A white merchant's business brings him to the heart of a legendary Asian conflict -- he unwittingly helps save the day while winning the heart of the Asian female. Am I describing the plotline of the Netflix series Marco Polo? No. I'm describing the spec script that Disney bought for its live-action feature film, The Legend of Mulan, which is projected for release in 2018.
As an Asian American person in the industry, I am furious after reading this script. I am writing this letter anonymously so all the fans anticipating this remake will know how problematic it is in its current form. We must urge the creators of Disney's live-action Mulan to reconsider the story before the film goes into production.
The 1998 Disney animated classic focused on Mulan's transition from being a young girl failing to fit the mold of a perfect daughter and wife to a heroine whose brave acts ultimately save ancient China. Her determination allows her to rise above the gender expectations of her culture and become the one who brings "honor to us all." Hers is essentially an Asian American tale because it fused Asian characters and culture with a coming-of-age hero's journey that resonated with American audiences.
So why does the script for the live-action remake feature a white male lead?
The man is a 30-something European trader who initially cares only for the pleasure of women and money. The only reason why he and his entourage decide to help the Chinese Imperial Army is because he sets eyes on Mulan. That's right. Our white savior has come to the aid of Ancient China due to a classic case of Yellow Fever. In this script written by Lauren Hynek and Elizabeth Martin, more than half of its pages are dedicated to this merchant who develops a mutual attraction with Mulan and fights to protect her in the ensuing battles. To top it all off, this man gets the honor of defeating the primary enemy of China, not Mulan. Way to steal a girl's thunder.
I am deeply disturbed that a remake of the beloved Disney classic rejects the cultural consciousness of its predecessor by featuring a white male lead, once again perpetuating the myth that cultural stories are not worth telling without a western lens or star. Instead of seizing the opportunity to highlight a tenacious, complex female warrior, this remake diminishes her agency. But what I find equally troubling is the fact that Disney plans to cast a 16-17 year old established Chinese actress as Mulan, and will not be casting an Asian American.
Let's set aside the clear pedophilic implications that arise when you cast a teenage girl alongside a 30-something romantic interest. That one is self-explanatory. I want to address the missed opportunity of tapping into the Asian-American actor populace who grew up watching the animated Mulan, eyes glittering to see themselves finally featured on-screen. The fact that Mulan resonated so strongly with American audiences with its all-Asian character lineup and Asian American voice actors is a testament to what this live-action film could accomplish if it would simply trust the successful 1998 form. Even though this spec script references the original "Ballad of Mulan," its cultural landscape becomes a mere backdrop to its tired Blockbuster-style romantic and fantastical storyline -- as such, Mulan's resonance as an Asian-American retelling is lost.
Let's be real. Casting a Chinese actress as Mulan is a ploy to appeal to a Chinese market, which honestly will not be as enthusiastic as our American audience to see our retelling of a tale they know best. The animated film made $120 million in the U.S. and Canada combined, and completely flopped in Chinese markets because her character was so different from what the Chinese recognized. If this live-action film tries to cater to both the Chinese and American markets without understanding the cultural implications of its creative choices, this film will fall short of both. If the film splits focus from Mulan to a white male lead and is more interested in targeting a Chinese market with its casting, it will estrange its immensely devoted American audience.
The Mulan we know and love from 1998 is the main reason for the huge anticipation for this film. We expect it to be a thoroughly respectful homage to that Mulan. That Mulan had intricacy and depth as she struggled between honoring her father and finding her place in the world. And most certain of all, that Mulan did not need a white man to help fight her battles and give her a kiss at the end.
If this is the rendition of Mulan that is released, Disney will face an avalanche of backlash. This remake 20 years in the making would ethically set us back 40 years. But there is still time during this pre-production phase to really rethink the way we want to represent Asians and Asian culture in our media. There is time to hear the American fans of this story explain why Mulan of 1998 resonated with them so strongly. We can encourage the script's new writers, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver of Jurassic World, to take these factors into account. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is, from both a producing and ethical standpoint, to do justice to this time-honored character.
Mulan is the heroine that we want. Not some white dude. Please do not disappoint us, Disney.