WARNING: Minor Mulan spoilers ahead.
Although Captain Li Shang does not, in fact, make a man out of Fa Mulan in the beloved 1998 animated film, he does manage to inadvertently reveal her womanhood and win her heart. Stoic at first but eventually revealed to be gentle, Shang became a childhood crush (and bisexual icon) for many ‘90s babies. So when the news broke that Disney’s live-action reboot would not feature the iconic chiseled captain, not all were pleased.
In a February interview with Collider, Mulan producer Jason Reed said, “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.”
But he clarified that Li Shang would serve as inspiration for other characters in the film, adding, “We split Li Shang into two characters. One became Commander Tung (Donnie Yen) who serves as her surrogate father and mentor in the course of the movie. The other is Honghui (Yoson An) who is [Mulan’s] equal in the squad.”
Some fans understood and agreed with the #MeToo argument. Others found it offensive, arguing that Shang would never use his commanding position to coerce a woman into romance. He waited until after she was no longer under his command to pursue any sort of romantic relationship. And anyway, it was Mulan who had the crush on him! (Understandably so.)
First of all, there wasn’t anything sexual or romantic between them until the very end where MULAN asked HIM to stay for dinner.— Gaby Castillo (@gcastillo13_) February 27, 2020
Second of all, the #MeToo movement recognizes consent as being the most important; not once does Shang force himself on her. Have they seen Mulan?!
Disney 1998:— M.C. Myers (@filmobjective) February 27, 2020
We're going to use a well-meaning but misguided male love interest to show the flaws in China's male-dominated social structure and let him grow and change using Mulan's example in order to give the story its core note of hope.
Lmao trivializing metoo as a smokescreen bc they just wanna no homo the fact that Shang had a crush on mulan when he was male presenting. This is so gross— tsundere judas iscariot (@dabi_hawks) February 27, 2020
Mulan was the one with a serious crush in this movie. She is the only one where 'the look' is given to the male love interest instead of the princess. He did nothing until she was no longer in his army. This is silly and another case of removing a strong woman's agency pic.twitter.com/9m3fQFXwLi— 🦋 Floral Death Maiden💀🌺*Semi Hiatus* (@Love_andbalance) February 27, 2020
That said, Mulan doesn’t escape the live-action remake without some degree of romance. It’s just that Li Shang has a new face, a new name, and a new personality, and he’s not her commanding officer. So ... he’s not Li Shang.
In early 2017, fans noticed the Mulan casting call listed a new character as the heroine’s love interest. The call read, “Strapping, cocky, and handsome, Honghui is another recruit who joins Commander Tung’s unit, and he’s determined to be the best soldier in human history. Full of himself, with a mean, bullying streak to him, he quickly realizes that Mulan is his chief rival, but he does not realize that she is a woman. Grittily determined to be simply the best at everything, Honghui is increasingly peeved by Mulan’s ability to match or out-maneuver him. But after learning that his rival is a woman, his intense feelings of rivalry turn into something very different, something like love.”
Watching the final film, viewers will realize Honghui is hardly a love interest at all, and his sudden attraction upon her gender reveal feels patronizing and problematic, if not outright icky. In other words: He’s no Li Shang, a commander who, though outdated in some of his initial views, eventually comes to deeply respect both Ping and Mulan, realizing they are no different. Many even believe Shang was attracted to Mulan when she was presenting as Ping. For Honghui, that’s clearly not the case.
So is the live-action film better off without Mulan’s true love? Not exactly.
Yup! Mulan was very meh to me. The dialogue was off with all the song lyrics incorporated, they wasted Gong Li and Ming Na Wen, and they really could've kept Li Shang. But we know why they didn't.— Black Women's Lives Matter. Carolyn Hinds (@CarrieCnh12) September 3, 2020
It still burns me that they didn't get a Chinese director, and costume designer. https://t.co/d87ScLjSJ7
Plus who has $30 to spend on this movie when there is no Mushu or Li Shang in it? pic.twitter.com/Gv1rEGMWkC— Bianca Funk (@funkbianca520) September 4, 2020
i am missing bisexual icon li shang pic.twitter.com/2t3TmQsnPh— jessa (@directedbyrian) September 3, 2020
It would be one thing if Mulan went through the entire film without any romance complicating her empowering narrative. But the creators demanded Honghui shoot his shot (sort of). Despite his attraction, he hardly has the same respect for her that brave and beautiful Li Shang did. The live-action movie gets some things right, sure. But messing with Shang isn’t one of them.
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