tzi ma mulan interview

Tzi Ma has become the go-to dad in countless Asian-led movies. From The Farewell to Tigertail, culminating in this year’s highly anticipated Disney remake of Mulan, there’s a warmth and world-weariness that the Hong Kong-born actor brings to films that are beginning to evolve audiences’ understanding and exposure to Asian-American culture. But despite that, Ma is not a dad himself, though he assures that as an uncle of many nieces and nephews, he’s changed many a diaper.

“I have been able to do surround myself with children growing up. So, I feel that I have a connection to them,” Ma told /Film in an interview over Zoom.

But it’s not just changing diapers that makes Ma feel qualified play Asian-America’s Dad in so many recent movies, leading up to his playing Mulan’s father in Niki Caro’s live-action Mulan. It’s a responsibility to try to bring depth to what many could see as a stereotypical role. Tiger dads, uptight traditional dads — Ma wants to shed those stereotypes of Asian fathers, for both western audiences and those Asian dads who see themselves onscreen in him.

“I still feel that today there is not enough examples of all these different Asian dads,” Ma said. “And this is not just for the audience at large, it’s really for ourselves too because I want our Asian dads or Asian American dads to hold a mirror to themselves, and say, ‘Okay is this the kind of dad I am? Is this the kind of that I want to be? Are there some changes that I could do to better myself, to really pass on this legacy from one generation to another?'”

Ma brings that warmth and complexity to Hua Zhou, the war veteran father to Liu Yifei‘s Hua Mulan in Disney’s recently released Mulan (out today on Disney+).

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You’ve played such a pivotal part in Asian American representation in Hollywood over the past few decades. So what was your reaction when you’re a cast be part of a remake of an animated movie that was so important to a whole generation of Asian American kids?

It’s beyond expectation really. I think, what, what the world [doesn’t] know is that this is not only a powerful folk story from the culture of China. It is also an iconic character in Asian American culture. When a Maxine Hong Kingston wrote The Woman Warrior, that chapter about Mulan really gave is the little Asian American girl that hero to follow. And then on top of that was David Henry Hwang writing his first play with the character of Mulan and Gwan Gung in the same space really created this kind of blueprint of things to come. And I think we are forever indebted to these writers. It’s so great.

So it seems like you’ve done much more research into the history of Mulan than I’m sure plenty of people have. So when you were taking on the role of Mulan’s father, did you draw from not just the animated movie but all past texts and information about the character of Mulan and the myth, and the ballad itself?

The ballad itself, yes. But I didn’t want to do too much because I wanted to understand the period, as opposed to understand the reincarnations of this particular ballad story. And there were many, as you know, there were plays and operas. It’s everywhere And I didn’t want that to intrude. I really wanted to keep it pure, I really wanted to keep it in this time that Mulan existed, the family existed. And obviously we use some poetic license in terms of how to show that journey of Mulan. And I think these are the right choices, because it allows that journey to be longer, so that she can continue to discover herself, and to continue to overcome obstacles, as she travels around the world to legendary fame. So, I think these are very important artistic decisions that we’ve made for the film. And I think it’s really represented as well.

So you’ve become the go to father and made many Asian-led films, despite not being a father yourself. But what do you think it is about you as an actor that many people such as directors, casting directors, think of you when casting an Asian father?

I don’t know, I mean I can’t read their minds! You know what, I just try to bring the sense of truth to the character. I come from a big family. I have a lot of nieces and nephews, I changed many a diaper, trust me. I remind my nieces every day and I say, “Listen, I changed your diapers. You listen to Uncle Tzi.” So, in that sense, I don’t feel foreign. I have been able to do surround myself with children growing up. So, I feel that I have a connection to them. I often feel that they have a connection to me. So, that I try to bring to every role, you know, as an Asian dad or as an Asian-American dad. Because I still feel that today there is not enough examples of all these different Asian dads. And this is not just for the audience at large, it’s really for ourselves too because I want our Asian dads or Asian American dads to hold a mirror to themselves, and say, “Okay is this the kind of dad I am? Is this the kind of that I want to be? Are there some changes that I could do to better myself, to really pass on this legacy from one generation to another?” And these are all our responsibilities. And if I could shed some light, some little, little light, I’d be honored to do it.

So you spoke a little bit before about how the story of Mulan is not just important to Chinese people and how it’s a legend and a folk story there, but also to Asian American audiences and the part that the character has played as an icon for many young Asian American women. How do you think that this film, in particular, is able to balance appealing to both the Asian diaspora, and the Chinese audiences?

It’s a Disney movie! Come on, it has a global brand. It’s a global brand. Everybody knows this We couldn’t find a better logo to present Mulan to the world. And it crosses over from all the friends who have had the opportunity to participate the premiere back in March. They identify with the film, they identify with the characters, they know that a lot more about this film that tells them that we are more similar than we think we are. So I think it has a wide appeal. Obviously it resonates with us even stronger as an Asian-American community as a member of this world. I think everyone will have the opportunity to examine this film and say, “Okay, what part of this speaks to me? And if it does, how does this speak to me? And what do I get out of it?” and I think it really creates conversation. I think in this day and age, that’s what we need, we need conversation.

It’s been a long road to Mulan‘s release as you said before. It premiered in March but the release plans are put aside because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Why do you think that Mulan‘s release is important for this current climate, with the rising tensions with Chinese and Chinese American people and racism against them, particularly in the U.S.?

Well, I think this film is entertaining, first of all. So, that’s half the battle that you’re opening the door for people to listen. When something that’s like preachy, it’s something that people go, “I really don’t want to hear that,” then you don’t have a chance. You don’t have a chance. Right now, this film because of its entertainment value, it opens a lot of doors, it welcomes you in, and then subliminally people take up any of these lessons. That’s all I can ask for really. It is a film that we’re really, really proud of presenting. And to give birth to this film to the world, it’s long overdue. Come on March 27, July 21, August 24! Yeah. Let’s see it. Welcome Mulan into your home.

And I think it’s really important in the sense that you are able to be responsible that you’re able to view this with your family in the safety of your own home. Yes I am disappointed it’s not on the big screen, but in the big screen you can’t talk. But at home, hope you can see it once, you can see it again see once, have some popcorn, and see it again and make it a teaching moment. A moment where you can talk to your family about what we are seeing, and how does it impact you. And you know all the parents got their hands full with Zoom lesson, remote learning. So this is a remote learning. That could be big.

How would you address fans of the animated movie, who are worried about some of the changes that the remake makes?

Don’t worry, you’re gonna love it! And really, I tell you, I love all the characters individually, and we pay serious homage to the animated movie. And I know most of the people who worked on the animation And I appreciate all their wonderful work. I’m just jealous that I didn’t get a chance to do it with them! But now I get to do this, so I hope that every fan of the original animated movie will see all the wonderful back-and-forth mirroring of this particular film. And they’re going understand the changes, and they will welcome it.

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