All eyes are already on Walt Disney’s live-action remake of its 1998 animated favourite 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 Li Shang, a popular character from the original film, 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 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.
Read more: Wuhan-born Mulan star talks coronavirus
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 behaviour 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.”
Read more: No songs or Mushu in the Mulan remake
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.
How Disney describes Li Shang as to why he isn't in the live action Mulan remake makes him come across as a villain and that is unfair. pic.twitter.com/07NT0LCyrb
— Crimson Mayhem (@mayhem_crimson) February 28, 2020
LI SHANG DID NOT ACT UPON HIS ABSOLUTELY BISEXUAL FEELINGS FOR PING/MULAN UNTIL AFTER SHE WAS OUT OF THE ARMY BECAUSE HE IS A GOOD MAN, NOT A MAN WHO WOULD TAKE ADVANTAGE OF OTHERS.
that is all.
— ingrid galatea is QUEER (@samanthaistan) March 4, 2020
Shang is a bi icon who respected his Mulan and was friendly and respectful but also aware of the power imbalance when they served together despite his crush
When Li Shang made his move, he waited until after Mulan left military service and was nice to her family. We stan a king. https://t.co/OV0foACsIz
— It's Mike I Guess @ ECCC (@mike_i_guess) February 28, 2020
Is this even worth watching now? I loved Li Shang for his honour and integrity. I'm not sure why his character has been cut. Did they have more actors then parts and had to make up more roles to suit??? #mulanhttps://t.co/rcOmrLCw70
— Audrey Chin (@DaAudz) March 5, 2020
nothing but respect for my bisexual king li shang pic.twitter.com/Qd6TXgzZrS
— lia ☆ (@clqudstiel) February 28, 2020
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.
This story is not based on the animated movie. Mushu, Li Shang were dropped from this remake. I don't see any reason to go to the cinema for this movie.
— Chiyu (@Chiyuwong) March 5, 2020
Mulan is my favorite Disney princess, that's why I was pretty disappointed they didn't include Mushu or the songs in the new movie...But they even left out Li Shang? ಠ╭╮ಠ pic.twitter.com/RuPldZe39t
— alexiela (@alexiela_art) February 28, 2020
NO SONGS, NO LI SHANG, JUST DONT REMAKE IT AGAIN 😡 pic.twitter.com/O1y466zboW
— Eleanor Cox (@Dr_coxy) March 4, 2020
Despite the challenges and controversies facing the film before its 27 March 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 comes to cinemas on 27 March.