Cast­ing of Dis­ney’s Mu­lan closely watched

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - By MATTHEW TURNER in New York matthew­turner@chi­nadai­

Dis­ney plans to re­visit the story of Mu­lan, this time as a live-ac­tion film as it looks to bal­ance com­pet­ing ex­pec­ta­tions of Chi­nese and Amer­i­can au­di­ences.

Dis­ney an­nounced plans last week to re­lease a live ver­sion of Mu­lan in fall 2018, and it will be­gin look­ing for ac­tors.

The 1998 Mu­lan, an an­i­mated mu­si­cal, was an in­ter­na­tional hit — ex­cept in China, where it un­der­per­formed at the box of­fice and was crit­i­cized for its char­ac­ter por­tray­als.

Mu­lan is the story of Hua Mu­lan, a young woman who lived dur­ing the South­ern and North­ern Dy­nas­ties (420-589) in China.

Dur­ing an in­va­sion, one male from ev­ery house­hold is drafted into the army. The then-teenage Hua Mu­lan takes her el­derly fa­ther’s place to fight in the army by dis­guis­ing her­self as a man. After demon­strat­ing mar­tial skill and valor for 12 years, she is rec­og­nized and re­warded.

Some ex­perts be­lieve Dis­ney will have to bal­ance be­tween ap­peal­ing to Amer­i­can tastes while mak­ing sure that the movie isn’t “white­washed”, as Nancy Yuen, pro­fes­sor of me­dia stud­ies at Bi­ola Uni­ver­sity in Los Angeles, de­scribed it.

“I think that, given the cur­rent cli­mate of white­wash­ing (Aloha, Dr. Strange, Ghost in the Shell) and white-sav­ior-cen­tered Asian films (The Great Wall, Birth of the Dragon ), cast­ing Asian-Amer­i­cana ct ors in Mu­lan is an ab­so­lute need,” Yuen said.

But she cau­tioned that “if the only rep­re­sen­ta­tions of Asians are set in Asia, they con­trib­ute to a per­pet­ual for­eigner stereo­type that plagues Asian Amer­i­cans”.

Long Bui, pro­fes­sor of Amer­i­can stud­ies at Wes­leyan Uni­ver­sity in Con­necti­cut, elab­o­rated: “Hav­ing an Asian face is not good enough, as we saw with Mem­oirs of a Geisha, cast­ing Chi­nese ac­tresses for Ja­panese char­ac­ters.”

“When the an­i­mated Mu­lan played in China, there were a num­ber of cri­tiques, in­clud­ing one that she looked Viet­namese,” ac­cord­ing to Stan­ley Rosen, a po­lit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

And “when the Mu­lan car­toon was shown in China, some Chi­nese com­plained Mu­lan acted too Amer­i­can, with West­ern ex­pres­sions”, Bui said.

“I as­sume that the au­di­ence in China will not be happy about an Asian-Amer­i­can ac­tress” in the role of the new Mu­lan, added Rosen, “since it will not likely be some­one well known to them”.

The dif­fi­culty of adapt­ing an an­i­mated movie to live ac­tion also could pose tech­ni­cal chal­lenges.

Ac­cord­ing to Aynne Kokas, a pro­fes­sor of me­dia stud­ies at the Uni­ver­sity of Vir­ginia, “live ac­tion is much more dif­fi­cult to adapt to mul­ti­ple au­di­ences be­cause of is­sues re­lated to lan­guage. Au­di­ences are more tol­er­ant of dubbed an­i­ma­tion than they are of dubbed films,” she said.

“Amer­i­can au­di­ences tend to be re­sis­tant to watch­ing sub­ti­tled films, and I can also see re­sis­tance to an English-lan­guage retelling of a Chi­nese nar­ra­tive like Mu­lan in the PRC.”

But the movie “is clearly part of Dis­ney’s multi-plat­form strat­egy to ex­pand into the Chi­nese mar­ket”.

Ac­cord­ing to Mike Le of Racebend­, an en­ter­tain­ment equal­ity web­site, “ac­tors of Asian de­scent can help broaden the in­ter­na­tional ap­peal of Hol­ly­wood films. Stud­ies have also demon­strated su­pe­rior do­mes­tic box of­fice per­for­mance when mi­nor­ity ac­tors are al­lowed to lead movies. So it’s a win-win.

“The reimag­in­ing as a live ac­tion film will need to be han­dled with care,” Le said. “I’m hope­ful that Dis­ney will do a good job.”


A poster for the an­i­mated ver­sion of Mu­lan. Dis­ney has an­nounced it will pro­duce a live ac­tion ver­sion of the story.

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