I remember seeing the trailer for Disney's Mulan on TV for the first time and yelling for my mom to come watch. Being an adult, she didn't. So instead I crashed into her room and yelled that there was an Asian Disney movie happening. I had no idea what or who a Mulan was, but the music was epic and there were warhorses so I was sold. I was 10. It was a more simple time.
A few months later, while visiting my grandparents, my grandma would take me to see it at the South Bay Galleria movie theater. We arrived late and ended up watching it one and a half times. This would be the first time I saw Asian faces on a movie screen, even if they were animated. I was blown away. The color palette, the epic music, and the battle scenes set the perfect stage for a story that would resonate with thousands of pre-teens around the country like myself, hungry to see themselves in places they didn't even know they could hunger for.
Released just before the end of Disney's renaissance, Mulan was a big deal. I was not too old to be done with "kids films" yet and I was just coming into self-awareness, so the film came out at a very important juncture for myself and many other Asian American kids. Coupled with the extravagant promotion Disney invested in during the 90s (there was a highly-publicized parade at Disneyland featuring a Chinese acrobatic troupe and a "Reflection on Ice" special starring "It-girl" Michelle Kwan), this film provided one of my first forays into understanding what it meant to be represented. Though I'd grasped at the abstract concept, my understanding of representation as a privilege started to solidify as I looked through the liner notes of the soundtrack cassette and found names that hit close to home or watched Kwan skate to "Reflection" on my TV.
It also took shape when I realized that in that ice skating special, Shang was played by a French guy named Philippe Candeloro who was not Asian. This prompted my first Yellowface-instigated side-eye.
It starts young.
Yesterday, certain parts of the internet exploded over an exclusive published on The Hollywood Reporter that, in the style of Maleficent, Cinderella, and the upcoming Beauty and the Beast, Mulan is getting a live-action remake. Disney has been reinventing itself in the past few years with a slew of films (including my personal favorite Big Hero 6) that have not only been strong offerings, but come on the heels of strong social media campaigns. The social conversation yesterday was as lively as usual.
Apart from my immediate reaction of pure euphoria, 10-year-old joy, and Spotify playlist change (I'd been listening to To Pimp a Butterfly all morning and then suddenly the Mulan soundtrack), a lot of questions came up. How will they somehow manage to cast White people in this one? Will there be casual shadism happening when they hire the Huns? Is this going to reaffirm/glorify militarism as opposed to question the whole premise of everything in the first place?
And then after all those questions got off my chest, I was left with another huge question -- who is going to play the grandmother?
General happiness or apprehension aside, everyone talking about Mulan has been talking about casting. Whether interested in the movie or not, in Asian American circles the topic has been around where the casting will be pulled from and who will represent our community in this high profile remake of one of my generation's most beloved Disney movies.
And I am not exempt from this.
Buzzfeed has already put out their guesses (that lined up with my dream cast in some odd places) and my Facebook feed has exploded with shirtless candidates to play Shang, but the following is my dream cast for the live action Mulan remake.
This was a fascinating exercise that left me with a lot of thoughts and some unexpected turns. Those thoughts and turns? You'll have to read on.
Ling, Chien Po, and Yao
Justin Chon, Hoon Lee, and Ki Hong Lee
Let's start with the buddies. Mulan's three bumbling co-recruits need to have chemistry but with personalities that are distinct enough that they seem perfectly out of place next to each other. Justin Chon, who you may know from the Twilight franchise, would bring an enthusiastically clueless Ling to the screen with his wide-eyed stoner-slapstick style. Meanwhile Hoon Lee would have to gain some weight, but after seeing him in David Henry Hwang's Yellowface at the Joseph Papp Public Theater, his alternation between Buddha-like and anxiety-ridden would lend a needed third dimension to the caricature that is Chien Po. Finally, Ki-Hong Lee offers just the right amount of badass before it goes too far into ass-kicking territory, giving him the perfect mix of "I'll hurt you" and "I'm adorable" that Yao requires.
I was originally thinking Margaret Cho. Great physical comedian with undeniable timing and could probably pull it off pretty well. But as a non-cartoon, this character need to actually play more than just comic relief and offer a certain amount of terrifying intimidation. Enter Tsai Chin.
Tsai Chin, the amazing disapproving mother to us all, could smash teapots on the ground all day and it would never get old. Auntie Lindo was the Joy Luck auntie that took down Tamlyn Tomita's hairdresser's acid wash jeans and looked fabulous doing it. The amazing actress/former singer brings not only her stodgy sensibilities and impeccable side-eye, but would have a stern intensity that rivals Amy Chua. Obviously, we wouldn't want to set her on fire but something equally as funny could be arranged.
Actually, no I'm too scared of disappointing her, nothing funny has to happen to her she can just stand on set and be badass.
Naturally "Uncle George," as he has started styling himself, would reprise his role as the patriarch of the Fa line. He played spooky ancestor spirit in the recent ninja TV show Supah Ninjas so they'd have to reimagine it a bit (I imagine longer ghost hair and perhaps more interesting ghost clothes), but his voice is undeniable.
James Hong or BD Wong
James Hong originated the voice of the emperor's-aide and tall-hat-wearer and seeing the veteran in a Disney movie would make my life. On the other hand, BD Wong, the original voice of Shang, needs to be in there somewhere. With an impeccable sense of timing we get to see clearly on Law and Order and his own distinctive voice (the best voice on the You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown soundtrack if you ask me), Wong is a great candidate to take the role if instead James Hong ends up playing like the emperor, though in my dream cast the emperor role is a little different than expected because...
Mulan, as girl power-y as it may be, has a lot of dudes in it. In fact, there's even debate as to whether it passes the Bechdel test. In fact, in thinking about casting this role and somehow replacing the irreplaceable Pat Morita, back-filling with another dude seemed to throw everything off balance. Rather than try to find yet another wise old Asian man, why not switch the emperor to an empress (there have been a lot) and get the fabulous Joan Chen in on the action? Can you imagine a regal empress with James Hong and/or BD Wong by her side putting a medallion around Mulan's neck in front of thousands of people while that one song fires up? Epic.
The Fa Parents
Ming Na Wen & Russell Wong
I know, I know. Ming Na Wen still looks under 30 and could easily just be Mulan again. And she's clearly still able to pull the punches as she does in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. But with aging makeup and a good wig, I can see the actress reinventing the role of Fa Li from docile housemaker looking to marry off her daughter to strong mother fighting to keep her family together and alive. Coupled with the chemistry I am positive her and Russell Wong would have (she never shared screen time with Wong in The Joy Luck Club but they were both in the made-for-TV-movie Vanishing Son that I literally just discovered and am now on the hunt for), there is no reason why these two characters couldn't play a larger role back at home throughout the movie. War does not just affect those at the front line.
The crown jewel of Down Like JTown presents: Mulan. Takayo Fischer is a Hollywood veteran with work going back decades. You may know her from roles in movies like The Pursuit of Happyness, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Memoirs of a Geisha, or her many TV show appearances. I had the opportunity to see her a couple weeks ago in an amazing workshop performance of Jason Fong's musical Old People Play, which was exactly what pushed her to the top of my mind. Takayo Fischer embodies the role of a woman who goes beyond the "sassy grandma" archetype and offers layers of rebellion, independence, wisdom, and warmth. The role may be small but grandma's presence is important, leading to the First Ancestor awakening and setting into motion the events of the film. I'd watch Mulan just to see her say "Who spat in her beancurd?"
Beau Sia (voice)
I've been scratching my head on Mushu. Are they going to leave him in? Is he going to be CG? Arguably the character with the best lines ("Dishonor on your cow"), removing Mushu takes a lot out of the film. In the end, if they leave him in, they'll either need to get Eddie Murphy back into the studio or go in a completely different direction. There is no imitating Eddie Murphy. So my other direction leads to poet/actor Beau Sia. With a booming belt and poignant whisper, Beau controls his voice and offers delivery with the emotional weight of a wrecking ball. This voice of his and his sleek writing style have gotten him into films and onto stages nationally and into the brains of folks nationwide. It would be something completely different for him and something completely different for Disney, but it would pop out of the screen like daisies popping out of the snow.
OK. Hear me out. Today I've seen my Facebook wall explode with Asian American dudes and I have done plenty of research into who can pull off wearing traditional Chinese armor and who can pull off not wearing traditional Chinese armor (na'am sayin?) and in the end, no matter how much of a draw hot Li Shang will be, ultimately he needs to be able to pull off the character. Despite all the images of Sunny Wang and Godfrey Gao I've been sent, and it's been a LOT, in the end Yoshi Sudarso offers martial art skills (I'm expecting lots of awesome fight scenes), the looks, and most importantly an insecure boyish character that adds depth to Shang's story. Shang is not an experienced leader; his goal for the first half of the movie is to impress his dad (womp). Though he was voiced by BD Wong and Donny Osmond, he really couldn't be more than I don't know. 24? How old did people live in Ancient China? He seemed pretty young. Yoshi Sudarso's Power Ranger personality makes him the ultimate Shang who can smolder, goof off, and even do his own stunts.
And all those things will become important as he'll need to provide a depth of character so that our heroine has something to work with, our heroine played by...
I have no idea and I'm absolutely ok with that.
I was on the Constance Wu train for most of the day. Really, I was. I thought she offered the best combination of inner strength, comedic chops, and firm ground even in the moments of insecurity she's given on Fresh Off The Boat.
But last night the topic of casting for Mulan came up while in a late night podcast recording session. Rather than cast someone known, my friend Naomi countered, shouldn't Mulan be played by a young unknown actress? Couldn't this be the opportunity to kickstart the career of someone with a bright future ahead of them?
I realized that in compiling my list, I was building a "who's who" based on the folks I know of. I didn't even do this with much thought -- I have no idea how some of these actors would play off each other or if they're even talented enough to reinvent such iconic characters against what will probably be a largely CGI set. I wasn't thinking about how we can use this as an opportunity to advocate for Asian American crew members, press junkets, or perhaps most importantly, independent artists and up-in-coming actors.
In dreaming up these lists, we forget that there are scores of unknowns waiting to be discovered, and rather than focusing on the names we hear daily we could be turning our focus to advocate for a wide and far-reaching casting call that offers opportunities for those in our community beyond the known (though that is not to say that any artists I listed are not in need of support themselves, just that this is an opportunity to get more folks through the door).
We have much time until the film even begins production. There will undoubtedly be thoughtpieces for years, and until casting is announced the "who should play Mulan" game will be a nice party-conversation contingency plan for when things get quiet.
In the end, the reality is that this film may get the international casting treatment. We may end up with a movie full of Asian superstars programmed in so that the film has a huge opening box office in Asia. This may be Miss Saigon all over again. This may not be the film that employs Asian America.
I am excited for Mulan and the dialogue it has already started to generate, but rather than trying to impact decisions beyond my reach or speculate about closed-door business transactions, this process of imaginary casting and day-long discussion has been a reminder that just as when Mulan hit screens 17 years ago, Asian American art is still valued, important, and precious to us. To that end, rather than putting our energy towards a Disney movie we can't affect, there are independent artists producing work that is just as important and impactful that are in need of the same level of dialogue and support whether in the form of participation/attendance, financial assistance, or just words of gratitude from the communities they serve.
The lists are fun. I'm still crossing my fingers for Takayo Fischer. Big budget or not, there will always be work to do and conversations to have. It's as it's always been and as it always will be.
And that's something worth celebrating indeed.