Reflections of a kung fu documentarian

Mimi Chan

Mimi Chan

While at MomoCon, we were able to catch up with Mimi Chan, the face and fighter behind Mulan who has recently released her first documentary – Pui Chan: Kung Fu Pioneer.

Brian: Mimi, you’re probably best known in this circle for Mulan.  Tell us how you became involved with Mulan.

Mimi: I’m in Orlando, Florida, and my school actually did the grand opening for Epcot China Pavilion in 1982, so we’ve been affiliated with Disney for quite some time.  We’ve done stage shows out there, we do a lot of work with the theme parks on special events as well as sometimes we do their holidays around the world, we do the dragon and the lion dances.  So we have a very close working relationship with Disney.  And in particular when they were working on Mulan, they had the animation department kind of submerged in the Chinese culture, so they had Chinese food brought out to them.  They brought us out to do a tai chi seminar to relax the animators and to keep them submerged in the Chinese culture – they wanted everything to be very authentic.  So they go kind of the extra mile with their animation department.  In addition, it was the first production that was going to primarily be done in Florida, since most of them are done in the Hollywood Studios, so it was a really exciting time for them.  At the time I went to help with the tai chi seminar, Mark Henn was still looking for his face of Mulan.  I went out to do tai chi, and one of the casting department women saw me and she was talking to me and she says “How old are you?” and at that time I was kind of the age of Mulan.  It was interesting because I did kung fu and her father did kung fu, my father does kung fu.  She said “I think you really need to meet Mark” so I went to meet Mark Henn, who is the lead animator for Mulan.  He also did Belle and Jasmine – he’s incredible.  So that was already an honor to meet him, and it was kind of funny – I went in and his whole room just had photos and footage of Asian women’s faces because he was trying to find his face of Mulan.  He said he went to China, filmed around the world, and I was talking to him just to meet him, just to say hello, and he was really looking at me and I think everything kind of fell together.  Maybe because I was standing in front of him, maybe because I did kung fu, maybe because I was the same age.  But he just really liked my image, my likeness, and decided that we would move forward with being his inspiration for the character.  From there, my cousin who did Chang, George Kee, and I together would go in and do two different things – we would do basic animation modeling where we would do poses and the animators would just practice drawing.  We’d strike different kinds of kung fu poses so they could get used to that.  Because, you know, they can do people walking – they do that every time.  But the martial arts and different movements – they wanted to get inspiration.  They also did live action video.  So we did video referencing where I would do it as a live-action film, and then they would use that as reference.  We did not do any sensory.  Disney is very specific to make sure everyone knows that.  Because this was one of the last traditional animation projects they did. I ended up working with their choreographer, but he said “You’re the Chinese martial arts expert”, so I pretty much choreographed my own fight scenes as well.  It was a great opportunity.  We were excited when we heard they were going to do Mulan because of course it’s a famous Chinese folktale.  My father was ecstatic – he was pulling out all his old books where he has literature on Hua Mulan, and we have paintings on it.  There’s a cultural center next to our temple and we have artwork of the old Mulan, the original interpretation of the ballad, and then we have my movie poster right next to it.  It’s like the old meeting the new, and it’s really really special.  I couldn’t be more honored to be identified with such a great character – she’s not a damsel in distress. She is going out and doing the honorable thing, and she’s strong.  And of course, then there’s the kung fu.

Brian: You and your family are practitioners of the northern style of kung fu as opposed to the southern style.  Can you explain the difference, and what that means?

Mimi: There’s a general difference.  It’s so involved – it’s like saying “Tell me the difference between Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Russian”.  It’s like the languages.  That’s the analogy I usually use, because they can understand language.  With kung fu, we divide between north and south – that’s the first dividing line.  The basic difference is the northern styles tend to use more leg work, it’s a 70% to 30% hand radio – we do a lot of high kicks, we do a lot of stance work, we do a lot of movement.  Whereas the southern styles are usually really rooted, strong in one stance.  They don’t do a lot of high acrobatic movement – they do a lot of hand work. That’s the basic difference.  And then you can get into the dialects – there’s animal styles, different regions where a lot of it has been passed down through family lineage so it’s indicative to where their location is – the mountains will use more legwork for example.  It’s a lot by region, but that’s a real basic description.

Brian: You’re an actor, producer, director and writer.  That’s a lot of hats.

Mimi: Yes, that’s a lot of hats.  I would say the first hat would be kung fu practitioner and teacher, so that’s my primary lifestyle of who I am.  That has enabled me to do many many other things.  I love art forms, I gravitated after Mulan to doing some stunt work in Los Angeles, I did some acting in LA, and I was fortunate to be on a pretty good path to pursuing that career, however I just…who I am since I’ve been three years old is a martial artist – that’s my discipline.  I really missed my temple in Orlando, and it’s just a very different world in Hollywood.  It’s an entertainment world, and I absolutely loved it, I loved the work I was doing, I loved the work I was potentially going to be doing, but ultimately it’s hard to be in two places at once.  So I chose to return to Florida and keep my roots there.  But then the bug kinda gets you because you want to create, you want to do something other than what you normally do on a day-to-day basis – it’s enriching and rewarding, but I thought “I’ve always wanted to do a documentary on my father” so I decided I would direct my own film.  I was collecting footage for over ten years as it was, because I’m just a documentarian anyways.  He is such a staple in history of Chinese martial arts.  He is a huge figure, and everyone around the world who is really into martial arts knows him, and people come from around the world to our temple, so I thought “This is something special and I want to make sure I document it for posterity.”  So I was collecting footage anyway and I just made the leap and I decided I’m going to direct my own film because it’s my own personal story and I didn’t want to hand it off to someone else.  I have a lot of great friends and a lot of colleagues that are excellent directors, but I felt this was so personal to me I wanted to direct it myself. My friends convinced me that it was my personal story, so I had to narrate it as well.  I have an acting background, but I was hesitant at first.  It did lend to making the story a lot more personal and meaningful.  It played really well – we won tons of awards and film festivals.  We were very fortunate.  It was my first film and I was very pleased with the way it came out. I’m also doing a theatrical production in October in Orlando called Journey to the West.  It’s a martial arts theatrical production.

Brian: We usually close with this question, and no pressure.  Everybody geeks out about something that has nothing to do with their job – it’s their passion outside of their normal life.  What’s your geek?

Mimi: That’s a hard question because my life has so many paths, and I don’t know which one I consider my primary path.  My life is my kung fu.  But then I also enjoy the film stuff.  I also love reading comic books and watching anime.  I read a lot of comic books – my husband is actually a big comic book fan, and he’s dragged me in.  I think my geek fans would enjoy “Y the Last Man” is my favorite comic book of all time.   I’ve read Planetary, Irredeemable, Ex Machina, 100 Bullets – I’m told I like “underground comics”.  My husband would be so proud!

Brian: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us!

You can view the trailer for Mimi’s film, Pui Chan: Kung Fu Pioneer below, and you can watch the entire film on Hulu!

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