Inauthenticity has always been a problem in big-budget films produced in Hollywood’s studio system. It’s a well-known fact that most Hollywood films are made by white American directors. However, recently, the tides have begun to turn in a positive direction when it comes to cultural representation. Two perfect examples would be the runaway success stories of the Jon M. Chu directed Crazy Rich Asians and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, both of which became cultural phenomenons. They share the same calling card as being made within the studio system, by Warner Bros. and Marvel Studios respectively. Despite these success stories, the future still seems somewhat murky when looking at partner studios that, still, show a lack of care for authentic representation. Disney’s Mulan is a recent egregious example of this.
As aforementioned, over the past century, Asian cinema has been flourishing non-stop as some of the world’s best filmmakers have either come into the picture or have stepped into their prime. South Korea’s Park Chan-Wook and Bong Joon Ho are among cinema’s most beloved modern directors, finding their paths in the world of independent Asian cinema. While other Asian filmmakers have found success by taking the big-budget road. It would be unforgivable to not mention Hong Kong legend John Woo and his move from Asian cinema to the Hollywood system, he directed a fair few box office hits. Likewise, Ang Lee, whose Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon heavily influenced Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, has delivered enticing films on a frequent basis within the studio system. In terms of newer directors, one doesn’t have to look much further than Lulu Wang and her devastatingly authentic film, The Farewell. It couldn’t be more clear that there is a wealth of incredible Asian filmmakers ready to make films, no matter their role in the production. Despite this, Hollywood, still, on the whole, chooses to ignore the importance of hiring Asian filmmakers to tell Asian stories.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings marks a big occasion for Asian representation as Simu Liu’s Shang-Chi is now officially the first Asian hero to lead a superhero film. It’s taken a while, but Shang-Chi’s arrival has been seemingly welcomed by Marvel fans with open arms. Naturally, the release of the Deston Daniel Cretton-directed film is a big deal. It boasts a simmering pot of creative wealth, both off and on-screen. Thankfully, Marvel hired creatives of Asian ethnicity which, naturally, adds a sincere touch of authenticity to the words and actions of the nearly all-Asian cast. However, almost a year before in September 2020, Disney released Mulan, an inauthentic film made by an all white key creative team that arguably appropriates Chinese culture.
Mulan is a film that tackles a story that is drenched in, specifically, Chinese culture. Not to mention, it’s Disney’s only East Asian leading female character. Just like many other past Asian-centric films made by white people, Mulan comes across as a glossy Americanized telling of an Asian story. How authentic can a film like Mulan be when there’s no actual cultural insight from members of said community? The question has a simple answer, it can’t be legitimately authentic as it’s nothing more than a highly researched project seen from the eyes of a tourist. Mulan’s very-own costume designer Bina Daigeler, who in an interview with Variety commented on her research of Chinese culture, backs this viewpoint up.
“I went to Europe to all the museums that had a Chinese department… I just soaked up all the Chinese culture.” Additionally, Daigeler mentions that she went on a three week trip to China to find inspiration. The comments seem to suggest that Mulan is nothing more than a museum piece, designed by white creatives who admire Asian culture. Yes, Daigeler’s passion is admirable, but why when there is a wealth of Asian costume designers out of there would Disney not hire someone who lives and breathes Chinese culture? Choosing to hire someone who clearly has very little connection to the culture that they’re supposed to depict seems like a poor decision, let alone being very non-inclusive.
Sadly, Mulan is indicative of most big-budget Hollywood films. Look at Disney’s other recent film Aladdin which, despite being thoroughly entertaining, was directed by Guy Ritchie and lacked Middle Eastern creatives in the top departments. Despite studio heads commenting on their want for proper representation, films like Mulan raise red flags as to how a project this culturally significant could be overlooked? Perhaps, it’s all talk, but at least some studios are taking notice. Compared to Mulan, Shang-Chi is remarkably refreshing as it’s clear that the filmmakers are aware of its cultural importance to Asian audiences all around the world.
The level of authenticity on display is akin to many smaller, independent Asian-American films made by almost entirely Asian top creatives. It goes to prove that having more members of any community in top creative departments has an impact on the final product and its realness. Co-written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, who is Japanese-American. Harry Yoon, a Korean-American editor who cut last year’s Oscar-winning film Minari, cut Shang-Chi. While, the production was designed by Sue Chan, who is Chinese-American. These are just a few of the Asian voices that contributed towards the final result that is Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. It never shies away from its influences, casting legendary Hong Kong actor Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon‘s very-own Michelle Yeoh, and it’s all the better for embracing it.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is currently playing exclusively in theaters from Marvel Studios and Walt Disney Pictures.
Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios