Make or break with Mulan

Casting controversy over another version of one of China’s favourite tales


High-pressure performance: Liu Yifei

Actress Vicki Zhao first tackled the role in 2009. So did China’s First Lady Peng Liyuan in an opera. And last week, Disney announced that local actress Liu Yifei will be the latest to play Mulan. Its forthcoming film of the same name – unlike its earlier version, it will be a live action movie and not an animation – is based on the story of China’s favourite war heroine.

The fabled tale of the fifth-century warrior is known to practically every Chinese: Hua Mulan disguises herself as a man to take the place of her ailing father to defend her country against an invading army.

The story has an enduring appeal because it mixes the virtues of filial piety, the hard times of war and the glory of victory. So expectations were high when Disney announced plans to reprise the tale.

“The problem with adapting a film from a story everyone knows is that the more familiar they are with the characters, the more people expect from the film. So to gain the audience’s approval is a very difficult task,” warns Tencent Entertainment.

Chinese audiences were also a little sceptical about Disney’s ability to make a film that would do its heroine justice.

When the studio first released the animated version of Mulan in 1999, audiences complained that the film was too different from the original legend (the love story Disney inserted apparently did not exist in the original, for instance).

The studio also paid little attention to local customs. One scene in particular drew a lot of criticism: the emperor is seen bowing to Mulan, something that had probably never happened in Chinese history.

All in all, it was “a film that wasn’t intended for Chinese audiences,” one critic observed (although it did give McDonald’s a boost, with the release of a Sichuan dipping sauce in conjunction with the movie’s release, see WiC385).

This time around, there were worries that the Hollywood studio would cast a non-Chinese actress to play the legendary character.

Recently Marvel – also owned by Disney – took flak for casting Tilda Swinton as a character that was Asian in the original material. “Hollywood has conditioned us to breathe a sigh of relief when an actual Asian actor is cast as an Asian character,” wrote Phil Yu, who runs the Angry Asian Man blog. “We’ve become sadly resigned to accept that there is, like, a 55% chance that the role will go to a white actor, no matter how ridiculous.”

With so much at stake, the search for the right actress for Mulan hasn’t been the most straightforward for Disney.

It took the studio a year, with a worldwide hunt seeing the auditioning of nearly 1,000 candidates (Fan Bingbing and Angelababy were both said to be short-listed for the role) before the producers finally opted for Liu.

“With the Chinese film industry more important than ever, if the Mulan role was given to a Japanese or South Korean actress, the Chinese people would definitely revolt. Therefore, without even having to say so explicitly, in the end Disney had to limit its search to Chinese actresses,”an insider told Southern Metropolis Daily.

After Disney’s announcement last week, Liu, 30, wrote a short post on her weibo account gushing about how she loves Mulan’s courageous character and boldness. She also thanked the crew at Disney for placing their trust in her.

So, why Liu? For a start, the actress is fluent in English, having spent part of her adolescence in New York before returning to China to study at the Beijing Film Academy. Moreover, with a background in dance and appearances in several kung-fu films and TV series in the past, she is expected to be comfortable in fight scenes.

When news surfaced that Liu had been picked to play Mulan, it quickly became the highest trending topic on Sina Weibo.

“Apart from Liu Yifei I honestly can’t think of anyone that would fit the role better,” one weibo user praised.

Action star Jackie Chan – who worked with Liu previously – chimed in as well: “Liu Yifei’s height, beauty and her command in English make her a very good candidate for Hollywood… She is also very serious, very humble and also a very professional actor. Finally, an opportunity has come for her to shine.”

Of course, there were a few grumbles in social media. “Even though I really like Liu Yifei, I feel like she doesn’t have what it takes to carry the role. Mulan is a war hero. But Liu is more like a dreamy, out-of-this-world fairy. The two don’t match,” was one of the complaints.

Others questioned Liu’s acting abilities. “Why would they choose Liu Yifei? She is so mediocre and China has dozens of better candidates,” one netizen wrote.

“Disney you are doomed! You have chosen the worst ‘box office poison’ in China,” was another nasty retort.

That phrase refers to some of the flops that Liu has starred in. For instance, she appeared with the aforementioned Jackie Chan in The Forbidden Kingdom (2008), and in Outcast (2014) with Nicolas Cage, both of which received a landslide of negative reviews.

Her latest film, The Chinese Widow was another box office disaster, taking just Rmb26 million ($3.92 million) when the production cost more than Rmb150 million to make.

Critics reckon that the role of Mulan could be a risky endeavour for Liu’s future career: “If she plays it well, she will never be called ‘box office poison’ again and it will elevate her status in show business to a much higher level. On the contrary, given the popularity of the Mulan legend in China, if she really messes up, she will not only be ridiculed by the whole country but it will also affect her future of getting another job,” was Southern Metropolis Daily’s verdict.

In some ways her casting bears direct comparison with that of the lead role in Wonder Woman last year. For actress Gal Gadot – then a relative unknown from Israel – it proved transformational. If Liu can embrace this iconic role with similar zeal it could have incredible results for her career too.

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