Spotlight: Disney execs discuss China-based feature "Mulan," and cultural authenticity

Source: Xinhua| 2019-08-27 08:01:23|Editor: Lu Hui
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by Julia Pierrepont III, Gao Shan

LOS ANGELES, Aug. 26 (Xinhua) -- With the live action feature version of Disney's "Mulan" slated for release next March, the official trailer has been screened to an appreciative audience. Its director Niki Caro and Disney executives discussed the film at the Mouse House's D23 Expo held from Friday to Sunday.

The blockbuster, starring Liu Yifei in the lead role, is based on the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan and is a live action adaptation of Disney's 1998 animated film of the same name.

Mulan, a beautiful, spirited young woman seeking to spare the life of her ailing father, disguises herself as a man to go to war in his place. Smart, brave and determined, she flouts tradition to embrace her true potential and blazes a trail of courage against their enemies.

"I'm most excited for the audience to see this movie on a truly epic scale," Caro told the attendees at D23. "What drew me to this project was Mulan herself, her journey from village girl to soldier, to warrior, to hero," she said. Caro is the second female director hired by Disney to direct a film budgeted at over 100 million U.S. dollars. "Mulan" is one of Disney's biggest budget films ever with a reported 300 million dollars.

For this mash-up of Disney's animated "Mulan" film and the original Chinese legend, Disney adroitly side-stepped any concerns of potential "whitewashing" by auditioning more than 1,000 actresses of Chinese descent to find just the right lead to play Mulan who had the perfect mix of acting talent, martial arts training and likability.

They picked Chinese-American Lui Yifei and cast other leading Chinese actors, Donnie Yen, Jet Li, Gong Li and Jason Scott Lee.

As the No. 2 biggest movie market in the world, China is a major market for Disney. China's movie box office revenue grew 9 percent to around 60.97 billion yuan (8.9 billion U.S. dollars) in 2018, becoming an essential part of the success of many Hollywood's blockbusters.

Tackling a beloved legend from another culture can be fraught with peril if handled badly. Xinhua asked Disney executives how they approached a movie like "Mulan," set in a different culture and country to ensure cultural integrity and authenticity.

"We spent a lot of time in the beginning with scholars, experts and people from the region. And we spent a great deal of time in China," replied Sean Bailey, president of Walt Disney Studios Motion Picture Production, adding that the studio not only has a Chinese cast but also brought in a Chinese producer to make the movie with them.

"What I've found when you are trying to make an authentic movie about China or the Middle East or Boston, is that if you put a lot of knowledgeable people in front of and behind the camera, they will tell you, 'Hey, I think this is a little off' or 'I think you can improve a little there...,'" he explained.

Disney takes its mission to make universally-accessible and culturally-accurate movies very seriously, as evidenced by the popular stories of diverse cultures they have brought to the big screen, such as "Mulan," "Coco," "Moana," and "Aladdin."

Alan Horn, co-chairman and chief creative officer of The Walt Disney Studios, said, "In today's social media environment, we get a lot of feedback. And we listen to it. We are aware of the importance of keeping a finger on the pulse of what happening out there."

Bailey also assured the press, "We do a lot of work on the front end to be as smart about it as we can and populate the production as well as we can with knowledgeable people in front of and behind the camera."

He added, clearly enthusiastic about Disney's productions, "I love when these movies go out in the world ... I love the values and the stories and impact they have on a huge audience."

Horn pointed out audiences have a certain expectation of the Disney brand, no matter what culture they depict, "Audiences may not always know what they are going to see, but they know what they are not going to see. The Disney brand conveys a certain responsibility to the public to parents and families, to make them feel safe."

When asked if Disney has any plans to do more Chinese stories, Horn told Xinhua, "The China market is obviously a large and important one and we care about the Chinese people and their history and traditions, so we will certainly continue to explore what other Chinese stories and legends might have universal appeal that we could bring to the screen."

He chuckled, "We could run out of Marvel stories, so we are interested in stories from all over the world that can show us something different and special."

He noted that it's important to make movies that "have lasting value, that mean something, that touch people." And smiling, he added, "And it never hurts to be funny."