The Problem with Disney's Live-Action Mulan

In the recent few years, the Hollywood entertainment industry has seen overloads of success with films featuring Asian representation. The list includes, and is not limited to, Crazy Rich Asians (2018), Parasite (2019) and The Farewell (2019). Earlier this year, the release of Disney's live-action adaption, Mulan, was met with controversy from all sides. Although Asians have been celebrating Hollywood's increasing representation of the community, Mulan felt like a step backwards.

One of my favourite Disney films to watch as a child was the 1998 animation Mulan. With almost all the other Disney female protagonists being mainly princesses, I knew blond hair and blue eyes did not look like me but looked like a lot of my classmates from school. Mulan, as an empowering Chinese heroine, meant a big deal to me growing up. No matter how big of a deal it was to me and millions of other little girls around the world, Asians were, and still are, significantly underrepresented in the entertainment industry.

The release of Mulan was particularly meaningful for Asians this year following the onslaught of racist and xenophobic confrontations amid the coronavirus pandemic. Hate crimes and discrimination rates increased substantially, and we needed something that celebrated our cultural roots. Yet there is a problem. The film was tone-deaf on numerous levels, and it's upsetting to be even celebrating the fact that we got an actual Chinese cast – which should have been the first and most obvious criteria for a film celebrating a traditional Chinese legend. Following Disney's announcement to create Mulan as a live-action film, a petition arose pressuring Disney to #MakeMulanRight and it gained over 110,000 signatures to cast an actual Chinese actress for the titular role. Rightfully so, since previously, directors have been known to be ignorant with casting. As an example, do we remember when Emma Stone was cast for a role meant for a woman with a father of half-Chinese and half-Native Hawaiian descent? Or when Scarlett Johansson played a role in a Hollywood adaptation of a manga series made entirely up of Japanese characters? Oh, and we can’t forget when Matt Damon was cast in a movie set in 11th century China. Hollywood’s whitewashing at its finest. 

While the cast is entirely Asian, the movie's directors, screenwriters and costume designers were not. How can you retell a legendary tale originating from Chinese culture through a non-Chinese or even non-Asian lens? In a time when Asians are trying hard to reclaim their identity when others have decided to use us as a scapegoat for the pandemic, Mulan does not do much to fight for the cause. Although the production was relatively successful in North America, it was a disaster at the China box office. Sure, some claimed it was due to bad timing with students in China heading back to school and amid a pandemic, but in reality, it's more likely that the movie failed because it wasn't a Chinese movie. It’s a Chinese movie written for a Westernized audience. Not only is it unrealistic, but there are many historical and cultural inaccuracies as well.

Unfortunately, there’s more. The Chinese lead actress, Liu Yifei, publicly stated that she supported the Chinese government and police during the Hong Kong protests. Social media flooded with graphic photos and videos capturing the police brutality that was occurring against the pro-democracy protestors. Soon after, the hashtag #BoycottMulan began trending with no short of controversy surrounding it. It’s ironic to know the lead actress supports the police brutality in Hong Kong while being the face representing the iconic heroine who stands up against injustice. 

Shortly following the release of the film, #BoycottMulan would return once again regarding a different controversy. It came to light Mulan was filmed partly in Xinjiang, China, the region where mass internment camps are located and detaining over a million Uyghur Muslims and other minorities. Viewers noticed Disney thanked multiple government organizations in the film credits, including some accused of spreading propaganda. The Chinese government previously defined these camps as "vocational training" and "re-education" camps that exist to "improve security."

It’s an understatement to say I am disappointed with this film. It’s also unfortunate that I feel obligated to celebrate a Hollywood production featuring more than one Asian actor no matter how messy it is.

While everyone is entitled to watch the film and have their own opinions, here is mine. It's one thing to mishandle the diversity behind the scenes of a production, but it's another to condone blatant human rights violations, which, by the way, according to the U.N.'s definition, is a genocide.

Educate yourselves and be aware of the media you consume.


Additional sources for further reading:

Anti-Asian hate crimes

Hong Kong protests

Uyghur Muslims camps