coupled with her experience in martial arts, the casting of Liu seemed like a surefire way to keep the cultural authenticity Caro aspires towards. 

The next casting release was Donnie Yen, famously known as the titular character of Ip Man, a cult favorite film for Cantonese people, and more recently his appearance in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Yen has won several awards in Hong Kong for his acting. Born in Guangzhou, moved to Hong Kong then Boston, Yen has the same transnational influence that Liu has, clearly having used it to his advantage in his film career. 

Yen also has plenty of years of experience in martial arts, both in real life and in film, and has worked as an action choreographer. He brings a lot of the same assets Liu brings, and his addition to the cast bodes good news. Yen will be playing a new character, Commander Tung, a mentor and teacher of Mulan’s, and replacing that aspect of Li Shang’s character in the cartoon. 

As for the introduction of new characters and the removal of old ones, one of the most contentious removals is that of Li Shang. Li Shang was an honorable, firm captain while having a close relationship with Mulan even before he knew she was a woman. In the years after the animated film’s release, people have noticed that Li Shang is arguably bisexual, maybe having loved Mulan while thinking she was a man, and perhaps this is why the truth of her gender is such a personal betrayal to Shang. There is a rumored new character named Chen who will be a sort of rival turned love interest for Mulan in the live-action. 

While the loss of a sexually ambiguous character like Li Shang in the live-action is a shame, the loss of the character himself is a shame as well. Li Shang was a great character, properly respecting Mulan for who she was: a strong, independent woman who fights for what she believes in. Shang is also the one who sings the iconic “I”ll Make a Man Out of You,” the song already great in itself, but also accompanying the scene of Mulan proving herself to the rest of the new recruits and Shang that she is as good a soldier as any man. 

Another new character for the live-action is a witch played by Li Gong. Li is a Chinese actress most known for her performance in The Story of Qiu Ju, for which she won an award. Li’s character is supposedly the new villain, replacing the villain of the cartoon, Hun leader Shan Yu. Personally I thought Shan Yu was a great villain with that unsettling quality all good villains should exude, but the addition of a female antagonist could be a nice change. The recent Disney cartoons like Frozen and Moana  both had complex female villains, so for Mulan to benefit from this new trend could turn out really well.

Interesting enough, a new female character that I did not expect is Mulan’s sister who will be acted by Xana Tang. Tang is Chinese-Vietnamese and was born in New Zealand. She speaks English, Cantonese and Mandarin, and had her first role at age 16. Having no sibling in the cartoon, it is interesting the filmmakers decided to add a sister.

I am really excited for these two new female characters to add more feminine representation in the characters of Mulan. The animation really only featured Mulan as the single female character among men, so the two women will definitely spice things up. 

Finishing up the confirmed cast is Jet Li, who will star as the emperor of China. Jet Li is of course a famous crossover star from China to Hollywood, and has a slew of martial arts, especially wushu, experience under his belt. The emperor was a great paternal figure who prioritized the protection of the Chinese people, and I always loved the emperor’s scene with Mulan at the end. It was a particularly poignant moment as the most powerful man in China acknowledged that Mulan, a woman, had saved them all. Since the emperor’s appearances in the cartoon were minimal, I am excited to see what Jet Li will add to the table. 

The cast of Mulan seems wonderfully rich in gender and ethnicity, with the potential of the addition of new characters and the removal of old favorites to revamp the animated film entirely. Also great is that many of the cast themselves have transnational backgrounds and cross-cultural influence, while still remaining representatives of Asia on the big screen. I eagerly anticipate what Caro and Li will bring to the live-action, especially since both are females in positions of power, one behind the camera, and one in front of it. It is great that the cartoon that featured one of the first feminist characters in Disney films is receiving a well-deserved female led remake as a live-action.