Hollywood has a long and problematic history of Asian representation on screen. Mickey Rooney, for example, was cast as a Japanese landlord in 1961’s Breakfast At Tiffany’s. More recently, Scarlett Johansson drew heavy criticism for portraying a Japanese character in last year’s Ghost in the Shell. The recent release of Crazy Rich Asians, at least, is redressing some of those past wrongs, and Mulan, currently under production in New Zealand, is another step on the road to a fair representation of Asian characters on screen.
Twenty years after the release of the animated Disney classic, actor Xana Tang is set to play Mulan’s sister in a live-action remake by New Zealand’s very own Whale Rider director Niki Caro. Tang is filming in Auckland alongside big names Jet Li, Gong Li and Donnie Yen, ahead of the film’s 2020 release.
VICE sat down with Tang to talk all things Mulan and about her own culture as a South Auckland-born Kiwi-Chinese-Vietnamese. Wearing a bright pink sweater, Tang spoke forcefully about the challenges of being an Asian actor and the industry’s treatment of Asian representation. “Whoever told us that they don’t want to see Asians on screen? That we’re not emotive or emotional, that this path is not viable for us?” she asked. “Whoever packaged those things up and sold it to us as reality, we can just take that and shove it right back at them—because it’s their reality it’s not ours.”
She’s well aware of the limits on roles for women of Asian descent. Out of the 100 Rotten Tomatoes Best Films of 2017 only seven had an Asian lead—and three of those were animated.
But now, that tide might be turning, with actors like Tang at the forefront. “[It’s about] knowing that we can paint and validate our own stories, knowing that we are authentic and that we need to give ourselves permission to immerse in the art and not worry about what other people think,” she says.
“A lot of us are scared to or think we aren’t ready, but we are,” Tang says. “There are pioneers in the industry... I can’t say I’m one of those people, but I hope in the next generations I’m one of those people to pave a couple more steps for my peers and the people behind me.”
Growing up with parents who had immigrated to New Zealand for a more prosperous future, Tang says that success was measured in money and careers that traditionally guarantee it, such as law and medicine. Acting was thought of as more of a pastime than a serious career option. “I thought it was just something I did on the side, a hobby,” she says.
But breaking with some of those expectations to pursue a career in acting has given her a level of identification with the story she’s now telling on-screen, she says. Mulan defies the expectations of her community by stepping up and fighting in place of her father. Tang, too, went through a similar process. “I give myself permission to do the thing that I love even if my parents are not happy with it because I don’t want to resent my parents.”
At age 24 Tang finally watched the original Mulan for the first time. She laughed as she recalled being horrified with a Disney character who only had ONE costume change and shed a single tear. But then she realised Mulan’s character mirrored some of her own experiences, as a single woman in her mid-twenties. “Really recognising that Mulan was trying to find herself in the world that she so desperately wanted to be part of but didn’t know how, but also not wanting to be what people were making her. I guess I was going through the same thing at the same time, allowing myself to become an actor and going, this isn’t a traditional path, should I really be doing this?”
Tang has previously worked on projects ranging from the feature-length film Matariki to local television shows The Almighty Johnsons and Filthy Rich. Moving on to this new role, Tang is creating not what she calls representation, but rather authentic experiences on Asian culture that can’t be fabricated. “I think when you find the art in yourself and when you respect that, that should be top priority and it overrides other people’s opinions. The value that you put in other people’s opinions diminishes because you put the art and yourself first.”
Keep an eye out for Xana Tang in Niki Caro’s Mulan in 2020. Until then, the Disney classic is on Netflix.