Disney accused of 'whitewashing' over "30-something European male" lead in new 'Mulan'

The script for the live-action retelling of the Chinese legend features a white European falling in love and rescuing the teenage Chinese heroine

Disney accused of 'whitewashing' over "30-something European male" lead in new 'Mulan'


When Disney announced that its 1998 animated film Mulan was to become the latest cartoon to get the live-action treatment, following the blockbusting footsteps of The Jungle Book, Cinderella and the soon-to-be-released Beauty & the Beast, the decision was met with universal praise by fans. At a time when Asian representation on the big and small screen remains a contentious issue, the decision to tell the story of a Chinese heroine helping the Chinese army was seen as a definite step in the right direction. At least until details of the script emerged.

With the studio recently admitting that it has already started searching for a young Chinese woman to take on the eponymous role, concerns that other parts might be race lifted and whitewashed, as has happened in many films before it, were raised when rumours surfaced that the live-action Mulan centres around a Caucasian male lead in his 30s who falls in love with the teenage heroine and defeats the film’s villain himself.

The story broke yesterday when someone who said he had read the spec script that Disney bought for the production posted an anonymous open letter to the blog Angry Asian Man. In the post, the script reader claimed that the film’s plot featured a “30-something European trader,” playing the role of a ‘white saviour’ – a common trope in 18th and 19th century adventure fiction which saw male European characters of noble descent appropriating the culture of a native tribe, before rescuing them from peril. That trope continues to this day in the entertainment industry, in films such as Avatar and Dances with Wolves.

Asian-American actor Joel de la Fuente, who appears in the Amazon show The Man in High Castle, added his support to the Angry Asian Man post, revealing that he had read the script and that he could corroborate the story.

Reacting to the subsequent controversy, Disney backpedalled and claimed that although the spec script does have a white saviour role those pages are serving only as a “jumping-off point” for a new take on the famous Chinese legend. The new live-action film will reportedly be a blend of the Chinese ballad and the animated cartoon.

“Mulan is and will always be the lead character in the story, and all primary roles, including the love interest, are Chinese,” a source close to the film told Vulture.

Yesterday, British director Guy Richie was confirmed by Disney as their choice to bring the 1992 Robin Williams-starring version of Aladdin to screens as the latest live-action adaptation. 

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