How the ‘Mulan’ Reboot Has Some Asian Actors Hopeful for the End of Hollywood Whitewashing

‘I refuse to be pigeon-holed into this model minority, the nerdy sidekick.’

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Jan 24 2017, 4:36pm

Recent debate about Hollywood whitewashing has sparked conversation on how difficult it is for Asian performers to land a role free of stereotypes—never mind a leading role in a blockbuster. But Disney's upcoming live action reboot of Mulan—which will reportedly feature an all-Chinese cast— could set a precedent on how Asian actors are cast in Hollywood films.


When Matt Damon appeared in The Great Wall's trailer, Fresh off The Boat actress Constance Wu slammed the Hollywood-Chinese co-production for perpetuating the myth that only a white man can save the world. "Our heroes don't look like Matt Damon," she said.

Even an actor as popular as Steven Yeun from The Walking Dead isn't spared from Hollywood's discrimination. According to comic Bobby Lee, Yeun was at an audition where he only had five lines. "I guarantee you right now that Aaron Paul would not audition for five lines," Lee said on TigerBelly, his podcast where the story was told.

In the same episode of Lee's podcast, Margaret Cho, a comic who starred in the first Asian-American sitcom on network TV, explained how Tilda Swinton reached out to her to discuss the fury over Swinton's casting as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange, which was originally written as a Tibetan character . Cho said the experience made her feel like a "house Asian," following Swinton around with an umbrella during the email consult. Swinton later released the emails, a conversation she requested to be private, and it ends by saying that she's making "the first ever half Korean/half English speaking film" starring Yeun. Lee joked that Swinton was using the black friend card when talking about the film project.

"We don't accept black face in any of its forms in film or television, why would we accept yellow face?" Cho said in an interview after the emails.

So the magnitude of outrage come as no surprise when an anonymous Asian-American industry insider revealed in a guest post on The Angry Asian Man that The Legend of Mulan's spec script had a European merchant, with a case of yellow fever, ogling over Mulan and eventually saving ancient China.

What followed was #MakeMulanRight, social media's negative response to the script's call for a white saviour. VICE talked to Sarah Chang and Simu Liu, two actors vying for roles in Mulan, about why this reboot is so significant to them and other Asian-American actors.  

Sarah Chang auditions for 'The Legend of Mulan'

For Chang and Liu, the 1998 version of Mulan meant mainstream representation as kids. Before black haired Barbies and the plethora of Asian YouTube stars who make a living by mocking their immigrant parents lovingly, there was Mulan. In pop culture, other than Wanda from The Magic School Bus or the Yellow Ranger, Mulan was it. She was on the big screen, speaking English without an accent and, finally, wasn't the sidekick mathlete. The animation wasn't esoteric like the folklores taught at weekend Mandarin school—those recited to explain the order of the Chinese zodiac or the lion dance's origins.


Chang told VICE that seeing a leading Asian character inspired her to continue pursuing Wushu, a form of contemporary martials arts, in which she's trained for under action star Jet Li's teammate Zhang Guifeng since she was a little girl in McLean, Virginia.

For Asian millennials, General Li Shang—a Chinese army captain and Mulan's love interest—represented an Asian male that wasn't meek, but a hero.

Liu, currently seen on CBC's Kim's Convenience and as Faaron on NBC's Taken, said that as a teenager he had a lot of trouble dating because he felt like Asian men were desexualized by the media. His crush in fifth grade giggled over boy band members who had blonde hair and frosted tips, which made him want to be like Justin Timberlake so girls would dig him a little more.

It's a problem that a lot of Asian kids growing up will face, invariably making them feel invisible in Western pop culture, he said.

Although Li Shang isn't a real person, the animated character in Mulan is a sexy Chinese man, Liu added. With a gallery of topless selfies on social media, Liu wants to prove that Chinese men can be universally attractive too.

"Chinese people deserve to be as vain and as narcissistic as anyone else," Liu told VICE. "I refuse to be pigeon-holed into this model minority, the nerdy sidekick."

The former stuntman for Hero's Reborn says it's been a dream of his to take on the role of Li Shang. 

"It's not every day that Disney decides to adapt an animated feature into a big motion picture and not every day that the motion picture centres around Chinese people," said Liu. 

Simu Liu: 'I'm very proud of my heritage.'

Born in Harbin, China, Liu gravitated toward martial arts at a young age since icons like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan were Asian male figures that were treated with respect and reverence instead of being depicted with racist caricatures, he said. Even with his eager attitude, Liu's parents put him into piano and soccer lessons instead. 

Other than trading Pokémon cards at Mandarin school during his childhood in Mississauga, Ontario, Liu learned the language despite his refusal to speak it at home, only responding in English when spoken to.

Yet he still set out to be the perfect Asian child, graduating with an accounting degree and settling into a 9-to-5 job. But after being laid off in 2012, Liu refused to head back to Bay Street (Canada's version of Wall Street) and was instead obsessively scrolling through Craigslist for acting gigs––stepping onto a set made him feel like he was finally in control of his own life. 

According to Chang, Mulan is a spiritual role model, as an independent woman and a highly skilled warrior. It follows that her hustle to become Mulan has been relentless. She enlisted the help of Beijing Film Academy speech teacher Zhang Hua, who coached mega star Zhao Wei in the Chinese live action version of Mulan, to prepare her for auditions. She consulted Zhao Qing Jian, former Wushu World Champion and someone who has been called "The God Of Wushu," on her performance technique.

And with the help of some friends, Chang filmed a teaser trailer titled The Rise of Mulan to send in as part of her follow up audition.



Chang's even been on the radar of China's CCTV producers. The state television station aired a documentary in December on her quest to become Mulan with behind the scenes footage of her audition preparations and training routine.

The rebooted Mulan is not due on November 2018 but for Liu, he's hopeful that progress will continue to be made.

Liu, a recent nominee of two Canadian Screen Awards, said diversity in Hollywood will advance, but at a staggered pace.

"We know what we have to do, we know the progress that there is out there to make and we're just doing it," Liu said. "We have allies and people that aren't so friendly, but I'm very proud of my heritage."

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