In early 2015, Disney announced plans for a live-action reboot of the 1998 animated Disney film “Mulan” after purchasing a spec script from the writing team of Elizabeth Martin and Lauren Hynek. Since then, the anticipated adaptation has sparked concern over potential whitewashing.
On Monday, a startling anonymous article published on the blog Angry Asian Man alleged that the reboot’s original script exemplified the worst fears of many Asian-American readers by inserting a white male character as Mulan’s love interest and the ultimate hero of the script.
A quick refresher: “Mulan” was based on a legendary Chinese woman warrior, Hua Mulan, immortalized in a sixth century poem, “The Ballad of Mulan.” In the Disney adaptation, Mulan is a misfit among the marriage-minded women in her village. When her elderly father is conscripted into service to battle the Huns, Mulan secretly takes his place, posing as a man. She heroically saves the empire from the invasion, and along the way meets a gallant officer, Captain Li Shang. Li Shang, also known to many as the hottest Disney prince ever, comes to respect her valor, even after learning her secret, and the two fall in love.
Notice anything missing from that plot summary? Yep, no white characters. However, the Angry Asian Man blog post, written by an anonymous “Asian American person in the industry,” alleges that the live-action spec script gave over much of the plot’s focus to a white man, ultimately transforming “The Legend of Mulan” into a white savior narrative.
In this script, Mulan, the legendary heroine of the tale, plays second fiddle to a white merchant initially attracted to her due to his exoticized views of Chinese women. After genuinely falling in love with her, he becomes involved in the war in order to protect her ― and ends up saving China from its invaders himself. Writes the anonymous blogger:
That’s right. Our white savior has come to the aid of Ancient China due to a classic case of Yellow Fever. [...] I am deeply disturbed that a remake of the beloved Disney classic rejects the cultural consciousness of its predecessor by featuring a white male lead, once again perpetuating the myth that cultural stories are not worth telling without a western lens or star.
Due to the author of the piece choosing to remain anonymous, Phil Yu of Angry Asian Man immediately fielded questions and pushback as to whether the allegations were trustworthy.
In a series of tweets, Yu stated that he had verified the details of the script, as had others in the industry:
Of Disney’s lengthening slate of live-action remakes of classic animated flicks, none has been met with more excitement ― or more apprehension ― than “The Legend of Mulan.”
Fans of the ‘90s classic, and advocates for more diverse and gender-equal representation in cinema, expressed optimism that a movie about a strong, independent Asian heroine would be coming to theaters. Some noted that the writing team behind the spec script, Martin and Hynek, were not only women, but had a track record of writing empowered female characters. That said, given a spate of controversies over Hollywood films whitewashing Asian and Asian-American characters, anxiety over whether “Mulan” would be properly cast has run high.
This latest report only deepens widespread concerns about how Disney will handle a live-action reboot of a movie with an all-Chinese cast of characters (save, of course, the Huns), a Chinese man as the love interest, and a Chinese woman as its ass-kicking warrior heroine, as evidenced by an outburst of criticism on the Twitter hashtag #MakeMulanRight. Tweeted one, “mulan did not save the whole of china for y’all to make her a secondary character and for her love interest to be white.” An online petition has also circulated urging Disney to “ditch the white savior plot.”
Nonetheless, Yu cautioned that the problematic script his blog reported on was the original spec script and may not reflect Disney’s current or final adaptation of the tale:
With mounting pressure on social media and elsewhere to properly cast and script the reboot, Disney might well be taking pushback like #MakeMulanRight into account.
HuffPost reached out to Yu and to Disney, as well as screenwriting team Martin and Hynek, for comment. As of the time of this writing, none had responded.
UPDATE: A source close to the project told HuffPost on Monday that the love interest and all other primary roles in the live-action Disney reboot of “Mulan” will be Chinese ― and that Mulan will remain the lead. The source stated that while the spec script was a jumping-off point for the adaptation, the film’s version of the narrative will draw from “The Ballad of Mulan” as well as the 1998 animated film.