With a black belt in karate and skilled in kick boxing, ninjutsu, power lifting and Olympic weightlifting, Yoson An’s martial arts background stands him in good stead playing the romantic interest of Hua Mulan in Disney’s upcoming live-action remake of Mulan .
An, who also does kayaking and rock climbing, says his sports background helps with his grasp of the fight choreography in the movie.
“I actually did most of my stunts in this film, except for the really dangerous stuff which I leave to the professionals,” he tells the South China Morning Post .
With most of the shooting done on New Zealand’s South Island, where he lives, the 28-year-old says he was one of the first actors on the film to start training for it.
“The production was based 30 minutes away from my house. There was a lot of vigorous training involved. For [around five months], I had to train three to four hours a day with stuntmen and martial artists.
For five days a week, I needed to do [extra] high-intensity interval training to maintain my physique throughout the shoot. I also did a lot of horse-riding and archery. I had never ridden a horse before this production.”
Born in the city of Zhuhai, in southern China, An studied at an international school in Macau before moving to Auckland when he was seven years old. His movie career grew from pursuing musical theatre as a hobby when he was in high school.
“I didn’t think [I would become an actor] when I was a kid. But that musical theatre hobby eventually turned into a passion,” says An, who speaks fluent Cantonese, Mandarin and English
“I did four years of acting classes with my coach, [American actor] Michael Saccente. I was lucky enough to have various exciting projects come my way leading up to Mulan .”
After bit parts in films including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (2016), Mortal Engines and The Meg (both 2018), he secured his first breakout role in Australian police drama Dead Lucky .
He played the male lead Charlie Fung in the four-part television series, a trainee detective who blames his partner, played by Rachel Griffiths, for the death of his best friend.
The biggest role so far in his career is unquestionably Mulan ’s Chen Honghui, a fierce warrior who joins the corps of Commander Tung (Donnie Yen Ji Dan ).
Tung is also the mentor of Hua Mulan (Liu Yifei ), who disguises herself as a man to spare her elderly father from having to join the military. Chen then becomes Mulan’s most important ally and, eventually, love interest.
An says it took two years for him to land the role. “My first self-taped audition was [sent over to Disney] in 2016. I didn’t hear anything back for three months, so I thought I didn’t get the role and moved onto the next project.
But a year later, my agent [told me] Disney wanted to see me again for the role. Within five days, I had to learn these new scenes to do a Skype audition.
“A week later I was flown to LA from New Zealand to meet with Niki [Caro, the film’s director] for an in-person audition. I had a great time on that short trip as I saw it as a free vacation to LA. I didn’t hear anything again from Disney for another nine months after that. So the casting process was close to two years.”
A fan of traditional Chinese stories, An says his interest in ancient Chinese culture helped him master the role of Chen. “My mum recited the [original Ballad of Mulan] poem [composed around AD400] to me a few times [when I was growing up]; Disney’s live-action Mulan version closely aligns to the poem.
“Also, one of my favourite TV series was the 1996 Hong Kong [TVB] version of Journey to the West [based on a 16th-century Chinese novel], starring Dicky Cheung Wai Kin.”
An has enjoyed working closely with Liu on Mulan . “I grew up watching The Forbidden Kingdom when I was 15 years old,” he says of the 2008 Hollywood film starring Liu.
“We had a lot of fun hanging out together as a group. She’s probably one of the most humble and focused actors I know. That aspect of hers has inspired me to be even more diligent and dive deeper into my craft.”
Besides Liu, working alongside superstars such as Yen, Gong Li (who plays a powerful witch in the film) and Jet Li Lianjie (playing the emperor of China) was a surreal experience for An.
“I grew up watching all their movies. I had a lot of respect for them. All three of them are incredibly nice people.
''Whilst we were shooting in the South Island, I lived with Donnie for over a month under the same roof. We had dinner every night and played pool together, so we got to know each other pretty well both on and off the set.”
With a production budget of US$200 million (S$270 million), Mulan distinguishes itself from most other Hollywood productions with its all-Asian cast.
An says the increasing representation of Asians following the success of Crazy Rich Asians (2018) and The Farewell (2019) in the United States is an important industry change.
“It distorts the perception of who the Asian community are,” says An of Hollywood’s past practice of typecasting Asian actors in nerdy academic roles. “It’s very irresponsible for filmmakers to portray communities of any kind in a false light. It also creates an illusion of separation in the world.
“In this age, we need more love, acceptance and compassion. I believe authentic storytelling can be a medium to bring these values to [the audience].”
Mulan will be released on Disney+ on Sept 4 in select countries, before opening in Hong Kong cinemas on Sept 17.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.