Earlier this month, fans were treated to the first peek at Disney’s live-action Mulan.
The film, directed by Niki Caro, stars Chinese actress Yifei Liu as the titular heroine, a young woman who disguises herself as a man in order to take her father’s place when he’s drafted by the army. For the millennials among us, who grew up reciting the 1998 animated classic’s soundtrack — spoiler, it still slaps — and looked to Mulan as one of the few feminist icons on screen at the time, the idea of reworking the story of such a beloved character naturally warrants concern, and news that Caro had decided to omit a major character from her remake didn’t put us at ease.
(And no, we’re not talking about Mushu.)
Deciding there’s no place for a CGI-rendered, wisecracking dragon in your Wuxia-driven film is probably a good call. After all, Caro intends for this version of Mulan’s story to stay true to its roots, folklore that’s been integral to Chinese culture for hundreds of years. It’s why it also makes sense that, unlike other live-action remakes, we won’t be hearing modernized renditions of bangers like “Honor to Us All,” “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” or the angst-filled teenage ballad “Reflection.” It’s unlikely anyone could improve on those hits anyway, and we’ve all belted out the Christina Aguilera version enough times to know that in our bones.
What was troubling, and still is, is the film’s decision to remove the character Li Shang from the narrative.
In the animated version, Shang was a captain tasked with whipping a crop of new recruits into shape. Mulan, posing as a young man named Ping, was one of those recruits. Shang pushed Mulan to become a better soldier while seemingly forming a friendship with Ping that fans believe suggested the character was actually bisexual. It was 1998, it was Disney, and it was an animated film for children, so there was no confirmation of this, but the two eventually began a romantic relationship once Mulan’s identity was discovered. In Caro’s remake, Shang will be replaced by Commander Tung, a more seasoned veteran played by Donnie Yen. This is good news for action fans, since Yen is a master at martial arts and no stranger to kicking a** on screen, but it’s disappointing for those of us hoping Disney might make good on its promise of representation by giving us a bisexual hero to worship.
Instead, Mulan’s love interest is a fellow recruit named Cheng Honghui (played by New Zealand newcomer Yoson An), who has an intense rivalry with Mulan — still disguised as a man but already trained in warfare — that evolves into a romantic relationship once Mulan identifies as female.
So, does that mean we’re not getting any nods to the character’s obvious queer undertones in this live-action adaptation? Maybe not.
After all, while the characters’ names may differ, the descriptions of Shang and Honghui feel similar, at least in how they interact with Mulan in the story. In fact, one could argue that Honghui might more definitively present as bisexual. He’s a rival, of the same age and standing as Mulan, and their intense competitive natures will walk that fine line between love and hate. A closer companionship could be in store for the two, as they come from similar backgrounds and occupy the same station in the army. That’s a change from Shang, who was elevated to a position of authority because of his lineage, and whose relationship with Ping might’ve played into problematic tropes of power in a live-action remake. After all, Mulan’s adoration of Shang came because he was so skilled in combat, so fearless on the front lines, so adept at leading men and commanding their respect. There was a power imbalance between the two that wasn’t leveled until the final act, when Mulan saved the Emperor and finally “proved her worth” to the men around her.
Shang had to do his duty by kicking Mulan out of the army. His reaction to her gender reveal was always going to be clouded by his station and the expectations of it. Perhaps, by making a character like Honghui — another soldier in the trenches who has nothing to prove or lose in his acceptance of Mulan as a woman who can fight — the main love interest, the film might better explore not only bisexuality but romances between genderqueer characters who are sexually fluid.
Of course, there’s another solution to Disney’s erasure of bisexuality in this remake, and it might be one Caro could convincingly weave into the story while also paying homage to the character’s rich literary history.
While the “Ballad of Mulan” is the original folklore that spawned the animated classic, the figure of Mulan has appeared in many tales over the centuries. In one, the “Sui Tang Romance,” Mulan once again disguises herself as a man to serve in the army in her father’s stead. She meets Xianniang, a female warrior and the daughter of the king, and the two quickly bond over their shared experiences, becoming laotong, or “bonded sisters.”
There are a couple of reasons why this story feels as important as the “Ballad of Mulan” when it comes to Caro’s version. First, we already know that Mulan will have a sister played by Xana Tang. In the “Ballad of Mulan,” our heroine only has one younger brother. In the “Sui Tang Romance” she has sisters and a baby son.
Second, the idea of incorporating laotong into Mulan’s storyline feels like not only an empowering move for an already feminist story but a chance for Disney to explore the sexuality of another icon in a unique way. In Chinese culture, laotong bonds were between women and were for life. They were almost like marriage contracts between female friends and marked one of the deepest, most important relationships a woman could have. Seeing Mulan go from a woman with a son and (presumably) hetero tendencies to a female warrior embarking on a relationship with another kick-a** female character would be a worthwhile switch-up on the traditional story. (We’re also not against seeing a love triangle among Mulan, Honghui, and another female character.)
The final piece of the puzzle comes with the news that Chinese actress Gong Li has been cast as a powerful witch and the story’s main villain. This is an entirely new character that doesn’t appear in the traditional versions of Mulan’s story, meaning Caro has yet another opportunity to explore her heroine’s identity in a way that feels fresh and exciting.
So many Disney remakes have followed in the footsteps of their originals, which feeds our collective nostalgia but doesn’t push these stories to new heights or really offer anything of substance to younger generations just viewing them for the first time. When I watched Mulan as a young girl, the idea of a woman fighting alongside men and standing up to those in power to eschew gender norms felt revolutionary. Today’s young girls and boys need more, they need to see characters wrestling with the same life decisions they are. That’s why it’s so important to address Mulan’s sexuality and gender identity, why it’s so important to have at least one character (male or female) presenting as queer, because so many kids and teens going to see this in theaters need to identify with Mulan’s story in the same way we once did.
The world is evolving, and these beloved stories need to as well, not just so Disney can bank on buzzwords like “diversity” and “inclusiveness” but so that little boys and girls can feel seen and accepted in the same way Mulan ultimately does on screen.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.