By Erin Chew, AsAmNews Staff Writer
Legends of Chinese cinema – Jet Li and Donnie Yen played epic and iconic characters in Disney’s Mulan. Li played ‘The Emperor’ of China and Yen played ‘Commander Tung’ – a high ranking leader of the Imperial Army and ‘Mulan’s’ mentor.
Both are seasoned actors well known in both Chinese cinema and Hollywood, with martial arts skills that are hard to beat, but we didn’t get to see them enough and we did not really see much martial arts/fighting action which both Li and Yen are famous for. I get that, ‘Mulan’ is not a martial arts centered film, but it would have been good to at least see Yen, who plays a Commander have more fighting scenes – after all he is a warrior as well.
The good thing about Yen’s character was that he was a teacher and mentor to ‘Mulan’ herself who really empowered her to give it all she had. Whether she was pretending to be a male or when it was revealed she was a female, he supported her and trusted her judgments all the way to the end. I actually met Yen at the ‘Mulan’ press junket in early March and sort of cornered him for three minutes ( I only had time to ask him one question) to ask him about the impact his character had on ‘Mulan’ and on the film itself.
“‘Commander Tung’ is in a role where he is meant to lead and be strategic with his decisions. He is ‘Mulan’s’ mentor and wants to guide her as he sees something in her that reminds him of himself when he was at her age, but also he can sense the passion in her eyes. But ‘Mulan’ also has impacted on him and without him knowing, Tung becomes less stoic and rigid in his leadership and learns to trust his subordinates more,” Yen told AsAmNews.
“As an actor and someone who has been around for a long time, I felt privileged to work with so many young actors such as Yifei, Yoson etc, and I hope I was able to impart my experience and knowledge during the project”.
I asked a similar question to Li, who plays ‘The Emperor’ who was a wise and benevolent ruler who ordered the mobilization of troops via the conscription of one man from each household to fight the invading Rouran army. Despite not having a lot of air time in the film, I was interested in Li’s thinking and how his character impacted on ‘Mulan’ herself.
“For me, playing the role of ‘The Emperor’ was interesting, and I think he gave ‘Mulan’ a sense of belonging and the idea that she has something to work towards. Even when it was found out that she broke the rules and lied about who she was and hid her identity, he found it within himself to forgive her and instead celebrate her achievements and feel grateful that she save his life, but also saved the empire. So, I don’t think ‘The Emperor’ himself was a very important character, but it is the story behind him which made him important and impactful.”
During my interview with Li, I was curious about why he chose to return to acting not long after he went through his illness and why he chose ‘Mulan’ to be the project he wanted to get involved with. He answered that returning to acting was because his daughter wanted him to and that it was her who convinced him to say yes to ‘Mulan’. Li also mentioned that being in the role was a great opportunity for him to impart knowledge from his decades of experience in the industry to the younger actors.
“My daughter convinced me to be apart of this project when she said “you are making this movie for me”. Then I knew I had to be apart of it. There have been many versions of the ‘Mulan’ story in Chinese cinema, so I was interested to see how Disney would interpret and give it more meaning – and they did well. ‘Mulan’ is a great story to tell because it shows young people that they can be heroes and heroines and anything is possible. This story should resonate well with audiences of Chinese background because it is a story about courage and being a ‘true believer’, which are aspects that have been important in our culture and our history”
“I have been around for a long time and seen a lot of changes, but also things that have remained the same. I hope, me being around and giving advice to the other actors is a way they can learn and continue their acting into the future”.
I must admit, being able to meet Yen (even if it was brief) and being able to sit down with Li for ten minutes and interview him in Chinese was an honor and an absolute privilege. It was awesome that we can see both of them in ‘Mulan’ because they played major characters. However, it would have been great to see them more and I wish they had more airtime. In any case, from speaking to some of the other actors in the film, they stated that they were able to learn so much from both these legends.
You can watch ‘Mulan’ on Disney Plus for subscribers who purchase premium access for $30. More information on this and how to subscribe can be found on #GoldOpen via this link: https://linktr.ee/goldopen .
AsAmNews has Asian America in its heart. We’re an all-volunteer effort of dedicated staff and interns. Check out our new Instagram account. Go to our Twitter feed and Facebook page for more content. Please consider interning, joining our staff, or submitting a story.