'Mulan' film gets backlash for lack of Asian talent behind camera

While the release of Disney’s live-action remake of “Mulan” has been postponed indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic, the film has already received criticism from Asian Americans who feel the crew doesn’t feature sufficient Chinese representation.

Many Asian Americans on social media criticized the lack of representation behind the camera — noting the director, the screenwriters and the costume designer were not of Chinese descent — during the Hollywood premiere this week, days before the studio announced it would be moving the film’s debut. One social media user wrote “you cannot just plop Asian actors in front of a camera & call it a day!”

“There needs to be Chinese people... ,” the Twitter user added.

The frustrations from the Asian American community are understandable given the lack of parity in an industry that’s undergoing transition, Nancy Wang Yuen, a sociologist who teaches at Biola University’s School of Cinema and Media Arts, told NBC News. 

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“I think that what we're seeing here is some of the growing pains of Hollywood wanting to be inclusive in terms of storytelling, and yet behind the scenes are not able to or wanting to,” she said.

Disney declined to comment and did not return NBC News’ request for a demographic breakdown of the crew.

Some social media users took particular issue with prominent costume designer Bina Daigeler’s red carpet interview with Variety in which she told the outlet that her research for the job involved going to Europe and visiting “all the museums that had a Chinese department and then I traveled to China for three weeks.”

The comments prompted many to accuse the designer of insufficiently preparing for the role without proper respect for the culture and also led critics to wonder why the film didn’t hire an actual Chinese designer.

“The idea that a non-Asian costume designer justifies their expertise with research in an European museum feels like a colonial lens,” Yuen said. “If you’re already a white person, telling a Chinese story and you go to a white museum — that doesn’t cut it.”

Screenwriter Amanda Silver was also criticized for being “orientalist” by several Asian Americans after she said the film attempted to “bring forward these themes that are specifically Chinese like filial piety.” 

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“The idea that the western hero is always out for themselves and the eastern hero is more for family and the group — that’s where the reward comes. It’s very important for this movie,” Silver said on the red carpet.

Many on social media described Silver’s comments on the culture as “superficial” and Yuen agreed, saying the response felt like a broad generalization as it lacked nuance, context or the lived experience to back up the claim.

While the film’s cast is all-Asian, Yuen noted that much of the power and decision-making is held in roles behind the camera, where Hollywood continues to struggle. A 2019 study published by the University of California at Los Angeles revealed that the percentage of writers of color credited on top films failed to increase from 2011 to 2017, remaining under 8 percent.

Part of the issue, Yuen says, is that studios often rely on their own existing social networks and “go with what has worked in the past” when these exclusive networks often don’t include many people of Asian descent as it is.

“They may not know any Asian American writers or they may not go out of their way to,” she said.

Going forward, Yuen says, studios need to put forth deliberate efforts to hire talent of color in key creative positions in order to tell authentic stories.

“Since this has not the case with Mulan, its white crew members need to be more self-reflective about not being Asian, rather than speak out as if they are Asian experts,” she said. “If Disney consulted Chinese national or Chinese American cultural specialists, they should have empowered them to speak on the project.”

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