In the words of bisexual icon Li Shang, ‘Once you find your centre, you are sure to win’. It is sound advice that Disney should have taken heed of in their 2020 remake of their hit animation film Mulan – and it might just cost them their victory.
When the news broke that my childhood favourite film was getting the live-action treatment with a focus on improving it to being more culturally respectful and sensitive, I was overjoyed.
Who will they cast, I thought? How will they treat Shang’s widely discussed sexuality? Will the costume designer pull out all the stops, as Ruth E. Carter did for Black Panther? I wonder if they’ll bring back Eddie Murphy to voice Mushu?
I dreamed and I planned – and the universe laughed.
From its conception, the project has been followed by controversy, delay, and criticism. Finally, it premiered on 10 March, but as the cast of Asian excellence lined up on the red carpet for photos and interviews, they were followed by the crew – majority of whom were (un)surprisingly very white.
As a person of colour, this was incredibly frustrating to see. We were promised that this remake would be a departure from the animated movie’s orientalist roots and a more accurate-to-origin retelling of the Chinese legend and folksong, The Ballad of Mulan, which the movie is based on. But seeing a whole host of white people parade onto that carpet and enjoying their time in the spotlight made it feel hollow.
It was a visual slap in the face – an undeniable message from Disney that the Asian people telling this story on screen are mere puppets on strings, with no real control over how their own stories are told. It was also a stark reminder of the unfortunate reality of our lives as people of colour; as much as we’re seeing more of ourselves represented in mass media, we still don’t have authority over our narratives.
Disney said that it wants the story be more ‘authentic’.
I thought, ‘OK, fair, the original ballad didn’t feature a dragon and musical numbers’, but then the next thing I hear, a shape-shifting witch is playing the villain.
The movie’s IMDb page lists four screenwriters, all of whom are white, and none of whom have any apparent connection to Chinese culture or China. You could argue that this is to be expected at this point – that is, until you realise that the original animated 1998 movie had more female Asian writers than the ‘woke’ remake does.
The worst part is they believe that just because they stopped by a museum or two, took an all-expenses-paid trip to China and did what feels like the bare minimum of research, that they have somehow made up for the lack of lived experience and cultural connection.
That’s where the problem really lies. It ignores the unique perspective that comes from being connected to the culture and identity in question, something that can’t be learned from research and observation.
It’s not realistic, especially for countries as old and rich in heritage as China, which don’t have one homogenous culture. I’d hoped that Disney had learned their lesson from the Aladdin remake mess in 2019, and the success of Black Panther.
But I guess it bears repeating: representation matters – both in front of and behind the camera.
Not everyone on the crew needs to be of a specific race and ethnicity that pairs with the story told, but those who are in leadership roles and have creative control and authority should be. The director and screenwriters, for example, as well as the costume designer, who specialises in historically accurate clothing, and composers, who are familiar with the culture’s musical history and traditions.
It doesn’t hurt to go the extra step, either. For instance, by hiring an on-set historian, sensitivity readers to review the script and screening rough edits to knowledgeable critics before confirming the completion of the film.
For a company as massive and wealthy as Disney, there simply is no excuse.
This is how we stop these issues from happening. This is how we are sure to win.
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