Our Community. Our Nation. Our World.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

'As An Asian Man, I Want To Represent': 'Mulan' Movie Star On Hollywood's Stereotypes

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

After a five-month delay while the coronavirus pandemic turned the world upside down, Disney's "Mulan" comes out tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MULAN")

LIU YIFEI: (As Mulan) Yes, I will bring honor to us all.

CHANG: It's based off the 1998 animated movie of the same title, and it tells the story of a young woman, played by Liu Yifei, who dresses as a man and takes her father's place in the Chinese Imperial army. The new "Mulan" is a live-action film - no songs, no cartoon dragon. Instead, we get epic scenes of close combat.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCUFFLING)

CHANG: And that is where actor Donnie Yen comes in.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MULAN")

DONNIE YEN: (As Commander Tung) I'm your commanding officer. Fighting will not be tolerated. Am I clear?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Yes, commander.

YEN: (As Commander Tung) With your voice, soldier.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Yes, commander.

CHANG: He plays Commander Tung, Mulan's leader and mentor in the army. Yen is an international action star best known for his martial arts skills. And when we talked, I asked him if he had ever seen the animated movie.

YEN: Probably over a hundred times.

CHANG: (Laughter) Wait - because you were preparing for the movie...

YEN: No, no, no, no, no.

CHANG: ...Or because your kids made you see it a hundred times?

YEN: I - my daughter's 16 years old. So when she was a baby, the best thing that a child can watch out of all the Disney animation, one of her favorite, obviously, was "Mulan." And I watched it with her, and we sang all the songs together.

CHANG: (Laughter).

YEN: So when I was asked to be part of this, when I told my daughter - and she was really excited - the first thing that she asked was, baba, which song are you going to sing?

CHANG: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S GET DOWN TO BUSINESS")

DONNY OSMOND: (Singing) Let's get down to business to defeat...

YEN: Yeah, unfortunately, this is a different version of it. That was one of the main reason why I decided to just drop everything and participate in this film.

CHANG: You said "Mulan" was her favorite Disney movie, so I'm wondering what was it about "Mulan" that she loves so much?

YEN: (Laughter) It's a Chinese character. I think that has a lot to do with it. And she's also a female hero, which in today's world, we cannot neglect what women should be entitled to.

CHANG: You know, you are, today, one of Asia's leading martial arts superstars, but I want to ask about your early days because I know that your mom is also very accomplished in martial arts. Was she the one who originally drew you into kung fu?

YEN: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Back in mid-'70s, she opened her very first martial arts school in Boston. And you got to imagine, as a female - especially back in the '70s - you know, martial arts is not a very feminine culture.

CHANG: Right. But there she was...

YEN: It's quite macho.

CHANG: ...Opening her own school.

YEN: Yes, she did.

CHANG: Yeah.

YEN: She had the very courage and vision of wanting to make that change. So she was very well a Mulan herself. So I started learning martial arts from her.

CHANG: Was she a very strict teacher to you?

YEN: She was very strict (laughter).

CHANG: Yeah?

YEN: She used to drag me out of bed every morning before school, like 5:30, 6 o'clock and...

CHANG: Oh, my God.

YEN: ...Had my basic training. In the beginning, I didn't understand until I built a certain foundation and became pretty good at it, and later I started to realize what she gave me, what she taught me, was so special.

CHANG: Yeah.

YEN: You know, without her, I wouldn't have got into this business, and I wouldn't be who I am today.

CHANG: Well, I love that you were raised by a woman who was so gifted at martial arts because, you know, when I was growing up in the U.S. as a Chinese girl, I felt like I saw way more women who were action heroes in Hong Kong martial arts movies than I ever did in American movies. So, I mean, why do you think that was? Why do you think martial arts films very early on elevated women?

YEN: Well, you know, I think even though most people - especially non-Chinese - they would think Chinese is very traditional. But, actually, we might come off as very, you know, woman going to cook at home, but deep inside, we always believe in equality. I mean, you look at - aside from "Mulan," there's many empress in China.

CHANG: Yes.

YEN: So for the longest time in Chinese history, woman plays a big part of enriching the Chinese culture.

CHANG: You know, kung fu has become such a large part of how the West sees Asian actors today. I mean, out here, there have been all kinds of stereotypes of Asian people on film. Like, Asian women have been these dragon ladies or these very quiet, submissive types, right?

YEN: Yeah. Yeah, definitely (laughter).

CHANG: Asian men are these kung fu masters.

YEN: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

CHANG: And I was wondering when you - Donny, when you take on a role today that's going to have international appeal - like, you played a warrior monk in a "Star Wars" movie, you play Commander Tung in "Mulan" - do you ever worry that non-Asian audiences will see stereotypes in those kinds of roles?

YEN: You know, I've been worried about that all my life.

CHANG: Yeah.

YEN: As a actor, I've been in the business for so long, and I've seen the changes, but it has not reached to equality for Asian actor. I mean, yes, it's gotten better. But like you said, the roles that has been offered to Asian actors are very limited. "Rogue One," when it was given to me, it was a very stereotyped martial arts monk.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY")

YEN: (As Chirrut Imwe) The force is with me, and I am with the force, and I fear nothing, for all is as the force wills it.

It took a lot of persuading that I would like that role to be a bit more human, grounded. So I added humorousness to the role.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY")

YEN: (As Chirrut Imwe) Are you kidding me? I'm blind.

All throughout all my films, as an artist, I try to serve the role's purpose from a creative and artistic level. But at the same time, a lot is also a cultural responsibility as an Asian man that I want to represent what we are about.

CHANG: Yeah. Finally, I want to ask you - you know, late last year, you confirmed that "Ip Man 4" will be your final kung fu movie. You said, as an actor, you must keep going forward. This is something that I must do in life; I must keep exploring to grow. So what roles do you still hope to do now, I mean, now that you're closing this chapter in your life?

YEN: Yes, let me just share my philosophy. A good kung fu movies always shows that kung fu actors possesses great kung fu skill. For me, kung fu movies - I have to kind of hang my gloves because I believe "Ip Man," the four "Ip Man" series that I've done, represents kung fu movies. For me, I don't see how I can elevate the last episodes. So I don't want to do any more of those kind of kung fu movies. But actual movies, I still have a lot of passion for contemporary action. I have a few projects that I'm working on right now that I will be focusing and dedicating my creative process. And, hopefully, you guys can see it soon.

CHANG: Donnie Yen stars in the new movie "Mulan." It's coming to Disney+ tomorrow. Thank you so much for joining us. This was so much fun.

YEN: Thank you very much. Thank you.

CHANG: Can I ask you a favor? Can you sing something from the animated version of "Mulan" for me?

(LAUGHTER)

YEN: Oh, my God. (Singing) Look at me.

There - three words.

CHANG: Beautiful.

(LAUGHTER) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.