mulan love interest

It was a question heard around the world when the casting for Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan came out: Where is Shang? The commanding officer and romantic interest of the 1998 Mulan provided an unexpected LGBTQ element to the film (as well as many a sexual awakening for a young moviegoer). But the hunky character’s name was nowhere to be seen in the cast list. Would Disney be doing away with the pseudo-homoerotic romance that made the animated Mulan feel so groundbreaking? Not quite.

Worry not: the live-action Mulan will still have a strong central romance, but Liu Yifei‘s Mulan will instead be flirting with a fellow conscript instead of her commanding officer. In the live-action remake, Li Shang has been split into two characters: Donnie Yen‘s Commander Tung and Yoson An‘s soldier Chen Honghui. The change stems from the Me Too movement currently overtaking Hollwood.

Things have drastically changed in Hollywood since the ’90s. Powerful men are being taken to task (and convicted) for their years of sexual harassment and abuse, sending ripples throughout the industry. And it’s made its way to the screen, even in a Disney film like Mulan. With the issue of power dynamics at the forefront, Mulan couldn’t necessarily feature the romance between a soldier and her commanding officer. So the filmmaking team split the character into two, with Yen’s Commander Tung acting as a mentor to Mulan while An’s fellow soldier Chen Honghui gets the unlikely romance.

“Li Shang in the movie, he became sort of an LGBTQ icon,” producer Jason Reed acknowledged. “So there a little backlash online when we weren’t casting a character named Li Shang. I was actually a little surprised but it made sense without full understanding of what we were doing in the story.” Reed explained how the Me Too movement affected Mulan, and why it was important for Liu’s character to have an “equal in the squad”:

“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. And we thought that 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. So we split Li Shang into 2 characters. One became Commander Tung (Donnie Yen) who serves as her surrogate father and mentor in the course movie. The other is Honghui, who is her equal in the squad.

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?’ and we have that same dynamic and in this movie, I actually think it plays in a more sophisticated way because he’s trying to befriend this other soldier who is, like, he’s ambitious, he wants to be the best student in class and all of the sudden this guys is sort of challenging him. He’s sort of standoff-ish also like, ‘Hey, we could team up. We’re going to war, let’s work together.’ And she, because she’s got this secret she keeps having to push him away and it creates a lot of tension in the movie of him being drawn to her, her being drawn to him, but because she has this secret she constantly has to push him away. So we’re playing with that as well. And I think we removed the icky-ness of the power differential.”

Adds An, “I see this film as a different variation from the animated version and the original story of The Ballad of Mulan. I kinda took a different angle from Li Shang’s character. I can’t really say to a lot of how that will come across but there is a multi-dimensional layer to him and the audience will be able to see that when they watch the movie.”

So how will Honghui hold up next to an icon like Shang? From An’s description, there’s more of a meet-cute dynamic to Mulan and Honghui’s relationship, since they both start off as fresh conscripts and promising fighters.

“He’s very still,” An said. “He’s very honorable. And, compared to the other boys, he’s very observant and aware of his surroundings. The other boys may pick on Hua Jun because they think of him as this scrawny kid, I notice something about Hua Jun that they don’t, which is where our relationship really kicks off.”

Mulan hits theaters on March 27, 2020. Tickets are on sale now.

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