We were all thinking it, and finally someone had to ask: Why on earth would Disney cut Mushu? “Well, we made it 10 minutes in,” joked Mulan producer Jason Reed.
In case you missed the , the , and the — — the live-action Mulan will cut Mushu, leaving it bereft of the comedic energy from a dragon sidekick. The world has changed since 1998, and Disney has made a serious, Mulan that’s truer to the Chinese folklore.
“Obviously Mushu is a beloved character, and one of the most memorable elements of the animated film,” Reed explained to a group of journalists huddled inside a tent on Mulan’s mountainous New Zealand set in October 2018.
“It turns out that the traditional, Chinese audience did not particularly think that that was the best interpretation of the dragon in their culture. The dragon is a sign of respect and it’s a sign of strength and power, and that using it as a silly sidekick didn’t play very well with a traditional Chinese audience.”
It’s one of many indications that unlike with The Lion King, Disney is not going for a by-the-numbers Mulan remake.
Disney’s Mulan, then and now
While a classic to kids of a certain generation in the West, 1998’s Mulan flopped in China, released a year late after Disney for releasing the film Kundun, a film sympathetic to the Dalai Lama. On screens in Mulan’s birthplace, Hunan, the film at the box office after three weeks.
You could blame the film’s late release in China, which caused some audiences to watch pirated versions months before its eventual arrival in theaters. But it’s also likely that local audiences didn’t warm to the idea of Americans taking on a Chinese legend, especially one which already had multiple adaptations on film, TV, and stage.
In that light, Disney’s resistance toward a comedic dragon sidekick in the new Mulan makes financial sense. Once chump change for Hollywood, China’s film market is this year. For Disney, its three biggest 2019 releases in China — Captain Marvel, The Lion King and Aladdin — accounted for more than $320 million in takings.
Despite the omission of Mushu, Reed promises the film will be funny. Just admittedly not Eddie Murphy funny.
“We have some scenes that, although they’re played very real, are gonna get some very big, big laughs.”
“Take one of the greatest comedians of all time, make them a dragon, have him prance around, and give him like, two years refine the jokes — we’re not gonna beat that, in terms of raw slapstick comedy,” he said.
“But we have added a couple of elements to this movie which I think really do the same thing of grounding it, bringing you into it, we have some scenes [that], although they’re played very real, are gonna get some very big, big laughs.”
Other big changes are afoot as well. There aren’t any of those singalong theatrical musical numbers like “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” “Reflection,” or “A Girl Worth Fighting For”, although Reed promises there will be “songs that you recognize and remember” in the movie.
Also gone is the cathartic scene in which Mulan , which Reed admits he gets mocked for during meetings in China. “[It’s] actually a Western anachronism,” Reed explained. Chinese male warriors wore their hair long, and to cut Mulan’s hair would make her look more of a woman.
Nor will you see Mulan’s smart-mouth grandmother, Fa, or Li Shang in the live-action film. The latter decision has been , given Li Shang’s status as a bisexual icon. Reed was surprised by the backlash, but the decision was made in the light of the #MeToo movement.
“I think particularly in the time of the #MeToo movement, having a commanding officer, that is also the sexual love interest, was very uncomfortable. We didn’t think it was appropriate and we thought that in a lot of ways, that it was sort of justifying behavior that we’re doing everything we can to get out of our industry,” Reed explained.
Instead, the character of Li Shang will be split into two characters: Commander Tung, played by Ip Man star Donnie Yen, will serve as Mulan’s surrogate father and mentor in the film, while Chen Honghui, a role filled by New Zealander Yoson An, will be an equal to Mulan in the army and her eventual love interest.
It still leaves questions about how the queer element of the relationship between Mulan and Honghui will play out, or whether it will even be present. While homosexuality was , Chinese censors are infamous for cutting out LGBTQ TV and movie scenes.
Chinese moviegoers in Bohemian Rhapsody, while Call Me By Your Name was pulled from official screenings (although it soon ). Disney doesn’t believe censorship will be a problem for Mulan, with Reed explaining it worked “very closely” with censors and its releasing partners in China.
“We feel that we are secure in the censorship issue, that we have our permits approved and I believe that we will continue to have a good relationship with the releasing entities in our various partners in China,” Reed claimed.
While the storyline will largely remain similar, new characters are joining the fray. A powerful shapeshifting witch, portrayed by Gong Li, will feature alongside the main antagonist Bori Khan, played by Jason Scott Lee. The story will begin with Mulan as a child, and she will have a younger sister in the film, something present in other adaptations of the folklore.
“It makes it more than just her having to take care of her father and mother, who are sort of in the role of taking care of her,” Reed said. “By adding a younger sister we thought that it added sort of a broader emotional context, and added more motivation for her, particularly for the end.”
Meet your new Mulan — and her new love interest
On the monitor inside our tent, actor Yifei Liu is effortless in her swordplay. It’s no surprise she’s landed the titular role; she is Mulan. Liu battled through a tough physical audition for the role, admitting to us she couldn’t walk properly after.
“Because I needed a warrior, and I needed a partner. So she did this grueling audition and then we sent her straight to the physical trainer to do an equally grueling physical assessment. Weights, push-ups, pull-ups, everything. She was brilliant in the dramatic part of the audition, and in the physical part she never stopped, never faulted. I knew at the end of that day that I’d found my warrior.”
Liu has plenty of experience acting in wuxia films, a genre of martial arts films in China. Besotted, Mulan‘s filmmakers even pushed back production five months for Liu.
“She was doing a television show and so she wouldn’t be available to a certain point, and the point when she was available was terrible weather for us,” Reed said.
Liu, who exudes confidence onscreen and is praised by her co-stars for her professionalism, is more reserved in conversation. She said she doesn’t try and think too much about how Chinese audiences will perceive her as Mulan. Nor would she be drawn on a question comparing the character of Mulan in the animated and the live action version.
“I would not really compare, because I think each creation was its own form, and I really respect that,” Liu explains. “I’m also open to Mulan’s possibilities. We tried not to fix too many things.”
For Honghui actor Yoson An, who only has a handful of credits — mostly in his home country of New Zealand and in Australia — the whole international fame thing hasn’t quite set in.
“I don’t think it’s hit me yet, I don’t know where it’s gonna go until this movie’s released, I guess. I’m still kind of rolling with things, just one day at a time,” An said.
Admitting that he would’ve been looked over if the live-action Mulan had been a musical, An said he only picked up acting in his late teens, disillusioned with his university studies.
“When I heard that Niki [Caro] was set to direct this movie back in 2014, I was like, ‘Oh, so cool. A New Zealander is set to direct Mulan,’ and I was just walking back to get my car and I was like, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if I played the love interest?’, just like a little thought in my head, and I’m thought, ‘No, that’s never gonna happen.’ And then, four years later, here I am,” he said.
“It really dispels all the classic Asian stereotypes from all the other films.”
The world of Mulan is inspired by the , a golden age of imperial China during which it experienced flourishing trade with foreign nations and cultural advancement. In An’s eyes, Mulan could be a major moment for Asian diaspora worldwide — although Liu’s during the Hong Kong protests last year has prompted calls for a boycott of the film.
“In this film, the cast, you see people from different kinds of cultures interacting with each other and every single character has a multi-dimensional layer for them. So it really dispels all the classic Asian stereotypes from all the other films,” he explains.
“And with what Black Panther has done for its community, and I really feel that Mulan is gonna do the same for the Asian community as a whole, taking on what Crazy Rich Asians has already done for Asian community, with the momentum it created.”
Like Crazy Rich Asians, Mulan looked far and wide for Asian actors. There’s a mixture of Asian New Zealanders, Asian Australians, Asian Americans, and of course, Chinese actors. Mulan is mostly in English, to the joy of the out there, and thus all actors are aiming towards a Chinese-influenced American dialect — a goal which Reed admits has been “complicated.”
It’s no problem for An, who said he’s performed Chinese accents on screen before. Reminding us how young he is, An mentions he practiced as a kid to YouTube videos of Canadian stand-up comedian Russell Peters, who went viral a decade ago for his
“You guys know Russell Peters? Right? As a kid, I’d watch his stuff and do exactly as he did. But that’s a very comical version of the accent, it’s very different to what we’re doing,” An said.
Mulan, but make it Disney
In research for its live-action reboot, Reed and the production team went back to the original ballad and the “many, many variations” which told in China since, including several modern film and television adaptations made in China — before watching the Disney animated version again, thinking how Mulan would appeal to multiple audiences.
Reed said he hoped it would appeal to four audiences: the Asian diaspora community worldwide; women; Disney movie fans; and of course, a Chinese audience. But why would a Chinese audience watch another adaptation of Mulan? The answer lies in the hope that Disney can create something exceptional this time around.
“One of the things that was made clear to us from the very beginning was, make a Disney movie. Don’t try to make the Chinese version of Mulan, because they’ve already made it several times, and they’ve already seen it,” Reed explained.
“So if you wanna make something that’s going to play to the Chinese audience and be interesting to them, make the Disney version. And what that meant to us, was that we had to bring the highest level of execution, production, design, costume, hair and makeup, the cinematography.
“The people that we hire, they were hired with the expectation that we wanted awards-caliber work, and they weren’t meant to think about this as a kids movie or an animated remake, or any of those things.
“Our references are David Lean and [Akira] Kurosawa — we’re not looking at 101 Dalmatians.”