How Mulan Maintains The Animated Film’s Queerness

Even without Li Shang, the animated movie’s bisexual icon, 2020's live-action Mulan maintains its queerness in not one but two key characters.

Photo: Disney

This piece contains spoilers for Disney’s Mulan. Read our spoiler-free review here.

More than any of the previous six Disney live-action remakes, Mulan requires the greatest narrative leap from fans of the animated original: The remake has done away with the iconic musical numbers, wisecracking dragon Mushu, and fan favorite Captain Li Shang, who is considered by many to be a bisexual icon for his clear attraction to both Ping (Mulan, pretending to be a man) and Mulan. Instead, perhaps in order to separate out the love interest from the potentially problematic power dynamic, Niki Caro’s 2020 adaptation, which now available to watch for no additional fee for Disney+ subscribers, splits Shang into two characters: father figure Commander Tung (Donnie Yen) and fellow recruit Chen Honghui (Yoson An).

Not surprisingly, breaking out the two major aspects of Shang’s character into separate personas dilutes Hua Mulan’s (Yifei Liu) relationship with each of them. But what’s interesting is that the queer subtext that Disney fans have always seen in Shang doesn’t disappear—it also gets split across two (different) characters. At various points in the film, both love interest Honghui and antagonist Xianniang (Gong Li) engage Mulan based on what is perceived as her same-sex identity: the young soldier with his peer Hua Jun, and the warrior witch with potential ally Mulan. The ways in which each character recognizes and accepts a forbidden aspect of Mulan’s identity (disguising herself as a man to train, and her affinity for qi) read as extremely queer.

The Loss of Li Shang

The decision to separate Li Shang into two roles was in direct response to the #MeToo movement, as producer Jason Reed explained to Collider. Describing the thought process behind developing the story for the live-action remake, he 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.”

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And so, the live-action Mulan ages up Commander Tung (Donnie Yen), making him a surrogate father to Mulan-as-Hua-Jun. Having fought alongside her father, Hua Zhou, Tung recognizes in this young soldier a warrior’s spirit, and an affinity for qi. He encourages Mulan-as-Hua-Jun to further develop her qi rather than hiding it, affectionately chiding her. That fatherly concern only amplifies Mulan’s guilt over not honoring the virtue of trueness, allowing Tung to see what he wants to see and earning his respect through that deception.

But because these are the only conversations that Mulan-as-Hua-Jun and Tung have, their dynamic start to feel repetitive. There is absolutely no doubt that the moment Mulan reveals the truth about who she is, Commander Tung will turn on her. His respect and affection only extends to a male soldier, because he can only think in the abstract about notions of truth and honor.

While the producers approached these changes with good intentions, their decision nonetheless very much misses the point of the toxic behaviors that #MeToo advocates seek to expose. The movement is concerned with abuses of power, e.g., for a commanding officer to use their authority to force their subordinate into a nonconsensual sexual situation. What the animated Mulan presented (and what the live-action movie could have recreated without becoming problematic) was the nuanced portrayal of a captain, used to holding himself apart from his recruits, struggling with an attraction to a soldier who looked to him for both his marching orders and for camaraderie during wartime.

The Queer Subtext of Li Shang

Mulan being a Disney property, Li Shang’s (BD Wong) queerness is a matter of viewers reading into subtext. But watch “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” and tell me it’s not the emotional journey of a man recognizing his attraction to this scrappy soldier. The first time Mulans-as-Ping manages to actually knock Shang down, prompting that wondering smile from her leader, is not only a moment of triumph for Mulan, but a revelation for Shang, as well: As Ping proves his worth over the course of the song, Shang realizes that not only does he respect this young warrior, but he might also like him.

Part of the tension between Shang and Mulan-as-Ping is that the captain takes pains to not get close to his subordinates. This is due in large part to the chip on Shang’s shoulder, the fear that he only got his military posting because of his father, General Li. The Emperor’s advisor Chi-Fu on more than one occasion accuses Shang of benefiting from nepotism. “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” clearly draws a dividing line between Ping and the other soldiers commiserating over their rough training, and a shirtless Shang putting them through their paces. The moments in which Ping’s actions or comments break through Shang’s facade are significant because Ping gets past those emotional defenses. 

First it’s by succeeding in the training montage, proving that Shang is a valuable leader; after all, a captain is only as good as his worst recruit. Even so, it is not until the loss of his father and Mulan’s bravery against the Huns at Tung Shao Pass that Shang finally makes himself vulnerable. “Ping, you are the craziest man I ever met,” Shang says, “and for that I owe you my life. From now on, you have my trust.”

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Opening up like that, rare and hard-earned for a man like Shang, is what makes the reveal of Mulan’s deception so devastating. Yet this is the point at which many queer fans interpret Shang as bisexual or pansexual: He saves Mulan’s life rather than follow the law and kill her; and while he claims that he is simply offering “a life for a life” and repaying his debt, he clearly has feelings for her. The revelation that she is a woman only complicates those feelings. 

Mulan possesses the same cleverness and courage, the qualities that attracted him to Ping; now she’s just in the form of a socially acceptable love interest. The person has not changed, only the social circumstances surrounding the situation. It is this truth upon which Mulan ultimately convinces Shang to help her at the Imperial City: “You said you’d trust Ping,” she challenges him. “Why is Mulan any different?”

Those tensions are what, if you’ll excuse the pun, animate the relationship between Mulan and Shang in the 1998 film. The live-action remake erases that distance by having Honghui literally be in the trenches with Mulan-as-Hua-Jun—and reverses their dynamic, while retaining the queer subtext.

Honghui as Mulan’s 2020 Love Interest

Honghui is the one who gets past Mulan’s emotional defenses—not deliberately, but simply by dint of them being fellow recruits. The men are crammed into one tent as sleeping quarters (there are some cute moments of Mulan dodging soldiers who like to cuddle in their sleep) and train together all day, sparring and sweating in each other’s personal space. Even more than that, Honghui is intrigued by the taciturn Hua Jun: by his initial stiffness and eagerness to take on guard duty rather than join the others in the showers, and by his defense of one of the men mooning over a drawing of his matched sweetheart.

“Honghui and Mulan start off on the wrong foot in the conscription camp,” An explained in interviews prior to the film’s release, “but throughout the journey of the training, Honghui kind of sees something in Mulan that [the] other boys don’t. It’s that leadership quality, and the perseverance, and how composed she is, really. So he sees something in her that he goes, ‘Yeah, there’s something special about this young dude.’”

A line like that could be read as queer or not depending on one’s perspective. Bustle did ask An if he were ready to become an LGBTQ icon, as Li Shang’s successor, and he said, “I am.” Yet despite it being 2020, none of this is spoken about overtly. It’s still a matter of reading into the movie’s subtext… so, let’s do just that.

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In place of “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” is a training scene in which Honghui and Hua Jun spar as equals, both of them learning the moves together. If anything, Mulan demonstrates her superiority when Honghui goads her into using her qi to wipe the smirk off his face. That scene, with its physicality and sense of playfulness, is very much the same vibe as Shang’s stunned smile when he gets Mulan’s foot to his face in “I’ll Make a Man Out of You.”

A significant and welcome change, however, is the bathing scene. In the animated movie, it’s played for laughs, with Mulan sneaking away to the water and instead getting confronted with all of her fellow soldiers’ nakedness. That awkward interaction happens in the tent in the live-action movie; when Mulan-as-Hua-Jun steals away to take a solo dip, it’s Honghui she runs into.

Shang would never deign to bathe with his trainees, but Honghui doesn’t have that hang-up. His ease around Hua Jun is the same as in the tent a few scenes prior, when they had a heart-to-heart about Honghui’s nervousness about talking to potential matches. “Talk to her like you’re talking to me,” Mulan had advised him about women; but when they’re treading water together, Honghui amiably close, she’s the one who’s tense and nervous—about her secret getting revealed, obviously, but also regarding her growing attraction to him.

Of course, she combats this by being brusque; when Honghui asks if they can be friends, she responds, “I’m not your friend.” He takes this in stride: “Very well, but you are my equal. We fight together against the same enemy. I will do all I can to protect the others. You can turn your back on me, but when the time comes, do not turn your back on them.” He consistently surprises her by respecting her boundaries, while still challenging her to see herself as part of this army. He engages her sensitively and candidly, because he thinks he’s talking to another man; if he knew she were a woman, he’d get tongue-tied. Together, they can speak freely and, despite her disguise, be genuine and true with one another.

Still, the dynamic doesn’t quite meet the standard of Shang, because Honghui doesn’t have to grapple with the dilemma of rank and power; the producers sanded off those edges. What’s more, the pivotal why-trust-Mulan moment in the live-action version is given to Honghui, changing the mood of that scene: When she returns to the Imperial army—despite Commander Tung’s threat to murder her if he saw her again—to warn them about the Rourans attacking the Imperial City, at first no one will hear her. Then Honghui speaks up: “You would believe Hua Jun. Why do you not believe Hua Mulan?”

What follows is a tonally odd, Spartacus-esque gesture of all of Hua Jun’s friends proclaiming, “I believe Hua Mulan.” The moment, intended to be inspirational, comes off as emotionally uneven because it takes the words out of Mulan’s mouth; yet it gives Honghui the conviction that Shang lacked. This love interest doesn’t seem that bothered that the soldier in whom he saw a kindred spirit turned out to be a woman; making the leap from Hua Jun to Hua Mulan seems to have been much easier for him. Just like the guarantee that Tung would turn on her, it’s taken for granted that Honghui will support her—both changes erasing the key conflict at the heart of Li Shang.

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The Queer Subtext of Mulan and Xianniang

Mulan’s scenes with Xianniang, by contrast, are as multifaceted as the many points of connection between the two women.  The Rouran warrior witch reflects potential fates for Mulan: a girl exiled from her village for her use of qi; an older woman who carves out her place in the world (until she gives up trying); a would-be ally and mentor. In that last respect, perhaps, she has more in common with Li Shang than Honghui does. Like the captain, she initially strives to keep her distance from Mulan, but cannot resist engaging with her—first to taunt her for her deception, but later to offer an alliance, and ultimately to help her.

If you’re watching their four pivotal interactions—each of which directly affects the tide of their war—as a queer person, you may read a particular tension, beyond that of two opposing fighters, into these scenes. How Xianniang casually strokes Mulan’s sword in one moment, only for it to slice her hand in the next. The withering impatience she has for the younger woman’s subterfuge—telling her that her deceit poisons her qi, which she should be strengthening instead—and the tender empathy with which she regards her counterpart after Commander Tung casts her out. The conviction with which she says, “We are the same” and “Join me” and “We will take our place together.” Yes, she’s talking about them reshaping society through their fury and their power… but there is such emotional depth to those words that she has to be talking about more than that.

Disney has an unfortunate history of coding most of its villains as queer, at best playing into offensive stereotypes and at worst ascribing monstrous qualities to seemingly LGBTQ+ characters. As SYFY Wire describes, those biases translate into male villains coming off more effeminate than hyper-masculine heroes, and female villains who lack the scruples of wholesome Disney heroines, instead actively corrupting princesses and anyone else in their path.

Never does Xianniang try to corrupt Mulan; instead, she urges the younger woman to remove her disguise and be true, echoing exactly what Mulan wants for herself. Her offer for Mulan to join her side comes out of a legitimate desire to reshape the world; unfortunately, Xianniang has only known violence, so that is the only way she can envision change. And when Mulan refuses, but still winds up targeted by Böri Khan, Xianniang takes the arrow meant for her and dies in her arms with a heartfelt final blessing to “take your place, Mulan.” This narrative choice is problematic on its own, for invoking the trope of Bury Your Gays—but at this point, can’t we agree that it’s incredibly queer?

Honghui’s journey (mirroring Shang’s) is in realizing that Mulan is everything he could want in a woman, while recognizing that he was already attracted to those qualities when he thought she was a man. Xianniang is never fooled by Hua Jun; she always sees Mulan clearly as who she is, and (like Shang) crosses the distance between them to celebrate every single aspect of Mulan’s personality that society would punish her for. It would seem that she is truly the one who sees something that no one else does.

Mulan is available now on Disney+.

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