On Sunday afternoon, I was working at a coffee shop when a Facebook Messenger notification lit up my phone. “OMG,” the message read, with a link to the teaser trailer for Mulan that had dropped earlier that day.
Judging from my social media feeds, “OMG” seems to be the consensus around this trailer. Objectively, I can see where this response is coming from: Every scene is beautifully shot. The lead actress, Yifei Liu, is a wonder — a sword-wielding, ass-kicking queen. The fight scenes look elaborate and intense. The entire cast appears to be not just Asian but specifically Chinese — which, given that we’re only three years removed from The Great Wall, is nothing to sneeze at.
The few lines of dialogue we got to hear, however, made me cringe.
Mulan says two lines in the teaser (which, to be fair, is all of 89 seconds long):
“Yes. I will bring honor to us all.”
“It is my duty to fight.”
And I felt my eyes roll all the way to the back of my head. Because are we still doing this? Writing Asian characters who speak clunkily about being dutiful and honoring their families? Is this still where we are? I’ve been Asian my entire life and I’ve never heard anyone talk like this — not my Asian peers, not my Asian parents, not their Asian friends, not my Asian relatives, not my Asian grandparents. No one talks like this. The notions of duty and honor are woven into the fabric of our cultures, yes, but they’re almost never addressed so bluntly. Everything is subtext. Nothing is direct. You don’t need to say the words because those values permeate every interaction.
But maybe I’m wrong — I’m Asian American, after all, and maybe these lines were written by an Asian person from Asia who’s more in touch with how they speak in the motherland, or how they spoke in the motherland centuries ago. I looked up who wrote those lines.
It was four white people.
Now, phenotypes and last names only tell you so much — many multiracial Asians don’t have stereotypically Asian features, and plenty of Asians have last names that aren’t Asian for any number of reasons. But judging from all the reading I did about these four, none of them appears to have Asian ancestry.
And then those lines from the trailer made me uncomfortable. Not just Mulan’s, but also everyone else’s: “It is what is best for our family.” Is this how other people think Asians talk? That it’s all deep sighs and downward glances and solemn pronouncements about honor and duty to the family? I suppose it might be, on occasion. But every conversation I’ve ever had with my parents about my obligations to our family, and every conversation I’ve seen them have with their parents about theirs, has not looked like that. Those conversations have always been about something else — about, say, who’s taking them to a doctor’s appointment, or why I’m not spending the weekend at their house — with heavily loaded subtext about what I owe them or what they expect of me. These conversations are rarely point-blank. They’re layered and nuanced, power dynamics and subtle messages woven into every sentence. And with all due respect to these four writers and the movie’s white director, the dialogue in this teaser makes me think that they don’t understand this.
My discomfort morphed into rage when a friend reminded me that the original script, penned by Martin and Hynek, starred a white dude who came to China because he was obsessed with Mulan (gross), entered the war at the center of the story to protect her, and saved China with his bare white hands. (Some of the other details that leaked from that script are so offensive that they’re almost laughable.) That was the script Disney bought. Very cool. It was rewritten by Jaffa and Silver, who at least wanted Jurassic World to have Asian protagonists, but still. This does not inspire confidence.
All of this gave me a renewed appreciation for the people who made Crazy Rich Asians and Always Be My Maybe — two Asian-led films from the last year that are vastly different from Mulan but required some of the same personnel decisions. Both films, like Mulan, have all- or predominantly-Asian casts. However, these two films also had all- or predominantly-Asian writing teams (Kevin Kwan and Adele Lim for the former, along with Peter Chiarelli; Ali Wong, Randall Park, and Michael Golamco for the latter) and Asian directors (Jon Chu and Nahnatchka Khan, respectively) — and that makes all the difference. The details are right. The dialogue sounds real. These stories feel authentic and genuine because they’re told from the top down by people who know these experiences — and as a viewer, I can relax, knowing that I’m watching a story told by someone who gets it and not a white person giving me what they think an Asian story looks like.
I’m sure a white studio exec could read this critique and shake their head. They could point to the all-Chinese cast, say “Didn’t we give you enough?” and write me off as someone who will never be satisfied. And I do give them a cookie for the intentional casting — that’s no small feat, especially since the whitewashed nonsense of Ghost in the Shell happened only two years ago. But the studio could have done better, and I know this because we just saw a studio film that did. Crazy Rich Asians wasn’t a perfect movie, but I couldn’t knock the casting or the choice of writers and director. They got those pieces right, and the payoff in the film is clear.
I readily concede that this is a lot to extrapolate from a teaser, which had a minute and a half to communicate as much as it could about the premise and tone of the film. Maybe the rest of the movie is less heavy-handed about these themes; maybe the rest of the dialogue is nuanced and thoughtful. But knowing that this movie was written and directed by white people makes it hard for me to be stoked about it. (And all the more because there’s no shortage of Asian writers and directors. Apparently they interviewed all of two Asian directors before settling on a white one. I might be naive, but I feel like Ang Lee or Wong Kar-wai, if asked, could have made some good recommendations from their respective orbits.)
I also don’t mean to suggest that people shouldn’t be excited about this film. There are plenty of reasons to be — the all-Asian cast, the Asian female protagonist, the depiction of an Asian woman who isn’t passive and demure, the dope-ass fight scenes, the astronomical production value. But Disney missed a glaring opportunity to put this classic Chinese folk tale in the hands of Chinese filmmakers — to make this as authentic a story as possible and not a white rendition.