The live-action Mulan trailer dropped this week to the excitement of fans. Though straying from some aspects of the animated film, it features an entirely East Asian cast starring Yifei Liu as Mulan.

Credit: Disney 2019

While Disney’s Mulan is a classic, many of the talented voice actors were not of Asian descent in this entirely Asian storyline. As society grasps the importance of global representation, there are high expectations for the live-action Mulan to take an exemplary dive into the nuances of East Asian culture. Even in a Disney film, East Asian representation must walk the line between stereotypical tropes and respectfully revealing the culture.

The Live-Action Mulan Trailer

The live-action Mulan trailer leans towards a more serious tone than the animated film. But it does bring a refreshing look at the legend of Hua Mulan and Chinese culture. One of the first animated movie tie-ins is the idea that

Your job is to bring honor to the family.

Hua Zhou, Mulan (2020)

This sentiment echos throughout the trailer ending in Mulan’s vow to:

bring honor to us all.

Mulan (2020)
Mulan rides into battle in the live action Mulan
Credit: Disney 2019

This emphasis on honor is paired with a view of strength that the women in the culture display. Though an only child in the animated film, the live-action shows Mulan’s sister learning about the rituals and customs of being a good wife and Asian woman. The sisters learn to be loyal, brave, and true. These aspects are also applied to her decision to fight in her father’s place.

Asian Representation & Vice Versa

There is a difference between Asian representation and how films represent Asians. Mulan is a beacon in East Asian representation. Stories with Asian characters portrayed by Asian actors is an inclusive representation. But just because there are Asians in the stories does not mean they are well portrayed. If the media hedges Asian characters into stereotypes or flat personas, the number of Asian characters won’t matter.

There is a concern that films will represent the stoic, harsh side of Asian culture without the realization that the culture uses this emphasis on honor to show love and respect. The introduction of a female villain in the Mulan trailer breaks from the submissive Asian women stereotype. However, it furthers the picture of a “dragon lady” that paints female Asians as aloof, domineering, or devious. Just because one does not fit into one convention should not automatically push them into the other. The prevalence of this dichotomy in past representation puts pressure on the character of Mulan to embody a complex personality.

Li Gong as Xian Lang in the live action Mulan
Credit: Disney 2019

While a part of Asian culture, disciplinarian values and introversion are not all that East Asians are. The reason Asians so highly emphasize family loyalty and bringing honor is because of the love and respect families have for each other. Often Asian characters are shown as rebellious or in pain because of an authority figure that pushed them too hard or stifled their creativity like Vegeta and Chi-Chi in Dragon Ball Z or Mrs. Kim in Gilmore Girls. However, this pressure often comes from a place of, though misguided and ill portrayed, love.

Mrs. Kim holds a conversation with her daughter Lane beside her in Gilmore Girls.
Credit: Warner Bros. Television 2007

Representing Asians

Just because one is Asian does not mean one is a certain personality. The culture may admire certain traits in people and thus the people from there have a proclivity to also aspire to these traits. However, East Asians are individuals as well. Some might be intense and calculating, while others are artistic and laid back. The spectrum of human personality does not narrow in the constraints of a certain ethnicity. Disney strives to be at the forefront of cultural representation with films like Pocahantas, Aladdin, and Lilo and Stitch. 

However, the live-action Aladdin received critique for not having a person of color with a cultural connection to the story in the director’s seat. Mulan’s director, Niki Caro, is from New Zealand. While it is refreshing to see a female helming a big-budget Disney film, Caro is a white woman without East Asian roots. However, she does have experience telling the stories of underrepresented groups as well as directing action films. Her writing and direction of Memory and Desire and Whale Rider show her respect and ability to tell textured stories without resorting to tropes. However, a single producer out of six is Asian.

Oscar-nominated William Kong has production experience on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Curse Of The Golden Flower. The impact of even a few more east Asian voices in the mix could add multitudes to the story, music and overall authenticity of the work. That said, production companies must realize that there are few better equipped to tell the stories of any culture than those whose roots are cultivated in it.

Representation In Other Genres

Other film genres have a somewhat easier time displaying the softer sides of East Asian society. Romantic comedies Crazy Rich Asians and Always Be My Maybe incorporate how Asian characters express intimacy and feelings in romantic situations in the modern era. Also, they highlight the individual aspects and personalities of their characters. However, they still depict the older generation of East Asian parents as judgmental and cold to their children. This places a negative connotation on the older generation’s way of life and priorities.

Michelle Yeoh and Constance Wu confront each other in Crazy Rich Asians
Credit: Warner Bros. 2018

One show that uniquely tells the story of immigrant parents is the Parents episode of Aziz Ansari’s Master Of None. By showing the childhoods of their parents, viewers better understand the why of their parent’s strictness, coldness, and expectations. Because the episode brings their backstory into view, it reshapes our understanding of Asian parents and their quirks.

Stephen Lin and Amy Chang coming to America in Master Of None
Credit: Fremulon 2015

Moving Forward With Asian Representation

The goal in Asian representation should lie in the bounds of honoring Asian culture without suppressing individuality. We should not put Asian women into a binary where they can either be the stoic badass with a streak of purple through their hair or the wilting violet that lives to serve. This concept holds true across ethnicities and genders as well. One can be feminine and be brave, one can be masculine and have empathy. Being stoic in times of trouble doesn’t make you less of a woman and you don’t have to code masculine to be a good feminist.

People should be able to be people who enjoy any and all aspects of being alive and still be respected. The broader issue of representation of any ethnicity, gender, or sexuality is that whatever the media is rendering they portray characters with depth and care. The live-action Mulan trailer pulls viewers into the culture of China. A great contender for Asian representation we hope the film also represents Asians well.