Last week, Disney announced that the upcoming live-action remake of Mulan would be made available exclusively on the Disney+ streaming platform, bypassing a cinema release entirely. Unsurprisingly, there has been a lot of chatter in response from film fans, particularly Asian American ones. Some are excited to see an exclusively Asian and Asian-diaspora helmed tentpole debut on a widely accessible platform. Others are disappointed, arguing that the choice to skip a premiere on the big screen undermines the historical significance of the film as other Disney properties are still being placed on hold for release.
Though these points are valid in different ways, they miss a far bigger problem surrounding the Mulan remake. Both stem from the assumption that this movie will be a unilateral win for Asian representation in media. The movie, which has removed all of the songs from the original, has been described as taking a more realistic approach to war and violence. In doing so, the creative team has described undertaking an extensive amount of research in the preproduction stage. But even though Mulan’s cast is of Asian descent, the movie is directed, produced, cast, shot, designed, and edited by white Westerners. It’s also shot entirely in English. Only having actors align with a film’s cultural context does not compensate for creatives that do not have a lived familiarity and understanding of the environment. But even if the film’s team was Chinese, it’s doubtful that Mulan could ever accurately represent the country’s history and culture, as the 1998 animated film that the remake is based on is a fundamentally Western story.
The excitement for Mulan mirrors, of course, the release of Crazy Rich Asians in 2018, the first Hollywood movie in 25 years to feature a cast exclusively of Asian descent. But though the movie–which was set in Singapore–was heralded as a win for Asian representation, it was a box office bomb in Asian markets. In retrospect, this shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise. For many East Asian Americans, Crazy Rich Asians posed a unique opportunity to see themselves represented on the big screen. But audiences in Asia never saw this as a concern–after all, every movie made in their own countries made the question of “representation” moot. Representation alone would never be a selling point for Asian audiences to flock to Western properties. Unsurprisingly, the original Mulan also fared terribly in China, with audiences calling the titular protagonist “foreign-looking” and stating that her mannerisms were unrecognizable to local audiences. It’s thereby safe to assume that the primary market for Mulan was always a Western one.
Ultimately, it’s great for Asian diaspora people to see Asians onscreen, particularly in roles as badass as that of Mulan. But it’s questionable whether it’s really worth it to create a whitewashed narrative of Chinese culture for the express consumption by Western audiences. Disney’s intentional conflation of Asian aesthetics for Asian diaspora markets only serves to sell the dangerous lie that doing so is acceptable in the name of “representation.” Hollywood can and should do better than remaking a movie that was already rife with cultural inaccuracies from the start. In the future, it’d be great to see more big-budget movies that authentically feature diversity within Asian diaspora contexts–particularly with South and Southeast Asians, who are often excluded from discussions centering representation.
In the end, putting movies like Mulan and Crazy Rich Asians on such high pedestals isn’t particularly useful if they don’t enrich our understanding of Asian and Asian diaspora people. It’s therefore crucial to temper excitement for seeing Asian faces onscreen with an understanding that Mulan‘s narrative is clouded by Western voices and whiteness. But for those of you who are still desperate to see more movies featuring Asian people, you’re in luck! If you’re able to weather the experience of reading subtitles, there’s a whole continent worth of amazing Asian movies out there to watch.
by Keno Katsuda
Keno is a writer and freelancer in the film industry currently based in Tokyo, but she considers London home. Her favourite movie is The Big Short. She believes Alita: Battle Angel deserves a sequel and that the correct ranking for the Mission: Impossible franchise from best to worst is: 4,6,5,3,1,2. You can argue with her on Twitter or Letterboxd.