Photo credit: Disney, Illustration: Monique Jones
I want to like this live-action Mulan film. Two of my favorite people, Donnie Yen and Gong Li, have been cast. But I just can’t shake the feeling that Disney is going out of their way not to deal with the bisexual elephant in the room: Captain Li Shang.
First, there was the news that Shang was being written out altogether, replaced with some character named “Chen Hongui,” a fellow soldier who sees Mulan (as Ping) as a rival until he realizes she’s a woman. Now, we’re learning that Yen is going to be the male (non-romantic) lead as Mulan’s mentor (and non-canonical character), Commander Tung. Also, Li will play another character not seen in the original film, a witch will act as the villain (replacing doggone Shan Yu!!!).
So what’s the issue here, you might ask? First of all, what will the story even be anymore? How come there are so many strange additions to this straightforward story? Why is a witch involved? Why are there so many new characters added to address the vacuum left by not including Shang when they could just have Shang in this movie?
To me, it seems like a roundabout way for Disney to not address the fact that Shang’s love for Mulan comes halfway in the film, when she’s Ping. I mean, there’s no other way to slice it–he falls in love with Mulan when she’s presenting as a boy. The animated film itself knows this, which is why it fumbles around the ramifications it set in motion; we see Shang’s respect for Ping grow, and the film makes sure to show everything from Mulan’s emotional point of view for the sake of America. But the barely-suppressed subtext is still there. In fact, the subtext only increases once Shang takes Mulan up on her offer of staying for dinner–if he’s keen to still act on his feelings toward Mulan whether or not she’s in drag, his sexuality is definitely more complex than merely “straight.” In my mind, Shang and Mulan are the animated counterparts to Victor Victoria‘s King Marchand and Victoria Grant. King fell for Victoria when she was portraying a drag queen, and after an intense internal battle, decided he didn’t care what gender “Victor” had. All he knew was that he loved the spirit within.
To me, Disney is viewing this film not as a play towards American audiences, but as one toward Chinese audiences. Like Pacific Rim: Uprising and the upcoming The Meg, more and more Hollywood films are being financed by Chinese backers, meaning the films have to cater towards the limitations presented by the Chinese government. One of those limitations includes how LGBT characters must be shown, which means a film could face intense censorship. Homosexuality was decriminalized in China 20 years ago and the country has also ceased from labeling homosexuality as a mental illness. But the Chinese government has censored LGBT online content, and just like in places across America, Chinese LGBT youth could find themselves in conversion therapy. But to just say these facts also flattens the complexities of the Chinese LGBT activism movement, which is over 100 organizations strong, as well as the opinions of everyday Chinese citizens, which, like Americans’ views on the LGBT community, range the gamut from homophobic to openly accepting. I suggest you read this article from Solidarity, since it gives tons of background and research on the subject.
The complexity allows for Chinese media to still showcase LGBT characters and theoretical ideas about gender roles and sexuality within the tightening censorship rules. For instance, Empress of China, starring Fan Bingbing, constantly toyed with the ideas of gender, sexuality, and power. Fan’s Wu Mei Niang adopted a tomboy attitude throughout the series and wore princely garb during the Emperor’s (Fengyi Zhang) diplomatic summit with leaders from neighboring kingdoms, while her best friend (and future enemy) Xu Hui (Janine Chun-Ning Chang) acted almost like her date, dressed like a princess. The mode of dress was done to signify the power Mei Niang possessed even as a lower-rank consort (and foreshadowing of her taking on a male-dominated sphere as China’s only female Emperor), but it’s also a scene that plays with androgyny and critiques heteronormativity. The Emperor’s oldest son, Li Chengqian (Lee-zen Lee), was beholden to his confidant Chengxin (He Xin) in way that overtly suggested an extramarital affair (so much so that his wife comes to Mei Niang for advice on how to keep Chengqian interested in her). But in order to keep the censors happy, the show states just as overtly that Chengqian only loves Chengxin so much because he reminds him of his lost childhood friend.
Disney has also flaunted Chinese censors in the past without any pushback when they released the live-action Beauty and the Beast, which kept its original “openly gay” LeFou scene intact throughout its Chinese release. The film opened to a highly successful $45 million.
Even with censorship as a possibility, there are not many good reasons why Disney couldn’t make the same Mulan story as a live-action film. If the original storyline was kept, it’d play about the same as the Chengqian/Chengxin storyline did in Empress of China, which shouldn’t be that bad by Chinese censorship standards if Empress of China was able to get away with it. Besides, Disney has already shown they can push the envelope, even if just by a tiny amount, with Beauty and the Beast. Disney’s just not willing to push the envelope again with Mulan.
Of course, Disney has a line of financial reasons for the storyline’s distortion; Disney has certain people it’s catering to with this revamped Mulan, since Disney is trying to keep a foothold in China (just this February, Disney re-established its distribution of TV and film to China through a deal with Alibaba). But maybe (and this is a dubious maybe) the changes to the film don’t have anything to do with Shang at all. What if it has to do with the fact that the original Mulan bombed in China?
We in the states regard Mulan as a treasure, but when the film was released in 1998, it was a universal failure in China. As Quora contributor Faye Wang wrote, the film confused Chinese customs with Japanese ones, “confused the Chinese tradition of family clan with Native American (mostly because use of the word ‘ancestors’ in the movie,” the idea of the Emperor bowing to Mulan (which, by my assumption must be like him admitting there’s someone else whose worthier of his divine right than himself), and the romance we in the States love between Shang and Mulan was a contentious topic for Chinese audiences of the day, who didn’t like that the romance was there at all, since the original legend contains no such angle.
The hatred mostly comes from the film’s inability to access the true depth of the culture it wanted to portray, a sentiment that’s been levied against Disney with many of its films depicting other cultures, such as Moana and Pocahontas.
“…I think it’s not so much that the movie is bad; I personally like the movie a lot,” wrote Wang. “It’s more about culture differences. After all, Mulan wasn’t even trying to preserve Chinese culture. It is a straight out American movie decorated with Chinese accessories to make it interesting and exotic. Kung Fu Panda did a much better job.”
Maybe Disney is attempting to create a much more authentic story this time around. But with a witch, mentor, and Chen Hongui, I don’t see how this new story is going to be any more successful or respectful than the animated film’s. From my point of view, Disney might as well have kept the live-action story the same, since at the end of the day, this film isn’t written and directed by a Chinese or diasporic writers and director (or writer-director team). Whether it’s the animated version or this one, it doesn’t matter which story Disney takes to the big screen; it’s still going to be culturally lacking on some level. (If you want to read more about the two screenwriters who sold their Mulan script to Disney for this live-action project, click here.) At least if they kept the animated movie’s story, fans would be happy.
Also, Hongui’s arc is redundant AF–if he’s supposed to eventually love Mulan but at first sees her as his rival when she’s Ping, that could easily be examined as Hongui’s sexual tension toward Ping performing outwardly as machismo and internalized homophobia. If a Mulan adaptation has its heart set on giving Mulan a love interest while she’s training for war, it doesn’t matter if the character is Shang or Hongui–they’ll still make a commentary on the spectrum of human sexuality. They will never be seen as completely “straight.” So they might as well have kept Shang in and, again, kept fans happy.
But hey–maybe I’ll be proven wrong and the live-action Mulan will be a surprise hit on both sides of the ocean. Or maybe my fears are correct, and I’ll be commiserating over what could have been an awesome interpretation of the animated classic. We’ll just have to see.