Lulu Wang and Adele Lim on Lessons From ‘Mulan’: Why Hollywood Must Reimagine Asian-Inspired Stories

When Lulu Wang read the announcement that Ron Howard would direct the Hollywood-produced biopic of legendary Chinese pianist Lang Lang, she went to Twitter to ask the question, "Haven't we learned anything from Mulan?"
In a series of tweets, the writer and director of "The Farewell" questioned the move, questioning the creative team's limited understanding of both Chinese cultural history and the specifics of the pianist's (and Wang's) birthplace in northeast China.
Wang used a metaphor to compare Hollywood's efforts to produce stories about people of color and find good American Chinese food in a restaurant: “Does that mean nobody else can make this food? Of course not. I love orange chickens. But isn't it time we all expected more than orange chickens? "
"I really wish this wasn't such a controversial topic," Wang told Variety, explaining that her comments were misinterpreted by the media and misinterpreted by many, meaning that only one Chinese person should write and direct this film.
"I think it's extremely dangerous for journalists to get false headlines," she says. "That's not what I said. What I said was," Can we be more thoughtful? Can [the filmmaker] be someone who has a deep understanding of history and these cultural implications? '"
Wang continues, "Just because someone else is telling the story doesn't mean Ron Howard will never work again. There is room for all perspectives, but we just have to pay attention to the one that always dominates the waves in the air."
She claims that the power to reinterpret Asian stories in America rests largely in the hands of white filmmakers and executives, and as a result, its specifics and nuances are often lost. While doing "The Farewell," Wang said she had to constantly make sure her voice was heard.
Authentic stories cannot be created in a vacuum. Historically, the industry has relied on cultural advisors to advise on scripts. For example, "Mulan" was directed by Niki Caro, a white woman from New Zealand, and written by Amanda Silver, who told Variety at the premiere of the film that they were doing extensive research to pinpoint the specific Chinese themes of the film.
According to the sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen, however, the Asian-American audience is no longer satisfied with the presentation on screen through a Western lens. Historically, when white people tried to tell stories with people of color, it was always to their disadvantage. “So how can we trust someone who has a white culture? The fear is that they are not self-reflective enough to be able to tell an authentic story that doesn't follow stereotypes and tropes. "
Regarding Wang's comment of not learning anything from "Mulan", Yuen adds that the film didn't prove the audience's skepticism wrong, with another major studio project that reproduces a Chinese fairy tale in reducing detail. “People of color want color creatives to tell stories about them. It's time to let them do this so they can point out the issues. All of these gaps in authenticity would hypothetically have been fixed by an Asian or Asian-American director. "
As Hollywood's appetite for Asian-inspired content grows, there is increasing pressure on studio managers to recognize the importance of hiring the right voices. Producer Peilin Chou has shown that the display in the writer's room actually makes a difference on "Over the Moon," the recently animated feature from DreamWorks and Pearl Studios that is now on Netflix.
Chou, who also produced "Kung Fu Panda 3" and "Abominable", explains that with Chinese American, Chinese and Asian American staff, the team was able to check their work behind the scenes. "There's a lot to explore, visit, and live, but some of us have it in our DNA and who we are."
Chou believes there is another benefit in hiring Asian American creatives to tell their own stories. On "Over the Moon," she insisted that every animated character in the film must be voiced by Asian actors and that the production would include those voices department-wide, from songwriting to animation. Chou explains that the film's director, Glen Keane, and screenwriter, the late Audrey Wells, were able to share the room with these staff to ask honest questions when "something didn't feel right".
Still, women with color still have the opportunity to write personal stories, and even those in the room, according to writer and producer Adele Lim, are often treated as “soy sauce” to spice up an existing script with cultural features.
Lim, who was hired by Jon M. Chu to write the script for "Crazy Rich Asians," turned down the sequel because she wasn't happy with its co-writer, Peter Chiarelli. The Malaysian-born screenwriter says her decision to end the sequel had nothing to do with her personal relationship with Chu and Chiarelli, who even offered to share part of his salary with her.
"When you get paid this way, you feel like your contributions are worth so much," Lim says of the situation. "It wasn't about the money; it was about the industry and the system. What I do shouldn't depend on the generosity of another white writer."
She adds that it is difficult for Asian-American Hollywood to outwardly criticize its content as it could limit the inclusion of future projects. "It's such a small community that most of us are friends with people who either created it or act in them, and we don't want to tear down something that's already fragile. That limits us when it comes to that Criticizing the project in a really creative way, ”says Lim.
"In my opinion, color writers don't have an equal chance of failure," she continues. “When an Asian-American show isn't doing well, the studio's reaction is often, 'Well, it didn't work out well because it was about Asians and people don't care about them. 'White shows fail all the time, but their whites are never considered a reason for their failure. "
Wang agrees that it's not easy to speak up in these situations, but she ultimately hopes to correct the industry that she believes is still taking the wrong turn. “I'm never the person my voice will contribute to getting rid of a project that has already been created, but when a project has not yet been created there is still room to be thoughtful and have critical discussions about why something is wrong or not hurtful, ”she says.
"There's a school that goes, 'Isn't it great that certain stories are told, period no matter who is telling them? "Gratitude never moved the needle forward. I think it's time to stop being so damn grateful that we got a crumb when we could have the whole loaf of bread."
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