When Chinese-American actress Liu Yifei beat nearly 1,000 contestants to snag the eponymous role in Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan in 2017, she became one of the most bankable Chinese names in showbiz overnight.
With a budget of US$200 million (S$271 million), hopes were high, especially in China, that the Hollywood blockbuster – and Liu – would fully flesh out this legendary character in Chinese culture. Sadly, no one is holding their breath any more.
The movie, which also stars Gong Li and Donnie Yen Ji-dan , was criticised on many fronts – from its generally poor handling of Chinese culture to choosing Xinjiang as one of the film’s locations, where widespread rights abuses against the region’s Muslim population have been reported.
Liu is not spared either, as her turn has the heroine has been described by critics as formulaic and wooden.
This is a shame, given Mulan is a much-loved character. A long list of actresses have played the role in TV series and films over the years to critical acclaim. Here are five memorable performances worth revisiting.
1. Vicky Zhao Wei in Mulan (2009)
The negative reviews for the latest version of Mulan have prompted internet users in China to re-watch Mulan, a 2009 live-action remake directed by Jingle Ma Cho-shing.
Ten years after palace intrigue period drama Princess Pearl made her a superstar, Zhao Wei played Mulan. While Liu’s Mulan fights for her family and country, Zhao’s Mulan fights for the man she loves.
The Mulan portrayed by Zhao is prone to crying, and she wells up when facing separation or reunions with loved ones. But she also displays maturity and composure in the face of adversity.
Zhao was praised for showing Mulan’s mental struggle in fighting as a man in disguise. She won the best actress award for her performance in The Hundred Flowers Awards, the Chinese equivalent of American Golden Globes.
2. Anita Yuen in Hua Mulan (1999)Anita Yuen played the lead role in Hua Mulan (1999). PHOTO: Forum.huaren.us
Yuen’s lively personality lends itself well to the role in this 48-part Taiwan-made TV series, where she fights alongside her love interest and lead general, played by Chiu Man-cheuk.
In her role as Mulan, she shows masculinity when clad in armour but exudes soft femininity too, a trait that was loved by Chinese audiences.
3. Mariane Chan in A Tough Side of a Lady (1998)Mariane Chan played the eponymous character in a Tough Side of A Lady (1998). PHOTO: Spcnet.tv
In a departure from the usual solemn treatment of Mulan as someone who sees filial piety and obligation to her country as noble aspirations, this 20-part TVB series is a comedy.
Chan, whose performances in other TVB works including Witness to a Prosecution (1999) and Love Is Beautiful (2002) also got good reviews, plays a Mulan who is forthright, bold, caring and hilarious.
4. Elanne Kong in Mu Lan (2013)Elanne Kong in a still from the 40-part Chinese TV series Mu Lan (2013). PHOTO: Spcnet.tv
Kong’s Mulan is a rebellious girl who likes to tease her fiancée in this 40-part Chinese TV series.
The performance of the then-budding Hong Kong actress was called a breakthrough by critics. They believed she convincingly showed how Mulan transforms from an innocent girl into a masculine heroine after her conscription.
5. Cynthia Khan in Mulan (1996)Cynthia Khan was the star of China-Taiwan co-production Mulan (1996). PHOTO: Zimbio
Khan is an action star who is well versed in martial arts. She handled many of the action scenes in this 40-part China-Taiwan co-production for TV without the use of a body double.
She was severely hurt in a five-metre fall during shooting when a wire suspending her broke mid-air. Her version of Mulan is also widely recognised by Chinese audiences.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.