After an entire year of searching across continents and reviewing more than 1,000 auditions, Disney finally announced its choice for the title role of Mulan in its 2019 live-action remake of the 1998 cartoon film: 30-year-old Liu Yifei, aka Crystal Liu. The first reaction on Twitter was a sigh of relief that Disney would wisely avoid whitewashing the film by choosing a half-Asian actress. Even better: Disney was also embracing the powerhouse of Chinese cinema by choosing an actress who is as big in Asian entertainment as Harry Potter/Beauty and the Beast-vet Emma Watson is in Western entertainment. Casting Yifei is also a savvy move to capture Chinese mainland audiences who already know her as a household name, since the Chinese box office is expected to become the largest in the world by 2020.
Like Watson, Liu has a Disney-friendly image and posh background: her father was a diplomat in the Chinese embassy in France and a French language professor, and her mother was a professional dancer. Her godfather is Chen Jinfei of Tongchan Investment Group, ranked 368 on the Forbes 400 Richest Chinese list with an estimated net worth of 62 million USD. She lived in New York City during her middle school years, where she picked up fluency in English. In 2006, she graduated from Beijing Film Academy, the most prestigious and largest higher education institution dedicated to film production in China.
Both actresses are known for their pristine, clean-cut images, buttressed by plush endorsement deals. Watson has been a face of Burberry and Lancôme, and she wore a Dior Spring 2017 gown to accept the British Harper’s Bazaar Woman of the Year award. Liu has been an ambassador for fancy consumer brands like Dior Prestige skincare, Tissot, Garnier, and Pantene. Liu has 53 million followers on Weibo—and does not shy away from the selfies. Watson has half that amount of Twitter followers, but she’s also social media savvy by hosting her book club on Goodreads and creating a second Instagram account to document her press tour outfits. (It’s very smart: give the people what they want, which is to know exactly what she is wearing.)
Liu has also proven her chops in international films: she acted in English in the 2008 film The Forbidden Palace (her first Hollywood production) and in the 2014 film Outcast alongside Nicholas Cage and Hayden Christiansen. She also starred in the 2016 Chinese-French film, Night Peacock, directed by Chinese-French director Dai Sijie, for which she was nominated Best Actress at the Montreal World Film Festival. She met her South Korean boyfriend, Song Seung Hun, on set of the 2015 Chinese-South Korean film, The Third Way of Love. Recently, she starred in the 2017 Chinese film, Once Upon a Time, directed by co-House of Flying Dagger’s Academy Award nominee Zhao Xiaoding, which grossed $82.3 million USD in China. But these films have received mixed, even negative reviews—which is why instead of pleasing Chinese audiences with this casting choice, Disney actually angered some of them who derided her acting range and box office record. “Ms. Liu looks pretty, but she is afraid of being ugly, and she doesn’t dare to make facial expressions,” writer Jing Yong once said when Liu was cast in a film adaption of one of his novels.
But being a Disney franchise actress isn’t about being the best actress—Watson has received similar criticism for her acting and box office record (with Harry Potter as an exception), and her best accolades mostly come from her advocacy work. It’s about being an aspirational figure, someone who lives like a fairy tale in real life and while also projecting that image on screen. And the epic heroine of Mulan, for young Chinese women and girls around the world, is the perfect emblem of that struggle and tension: pressure to make our family proud and not “lose face,” ambition to pursue our own dreams, ambivalence about traditional values of femininity. And Liu, aptly known as “Fairy Sister” in China for her delicate and clean-cut image, is probably feeling the unprecedented pressure of bringing honor to us all.
I mean, it could have been me fighting the Huns, but instead I’m sitting at my desk writing this story. In November 2016, a Disney casting director in California asked me for the part. “For what role?” my friends asked me when I told them. “An extra? Mulan’s girl squad?” Uh, for the title role of Mulan, I told them, watching them spit out their drinks in response. See, I’m not an actress, but because Disney was so determined to find a young woman of Chinese ethnicity who spoke both English and Mandarin to play Mulan, they auditioned any petite, bilingual Chinese American woman in her 20s with long hair and some choreography experience (aka me). I did a monologue in Chinese front of a room of only white people who probably had no idea what I was saying. And, as it turned out, Disney realized this, too, and it had to go back to China—the homeland—for the perfect actress. It was the right choice; I don’t have an endorsement from Dior, after all.