“I Was Worried About Disney’s Mulan Reboot—Until Liu Yifei Got Cast”

The countdown to 2019 starts now

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Liu Yifei Mulan: the actress is posed and serious, holding a sword in a film with cherry blossoms in the background

(Credit: Rex Shutterstock)

If there’s one good thing that has come out of this terrible year it’s this: I have never seen more amazing Asian representation in mainstream media than I do right now. BTS broke into the North American music industry with their boyish good looks and killer dance moves, as seen at their history-making AMAs performance. Warner Bros. announced it’s turning Kevin Kwan’s best-selling book Crazy Rich Asians into a film with an all-Asian cast—a Hollywood first since 1993’s Joy Luck Club. Plus, this year’s Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show not only took place in Shanghai for the first time ever, it finally included more than just a handful of Chinese models.

But it’s recent news from Disney that made me especially proud to be a Chinese-Canadian.

Last week, Disney announced that Liu Yifei, one of my all-time favourite Chinese actresses, will play Mulan in the 2019 live-action reboot. And I cannot wait.

When I first heard that Disney was revamping the classic 1998 animated film, I’m not going to lie, I purposely suppressed my excitement. Rather than letting my mind wander about potential actresses who could play Mulan, I worried we were headed for yet another culturally inappropriate casting. After all, this is an industry that has let me down countless times. (See: Emma Stone in Aloha, Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell and Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange.)

For as long as I can remember in my 26 years, Hollywood has been making eyebrow-raising choices for Asian characters, and non-Asian actresses have readily accepted these roles. Thanks to the power of social media, it looks like frequent outrage is finally making producers and filmmakers realize that questionable casting is so last year; in 2017, we all deserve better.

If you aren’t already a Liu Yifei fan, get ready to be one

As a young Asian girl growing up in Canada, I’ve never felt inferior being Chinese. I was proud of my background, and that was thanks in part to strong Chinese actresses, like Liu, and characters, like Mulan.

While many North American Disney fans may be hearing Liu’s name for the first time, in China she is one of the biggest names in the film industry. The first time I watched Liu, who also goes by Crystal Liu, was in a 2003 period drama called Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils, a TV adaption of a novel of the same name written by famous Hong Kong writer Louis Cha (a.k.a. Jin Yong). In the series, Liu—who was only 15 at the time and had just been admitted to the prestigious Beijing Film Academy—plays Wang Yuyan, a smart young lady who is mistaken for a real-life goddess. Liu has since appeared in more roles that mix her femininity with strength (and badass martial art skills), such as Jackie Chan’s 2008 film The Forbidden Kingdom and 2014’s Outcast with Nicolas Cage and Hayden Christensen.

Did I mention and has multiple albums and a recording contract with Sony Music Entertainment Japan to prove it? Oh, and she’s also a model, a dancer and a formally-trained piano player. Yup, she’s pretty much the epitome of #goals—and her ability to portray female characters who *literally* kick ass makes her the perfect pick for Mulan.

Mulan fought for young girls like me  

Chinese TV dramas and films have always been a staple in my house. I wasn’t able to attend Chinese school on the weekends (I was a competitive figure skater at the time), but my parents were adamant that I learn my mother tongue. I remember they’d park me in front of the TV so I could be exposed to the language as much as possible. I was basically binge-watching way before Netflix made it cool.

I still remember watching Mulan with my family when it first came out in theatres nearly a decade ago. I was only six, but I was completely transfixed by the characters, the music and the costumes (my Disney-store version of Mulan’s matchmaking outfit is still hanging in my closet). She became my go-to pick on Halloween or any other princess dress-up day. I was even the proud owner of Mulan II, which I have to say is a must-watch for its refreshingly funny romantic storyline between Mulan and General Shang.

It seemed like as I grew up, so did the representations of Mulan. In 2009, Hong Kong director Jingle Ma brought Mulan to life in a live-action Chinese film Mulan: Legendary Warrior (花木蘭), which adhered to the original legendary Chinese folk tale and was much grittier than the Disney film. (Fun fact: Liu was reportedly considered for this role.) To me, whether she was animated or portrayed by an actress, Mulan always represented a strong young woman who protected her people and brought honour to her family while smashing the patriarchy—before that was a hashtag. Cinderella, move aside.

After decades of culturally-insensitive casting and op-ed after op-ed slamming the white washing of films, it was starting to feel exhausting. But it turns out that Liu was, as the song goes, “a girl worth fighting for.”

Related:
#FirstTimeISawMe Shows Why Diversity in Movies Matters
Toronto Black Film Festival’s Fabienne Colas: “We Need Diversity”
#castingsowhite: Is Hollywood Becoming Less Inclusive?

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