Twenty years ago, Ming-Na Wen voiced the titular warrior in Disney’s animated classic Mulan, introducing moviegoers to a legendary Chinese heroine while putting her own stamp on the timeless tale. Now, as the studio preps a high-profile live-action Mulan remake, Wen tells EW she’s optimistic that the film — and star Liu Yifei — will do its cinematic forerunner justice when it hits theaters in 2020.
“Disney has done such an amazing job with the other live-action [remakes], and I love them all, like Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, and Maleficent,” Wen says. “So I’m definitely excited that they chose Mulan of all the other great Disney movies to turn into live-action. I think they’ll do a great job with it, and it’s great to keep that legacy alive.”
Regarding a potential return to the cinematic property she holds dear, Wen remains playfully elusive.
“I can’t say!” she says with a laugh when asked if she’ll have a role in the remake. “What is it that [Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. co-creator] Jed Whedon always says? It’s so funny… ‘I can neither confirm nor deny.’ So, yeah!”
Either way, Wen is glad to see that “Asians are really hot right now in Hollywood — thank goodness — because of Crazy Rich Asians.” And in the case of Mulan, she says, “It’s great to keep an incredible character and story of Chinese folklore going in any form.”
It’s no surprise to hear Wen invoke Crazy Rich Asians, the Jon M. Chu-directed romantic comedy that has emerged as a critical and commercial hit while standing out as one of the few studio-backed films led by an Asian cast. Wen herself helped blaze that trail back in 1993 as part of the cast of The Joy Luck Club — the only other major Hollywood movie in the past 25 years to focus on the contemporary Asian-American experience and feature a predominantly Asian group of performers.
“I’m definitely proud of films like The Joy Luck Club, being a part of that [and] being there to represent Asian-American communities,” Wen says. “It’s beyond wonderful to finally have such success, and crossover success, internationally across a spectrum of people. That’s what it’s about. With Hollywood, a lot of times it’s more about economy, so the economics of it is if you make money, they will come to you.” She adds, “The fact that [studios] can make money from representing us in a positive way rather than a stereotypical way is such a leap forward.”
Wen recalls that it was a “shock” to learn that Disney wanted to make an animated family film adapted from a traditional Chinese story in 1998 America, though the studio was ultimately “so respectful of the original folklore” that she holds high hopes for the Niki Caro-directed remake.
“The story itself kept to the idea of this young girl wanting to protect her father, and she was brave enough to go into battle and become such a heroine…. It had staying power. I go to these these Comic-Con conventions and as much as I get people who love S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent May — that strong female character and what she represents — there are so many women and young girls who come up to me [because of Mulan],” Wen says. “It’s incredible to meet these people and have them tell me their stories of how it’s influenced them and inspired them [because] they don’t feel like they were represented, which was something I never thought about because all I thought about was this folklore. Now when you see the Disney princesses, they’re all very independent and they don’t need someone to save them — that’s the legacy of Mulan, which is wonderful.”
Releasing a live-action Mulan remake in today’s market, Wen says, speaks to the economics of a changing industry. China is now the world’s second largest movie market, with ticket sales that often rival or surpass domestic grosses for high-profile films, and diverse, inclusive storytelling has become a hot topic in Hollywood. But for Wen, the biggest imprint Mulan has made on her as a performer has to do with its impact on audiences at a time when Hollywood wasn’t showcasing enough stories told from minority perspectives.
“The fact that Mulan had such an impact on the LBGTQ community shows how important representation is in films and television. I should know because I grew up as a Chinese girl in America who seldom saw images of Asians in entertainment. And when there were, they were often stereotypes. So I understand how valuable it is to have representation, to be seen in a positive light,” Wen says in a follow-up email, explaining that queer fans often tell her the film helped foster a comfort with their own identity after they saw how resiliently her character dealt with gender inequality.
“Mulan’s story was about a loving girl whose filial duties to protect and save her father gave her the courage to take his place in the army,” Wen continues. “She had to dress up and impersonate a man in order to do that. That was part of Mulan’s folklore in China. It was never the intention to imply that Mulan was gay, but the mere image of her changing into a boy was enough of a representation to young boys and girls of LBGTQ. She became their heroine. Mulan lifted them up, inspired them, and left a lifetime impact.”
Disney’s live-action Mulan is scheduled for release March 27, 2020.