Friday, May 19, 2017

That time when Angry Asian Man made enough noise to keep the live-action Mulan producers from ruining Mulan's reflection

Phil Yu of Angry Asian Man

This is the fifth of 12 or 13 all-new blog posts that are being posted on a monthly basis until this blog's final post in December 2017 (the Ghost Protocol repost does not count as all-new).

This will be the final time I acknowledge Asian Pacific American Heritage Month on this blog, a few months before I will stop writing posts over here at the end of this year. So this final APA Heritage Month-related post is about a pioneering blog in the Asian American blogosphere and what has to be one of the blog's most impressive pieces of writing ever. It was impressive because of the minor but still-significant impact the blog post had during the ongoing struggle, especially from the Asian American side of things, to fight for more representation, diversity and inclusiveness in Hollywood and to get Tinseltown to be less ignorant and racist.

I don't visit Angry Asian Man as frequently as I used to (my favorite thing about Angry Asian Man has always been that its posts have introduced me to a lot of good novels by Asian American authors, and they've included Leonard Chang's Allen Choice crime trilogy and Sarah Kuhn's Heroine Complex, a novel I'm currently trying to finish reading while working on my own novel), but once in a while, Phil Yu, Angry Asian Man's founder, posts something enlightening and non-click-baity (and by non-click-baity, I mean a post that's not some viral video of an Asian American kid doing something adorable). By the way, Angry Asian Man has changed a lot since its start in the early 2000s. It began as a blog where Phil, whom I've talked to over e-mail a couple of times and have hung out with once, eloquently criticized the media and celebrities of all races for their racist attitudes towards Asians or their clueless usages of Asian stereotypes. That means Angry Asian Man can also be a depressing and stress-inducing read, especially whenever Phil posts excerpts of news items about hate crimes where the victims are Asian, which is mainly why I don't read it regularly anymore.

My visits to Angry Asian Man are not as frequent as they were in the early-to-mid-2000s also because, even though Phil still finds time to run the site in between speaking engagements and host or guest stints on online talk shows, his personal voice has been less present on the site (it's more present on Twitter and during Sound and Fury, the Angry Asian Man tie-in podcast where he interviews famous Asian Americans). He's been relying on guest writers for tons of content, and he found a clever way to do that on a weekly basis by coming up with a feature called "Angry Readers of the Week," where he lets an Asian American reader, whether that reader is non-famous or famous, give his or her life story via a Proust-type questionnaire.

Guest writers have also grabbed Phil's mic outside of the site's "Angry Readers" feature. One such guest writer wrote quite a corker for Angry Asian Man in October 2016, and that's the "something enlightening and non-click-baity" I'm referring to.

Acclaimed Whale Rider director Niki Caro is currently directing Disney's live-action remake of its own animated 1998 hit, the lighthearted, David Lean-style battle epic Mulan (she promises that her take on Mulan will be "a big, girly martial arts epic. It will be extremely muscular and thrilling and entertaining and moving"). But back when Caro wasn't attached to the remake yet, a spec script Disney bought for the remake (this early draft was credited to Lauren Hynek and Elizabeth Martin) had awkwardly inserted a white savior character/love interest into a Chinese story that never contained any white savior characters.

The leaked spec script angered the 1998 film's fans, especially Asian American fans who, in 1998, felt empowered by both Ming-Na Wen's vocal star turn and the film's story of a female warrior who saves China and defies patriarchy (Mulan is also one of the few animated Disney films to not have its heroine pursuing a romance with the male lead, who, in this case, was a young Chinese army captain voiced by B.D. Wong). Phil gave the floor to one such Asian American Mulan fan, an Angry Asian Man reader who identified herself (or himself?) only as "an Asian American person in the industry," and the anonymous writer, who posted under the nom de plume "ConcernedForMulan," nicely read the live-action project's producers the riot act.

"ConcernedForMulan" slammed the spec script, which rehashed the dumb and tired Hollywood cliché of an Asian woman falling in love with a white male character (even Pacific Rim, a rare film that's beloved by both feminists and fans of giant robots punching stuff, suffers from this cliché too, although Rinko Kikuchi and Charlie Hunnam's characters never kiss or knock boots). Sure, the animated Mulan threw in a wisecracking dragon with the voice of Eddie Murphy to attract kids, but a white merchant/fuckbuddy is even more out-of-place and improbable as a sidekick to Mulan than a dragon who talks like Axel Foley.

The script also took away a huge chunk of the story's heroism from Mulan so that this Poochie the Dog-esque white guy, "a 30-something European trader who initially cares only for the pleasure of women and money" and then experiences a redemption arc, would end up hogging the heroic spotlight. "Instead of seizing the opportunity to highlight a tenacious, complex female warrior, this remake diminishes her agency," wrote "ConcernedForMulan," who also briefly pointed out that the spec script's romantic pairing of a 30-something white guy with a 16-year-old Mulan reeks of pedophilia.

It's the same fucking story Hollywood puts out there after it hijacks a non-white storyline and operates under the misguided delusion that the storyline isn't palatable enough for white folks (or that it won't get enough butts in the seats and make enough money), so it awkwardly squeezes in white audience surrogates to make it more palatable, even though those characters don't make much sense within the storyline. This obsession with pandering to white folks is why we have a real-life murder of black and white Mississippi civil rights activists being investigated by a pair of heroic white FBI agents who never existed during the murder case or why we have whoever the fuck Michael Angarano was playing in that unwatchable Jackie Chan/Jet Li Monkey King flick. And that obsession with pandering almost tainted the forthcoming Mulan remake, if it hadn't been for the intervention of Phil and "ConcernedForMulan."

It's the worst kind of lazy screenwriting, and "ConcernedForMulan" challenged the remake's producers to try harder ("ConcernedForMulan" also challenged the Chinese film industry to try harder; a lot of present-day Hollywood blockbusters, including the new Mulan, have been co-financed or co-produced by Chinese production companies, but these companies have also been throwing Asian American actors under the bus by not helping to give them more lead roles). If you're a moviegoer of color who's had enough of all this whitewashing shit and white savior nonsense just like "ConcernedForMulan" was last year, you often find yourself wanting to grab a screenwriter (or a movie studio exec) by the collar and tell them, "Instead of fabricating white savior characters for the purpose of having them propel the story of a war on a faraway, not-so-white land or the story of a battle against kaiju, why not just simply try making the characters of color as relatable and compelling as the white ones you're so used to writing dialogue for? And if you're not sure if a certain bit of behavior by a character of color would be believable, just ask us. We won't bite. You got it, fuckface?"

Angry Asian Man's angriest posts often go viral on Asian American Twitter or within the Asian American community and its many sub-communities, but the guest piece by "ConcernedForMulan" is a rare Angry Asian Man post that went viral beyond the community and had an actual impact. Disney listened to the anonymous writer's concerns and got rid of the white savior/love interest character, to the relief of "ConcernedForMulan" and Mulan fans everywhere. The studio distanced itself from the Lauren Hynek/Elizabeth Martin draft of the script and announced that it will go forward with a completely different version penned by Jurassic World writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (which doesn't really fill me with much hope because Jurassic World turned out to be the most inane Jurassic Park installment since The Lost World, but maybe this remake will be Jaffa and Silver's redemption).

It remains to be seen if the post by "ConcernedForMulan" will have an impact on the casting of the titular heroine as well. The identity of the star of the remake hasn't been revealed yet, and "ConcernedForMulan" said an actress who's Asian American just like animated Mulan star Ming-Na Wen would be preferable over a Chinese actress who wasn't raised in America. "Mulan resonated so strongly with American audiences with its all-Asian character lineup and Asian American voice actors," noted "ConcernedForMulan," who added that if the Chinese film industry gets its way, and one of its countrywomen is cast as Mulan, "Mulan's resonance as an Asian-American [sic] retelling is lost."

I have a theory that "ConcernedForMulan" was actually Fresh Off the Boat star Constance Wu, an angrier Asian person than Phil, especially when the subjects of whitewashing, The Great Wall and Ghost in the Shell are brought up to her. The post looks like it was written by Wu, who, in conversations or tweets about the fight for more Asian American representation in Hollywood, is basically her fierce-as-fuck Fresh Off the Boat character Jessica Huang, but without the slight accent and the mom jeans. I sometimes think "ConcernedForMulan," who said "I will pour myself some whiskey and drink to you all tonight" after Disney sent the white savior character away on a Mushu-style rocket, may not have been Wu and was probably Monstress creator/writer Marjorie Liu, but Liu is not really "in the industry," and the sophisticated and scholarly phrases Liu used in her excellent tweets about the spec script's problems are not a match with the less scholarly writing style of "ConcernedForMulan."

Only Phil and his wife know who "ConcernedForMulan" was, and if I ever run into Phil again, I will give him my theories. But no matter who that anonymous Mulan fan was, I think that person's post is Angry Asian Man's finest moment as a blog with an activist bent, and the impact the post had on Disney's decisions regarding the live-action Mulan is a reminder that Angry Asian Man ain't nuthing ta fuck wit. It's also a reminder that sometimes positive things do happen in a time when it often feels like Hollywood just wants to keep oppressing us Asian Americans and erasing us from our own stories, the world feels so divided (and dystopic) and everything that marginalized groups fought to have and keep in the last few years is constantly being threatened.

Thanks to Angry Asian Man and "ConcernedForMulan," we won't have a Mulan remake that would have made you wish for Chris Hansen to show up in China at the end of the movie and say, "White merchant guy, why don't you have a seat?"

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