Every Chinese child can recite the tale of Hua Mulan, the legendary warrior princess who disguises herself as a man in order to take the place of her ailing father in a decisive battle.
So Disney thought it was on to a winner in 1998, when it produced a cartoon version of the much-loved story.
It did well internationally. But it flopped in China; in Hunan province (population 67 million) it eked out a measly $30,000 in ticket sales, for instance. So what went wrong?
Disney’s version never really gained a foothold amongst Chinese audiences who felt the story should be told by a local director and feature Chinese actors.
Xinhua reported that moviegoers were dismayed by Mulan’s looks, describing them as “foreign-looking”. Her mannerisms were also too different from the Mulan of Chinese folklore for viewers to accept.
Over a decade later, and Chinese filmmakers are finally producing a homegrown remake, featuring a fully Chinese cast.
The film’s producer, Wong Zhe has promised to make an “authentically Chinese” version of the story. He adds: “Hollywood has long been making movies borrowing the cultural and historical heritage of China like Kung fu Panda and Mulan, it’s time for [the] Chinese to make movies about our own Chinese subjects.”
The film, which was largely shot in Hebei province, is scheduled for release in December this year.
Previous media reports suggested that Zhang Ziyi, Michelle Yeoh and Liu Yifei had all been considered to play the part of Hua Mulan. But the role eventually went to Zhao Wei, whose notable films include both Red Cliff movies and A Time to Love.
Ma Cho Shing, the movie’s Hong Kong-born director, told Beijing Times that Zhao is perfect for the role of folk heroine Hua Mulan because “she has the qualities necessary to cross-dress [as a man].”
Nor will it be her first time: she dressed Mulan-like as a male soldier, for example, in Red Cliff 2.
She will be grateful to Ma for being cast in such a high profile role. Having featured in a string of flops, Zhao was labelled by the media as the “bane of the box office” – a moniker she disputes. She told Life Weekly in 2006 that “I’ve always tried my best. To label me as ‘the bane of the box office’ just because a couple of movies are not ideal is not fair.”
Yet some critics remain sceptical she has the star power necessary to play Mulan.
Perhaps to give the movie some more unusual glitz, it will also feature Russian pop sensation Vitas.
The singer, who is known for his signature high-pitched voice, will make a rare cameo appearance as a foreign singer that’s taken prisoner, says China Radio International.
Cue further netizen disquiet: “What is a Russian doing in a movie about a Chinese warrior princess? Is he going to play a Western fairy?”
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