All eyes are already on Walt Disney’s live-action remake of its 1998 animated favorite Mulan due to its reported $200 million price tag and global release plan at a time when coronavirus concerns have led some high-profile blockbusters to switch release dates. Now there’s another piece of news that has fans concerned: the new adaptation will omit a popular character from the original film, Li Shang, voiced by B.D. Wong. In the 1998 version, Shang captained the army that the titular female warrior (Ming-Na Wen) joins under the guise of being a male recruit named Ping. Like Shang’s signature song goes, he somehow makes men out of his soldiers-in-training and, in the process, finds himself drawn to Ping in particular. By the end of the movie, romance has blossomed between the captain and his best fighter, whose real identity is exposed before the climactic battle.
It’s that kind of questionable power dynamic between a superior and a subordinate that the creative team — including director Niki Caro — behind the 2020 version wanted to avoid in their telling of the ancient Chinese legend that serves as Mulan’s source material. Speaking with the website Collider and other journalists as part of a set visit, producer Jason Reed said that Shang’s burgeoning romance with Mulan (played by Liu Yifei) didn’t make sense in the #MeToo era. “I think particularly in the time of the #MeToo movement, having a commanding officer that is also the sexual love interest was very uncomfortable and we didn’t think it was appropriate,” Reed remarked. “In a lot of ways that it was sort of justifying behavior of we’re doing everything we can to get out of our industry.”
For the new film, Shang’s role has been divided between two new characters: Commander Tung, played by Hong Kong movie legend Donnie Yen, and Chen Honghui, played by Yoson An. In this version of events, Mulan disguises herself as Hua Jun in order to join the Imperial Army in her ailing father’s place. Tung is her commanding officer and takes the recruit under his wing in a paternal way. “[He] serves as her surrogate father and mentor in the course of the movie,” Reed told Collider.
Honghui, meanwhile, is another fresh-faced recruit who is as skilled a fighter as Jun, and the two equals find themselves bonding pretty intensely. “There’s no power dynamic between them but there is the same dynamic in the original movie that was with Li Shang which is, ‘Hey, I really respect you and why do I like this dude so much? And what does this say about me?’” Reed said. “We have that same dynamic and in this movie, I actually think it plays in a more sophisticated way.”
The producer also promised that Shang’s importance to LGBTQ viewers has been preserved in the dynamic between Hua Jun and Chen Honghui. “It’ll play the same way as it does in the animated film,” Reed said, suggesting that Honghui’s romantic feelings for Jun will start to flower before he learns his fellow soldier’s real identity. Yoson was even more direct: when asked by journalists if he was ready to become a bisexual icon, the actor said: “Yes, I am.”
While the decision to eliminate Shang may have been made with contemporary issues like #MeToo in min, the Twitter reaction has largely been negative, with many fans feeling that the filmmakers fundamentally misunderstood the character.
Others are upset that Shang joins an increasingly long list of elements that haven’t made the jump from animation to live action, including Eddie Murphy’s wisecracking dragon, Mushu, and all of the original songs.
Despite the challenges and controversies facing the film before its March 27 release date, early estimates have Mulan on track to earn $85 million during its opening weekend in the U.S. alone. Given Disney’s successful track record with animated-to-live action remakes so far, you shouldn’t at all shocked when they make a box-office hit out of Mulan.
Mulan opens in theaters on March 27.
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