All too often, major American film studios fail to cast Asian actors in Asian roles in front of the camera, as we reported in an article on so-called Hollywood “whitewashing” last week. So it may come as no surprise that those studios tend to neglect the hiring of Asian directors for Asian stories behind the scenes as well. Such was the dissonant reality that social-media users protested on Friday, when several entertainment news outlets reported that Sony’s forthcoming live-action Mulan movie, based on the legendary woman warrior who posed as a man to join the Chinese army, would be helmed by a white man, television director Alex Graves.
Twitter wasn’t impressed with Graves, who has directed episodes of Game of Thrones, Shameless, and The West Wing: “Why does mulan have a white director? it’s a story about women breaking barriers, but that’s not reflected at all in the studio’s decisions,” one user asked on Tuesday. “Sony spent the bare minimum amount of time looking for an Asian filmmaker, huh? couldn’t even hire a woman,” another added. (For more backlash, reporter Alan Evans rounded up examples of fan backlash for the Guardian.)
The particular dismay over the Mulan adaptation is understandable, considering the news comes on the heels of a story in the Hollywood Reporter that claimed the studio was seeking an Asian director for the Chinese co-production (on Monday, Deadline reported that the film would feature a Chinese lead), and that Disney’s 1998 animated version was also infamously helmed by two white men. But backlash against casting and employment decisions for major Hollywood films featuring Asian characters is disturbingly quotidian on Twitter, 18 years later: In the past two years, fans have similarly protested the casting of white actors in Asian parts in The Ghost in the Shell, Doctor Strange, and Aloha, and the foregrounding of a white character in the Bruce Lee biopic The Birth of a Dragon.
The dearth of Asian actors in front of and behind the camera in mainstream American film-making is a perpetual issue for the film industry: According to a report this year from the University of Southern California’s Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative, none of the 800 top-grossing films from 2007 to 2015 featured an Asian lead; only 2.8 percent of directors were Asian and Asian American.
There may yet be hope for an Asian-directed Mulan: Disney is developing its own, competing live-action version, slated for release in 2018. As the Hollywood Reporter wrote earlier this month, the studio “is moving quickly to find a director, ideally Asian” (Taiwanese director Ang Lee has reportedly already turned down an offer). But in the case that nothing comes of those reports as well, check out our list of great Asian-fronted films for alternative viewing options—all feature lead Asian characters as well as Asian directors.