Jason Scott Lee has been part of Hollywood for a long time breaking many barriers than Asian Americans had sought for so long. In 1993, Lee played the iconic role of Bruce Lee in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, one of the only Bruce Lee biopics approved by the Lee Family. The following year, he went on to star in the first live-action Disney film, The Jungle Book, as Mowgli, marking the first time an Asian American took on a lead role in a Disney film.
Noted for playing the good guy in his films like The Jungle Book and Lilo & Stitch, Lee was ready to take on a different role — Disney villain. In the new Disney live-action film Mulan, Lee plays Bori Khan aka “Shan Yu” of the Rouran tribes. As the main antagonist to Yifei Liu’s Mulan, Bori Khan is determined to overpower the Emperor (Jet Li) and the people of China.
“Bori Khan has sort of a personal vengeance out for the Empire and started taking on a kind of revenge factor,” says Lee during the press set visit back in October 2018. “And, Mulan is sort of an issue that springs up in his plans to take back to the land and the culture of the Rourans.”
Due to censorship from China and current political dynamics, a lot of changes were made regarding the warring tribes fighting against China. In the 1998 animated version of the film, Mulan and the Chinese army fought against the Huns/Mongols, but were changed to the Rouran tribes for this film.
Lee agreed those changes had to be made because it doesn’t reflect current culture, “I think you have to play it very carefully and this is a very sensitive issue about like, the history and who goes where and who ended up where. So I think being kind of generally selective with that name is historically accurate. And, I think for them, it’s a safe space to be.”
Of course, Lee also faced some challenges from censorship issues on Bori Khan’s motivation behind his attack. The Chinese government aren’t fans of any negative feedback from films regarding the Chinese people, so a lot of Lee’s intentions for Bori Khan were pushed out.
“So, yeah, so the way I’m approaching it is that much like in a colonialism that is pushed out native or indigenous cultures, Bori Khan’s fight is to regain and recompose his culture of the Rouran connait,” Lee shares. “And it’s to reestablish their power structure.”
Not wanting his character to be one-dimensional, Lee wanted it to be known that Bori Khan isn’t just on a path of destruction to be evil. There are reasons for his character’s drive in defeating the Emperor.
Lee reveals, “Yeah, it wasn’t explained in the screenplay itself. And, I think that’s something that we also talked about coming into the project. And I shared my take with it with, you know, the director and I think she said, ‘Well, that’s a good, you know, perspective, that the culture the Rourans have been overrun by the Chinese.’ And, like we said earlier about them being somewhat more of an indigenous factor and having their culture being run over and almost, you know, minimized. So, I think with Bori Khan coming into his strength and his power, he feels that it’s his duty, his responsibility to regain that pride and that stature of a once great nation of the Rouran people.”
Lee understands from the look of his character and the animated version that the audiences will automatically see him as the villain because he is ruthless and cruel to a certain degree, but he wants to let the audience be aware that he doesn’t see himself as the villain. He actually compares himself to Mulan in that he’s fighting for his family and tribe.
“I’m just trying to make peace and create, you know, a wonderful world for my future generations,” says Lee. “So, you know, I don’t know how you’re gonna see it but we do appear to be you know, all in black and kind of this ominous, you know, power and force to be reckoned with. And then there’s a beautiful tapestry and coloration of Mulan and the Emperor and their culture of the Chinese culture and so much of it is very pleasant.”
Fortunately for Lee, he won’t be the only antagonist in the film. Lee is joined by Gong Li, who plays sorceress Xian Lang, the right-hand woman of Bori Khan. Bori Khan asks Xian Lang for her help to create a stronger strategy against the Emperor.
“We’re kind of on [an] equal partnership,” Lee interjected when asked who the bigger villain was. “Equal terms.”
Lee also shared that Xian Lang is a shape-shifter and you’ll see her transform into the villain’s iconic falcon, but he wants us to know that Xian Lang is still her own boss. “I think there was a lot of creative things that Li wanted to add. I think that she wanted to not play sort of this victimized type of sorceress. And, I think in that sense she wanted to make it more masculine so that she could show that she will have a prominent warrior spirit, rather than sort of that wispy, willowy, Enchantress kind of character. I think that they started steering the witch’s character that way. I think Mulan and Xian Long, the witch, do have quite a number of scenes where they work out their differences [and] coming from two different worlds but trying to understand each other as well. So, I think the gender thing, I think, maybe keeps them in a way equivalent of the female warrior spirit.”
Although Lee doesn’t see himself as the bad guy, he does see the change in his roles from his first start with Disney to now.
“Yeah, I guess when you get older they make you the bad guy,” Lee laughs. “Whether it’s being grouchy and old. No, I think you know it’s funny playing more lighthearted characters and then more sort of leading heroes back in the ’90s and then I find it more rewarding though in a way to play the opposites. You know, going into my 50s. It’s like, it’s kind of cool. I like it.”
Disney’s Mulan opens in theaters on March 27. Tickets are available now.