“It becomes [sharper], 4K is even [clearer] than HD, but I don’t have to worry because it’s animated character and she never ages,” laughed Wen, 56, during a recent interview with Yahoo Entertainment.
It was Wen’s very first film, 1993’s groundbreaking family drama The Joy Luck Club, that ultimately lead her to Mulan, in which she would play the intrepid Chinese heroine who impersonates a man to take her aging father’s place in battle. “I have this sort of introductory [voiceover] monologue about the swan feather. So they were already keen on my voice,” Wen said of Disney.
The 1998 film, based on Chinese folklore, followed in the footsteps of Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas (1995) in diversifying Disney’s historically white stable of animated princesses. Wen is particularly proud of playing the first East Asian to join such company – not to mention the film’s largely Asian and Asian-American cast. The actress gives “a huge credit to the producers [who cast] Mulan. Back then, the whole idea of trying to cast the right ethnic actors for the right ethnic characters, I don't think it was in the back of most people's minds. So the fact that they really went out and looked for as many actors who were of Asian descent is as a real credit to them.”
The cast also included BD Wong (Captain Li Shang), Gedde Watanabe (Ling), Pat Morita (The Emperor of China) and George Takei (First Ancestor). But if “trivia” on the popular website IMDb is to be believed, there was once almost a white-washed version of the film, with Helen Hunt rumored to be considered for Mulan and Bruce Willis said to be originally cast as Li Shang.
“You know what, I wouldn’t be surprised,” Wen acknowledges. “I wouldn’t be surprised.” This is, of course, an industry in which an executive once suggested Julia Roberts play Harriet Tubman, not to mention its long history of whitewashing Asian roles.
Among Wen’s non-Asian costars was her most famous, Eddie Murphy, who voiced Mulan’s fast-talking, wise-cracking dragon sidekick Mushu.
“To this day I have not yet met Mushu, aka Eddie Murphy,” Wen revealed to us. “I have not, it’s really amazing.”
While it’s not surprising that Wen and Murphy didn’t record together – that’s pretty par for the course in animated filmmaking – it is indeed remarkable that the actors didn’t eventually meet doing press for the film, or at its red carpet premiere. “I don’t think he came to the premiere,” Wen explained before recounting how she did meet Wong as well as Donny Osmond (who provided Li Shang’s singing voice).
Wen also attended March’s premiere for Disney’s live-action remake of her film, which was originally slated to hit theaters at the end of the month before the nation went into coronavirus lockdown. (Mulan was eventually released on Disney+ in September, and gets the 4K UHD treatment this week).
“I was a huge fan of [the live action] Beauty and the Beast, and Maleficent, so I was excited that they wanted to do Mulan,” Wen says. “When I heard at first that they didn't want to put the music in it, I was a bit heartbroken. I was just like, ‘Aw, the music was so great.’ But then I understood that they wanted to have the film sort of stand on its own and be a different Mulan.” (Also noticeably absent in the reboot? Mulan’s pal Mushu.)
In what she calls “a wonderful Easter egg for the fans,” Wen cameos in the final minutes, playing the “Esteemed Guest” who presents a triumphant Mulan (Yifei Liu) to the emperor (Jet Li) in the Niki Caro-directed film.
Wen was originally going to appear earlier in the film, playing a potential mother-in-law that Mulan visits with the Matchmaker, but her shooting schedule on ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. made it impossible.
“And then I think Niki and [producer Jason T. Reed] came up with this fantastic idea of having me be in the final throne room scene with the emperor and sort of have me pass the baton to the new Mulan,” Wen says. “I actually thought that that was far better and boy did they do it in a grand style.”
In between shoot days while still filming S.H.I.E.L.D., Wen flew to New Zealand along with her daughter Michaela to capture the sequence. “It was quite an undertaking,” she says. “It was amazing. No one knew, only my producers, no one in the cast or crew of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. It was so secretive. I mean, I felt like I was Agent May on a mission. It was amazing.”
Both versions of Mulan release on 4K UHD on Tuesday. Buy them on Amazon.
Watch Niki Caro talk about filming the most expensive movie ever directed by a woman:
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