While it was first rumored that Disney’s live-action Mulan woulds not be a musical, fans were up in arms. However, the casting call raised some more serious, and pressing, concerns.
There was much to be said about Disney’s rumored decision to nix the songs from its adaptation of Mulan — not least that there already exists a phenomenal live-action version of the tale that presents a more true-to-history take on the legend.
Fellow Hypable staffer Selina touched on the shift from a musical, noting that Disney’s live-action take would do little to differentiate itself from the 2009 Chinese production, Hua Mulan — as well as the upcoming Sony adaptation in the works.
The songs weren’t the only part of the animated version that Disney was about to leave on the cutting room floor.
In a casting notice put out by Disney, we recieved our first glimpse into the direction of their live-action adaptation.
That casting notice has all but been confirmed with the recent addition of Donnie Yen as Commander Tung, as seen in the call for the role of Chen Honghui.
If you haven’t had the opportunity to see them making the rounds yet, they follow below:
MULAN — Female, 18-20 years old to play 18; must be able to speak fluent English and Mandarin Chinese; lithe, athletic, quick, tougher than she looks. Mulan lives in rural China in 630 AD, and her country is besieged, under attack by the Gokturk invaders. When her aging father volunteers to join the Army, Mulan sneaks out by night and takes his place, strapping down her breasts so she can pass for a man. There is a mysterious power inside Mulan, a power of speed and coordination and sheer force that places her at the peak of her unit — where no one suspects her secret.
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CHEN HONGHUI — Male, in his 20s, must be able to speak fluent English and Mandarin Chinese; 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.
There were, certainly, things to be encouraged by in the casting call. With Disney searching for actors fluent in English and Mandarin Chinese for both roles, as well as casting talent internationally, they provided an opportunity to both Asian and Asian-American actors to land a sorely needed lead role in Hollywood. In fact, with the casting of Chinese actress Liu Yifei, they are already making good on that particular part of the call.
But while those opportunities have been a long time coming, and still not nearly on the level they should be, there are some kernels of doubt about this adaptation creeping in through the casting call.
A Mysterious Power
The first lick of concern I felt about the Mulan adaptation — more so than the abandoning of the musical aspect, and Caro’s assertions that the film would be a “girly martial arts extravaganza” — was nestled within the character outline of our titular hero herself.
‘There is a mysterious power inside Mulan, a power of speed and coordination and sheer force that places her at the peak of her unit.’
The beauty of Mulan is in the indisputable truth that what she achieves is down to her own skill and stubborn determination — both mental and physical — without any pre-conceived expectations, outside of those as the offspring of the well-respected war hero Fa Zhou. Certainly, her propensity for lateral thinking and strategy sets her apart in the Chinese army, but there is no external force propelling her above her peers. She earns the respect of her Captain and fellow recruits on her own merit — even after the reveal that she is a woman.
That there might be something more supernatural giving Mulan an edge in the live-action adaptation is a worrying deviation. Mulan doesn’t need a “mysterious power” within her to level the playing field, or even elevate her position within her unit — in fact, it’s more than a little disrespectful to both the legend of Hua Mulan and the original animated version that this is the case.
It perpetuates an idea that in order to operate on the same level as men within the same field, Mulan needs supernatural intervention, she needs to be “special” — which opposes and undermines the entire message that the Legend of Hua Mulan, as well as the animated Mulan, has already set out.
There is power in her intelligence, in her strategy, that goes beyond the out-dated notion that you can only be strong through brute strength. Mulan can hold her own in a fight, that much is true, but to minimize her contributions to the physical with a mysterious edge is to fundamentally misunderstand the character.
Chen Honghui… who?
The absence of Li Shang and addition of Chen Honghui in his place is a change that many have objected to — and with good reason. Honghui falls into a tired and expected role, opposing Mulan in a more menacing way, at least until he discovers that she is a woman. Rivals-to-lovers isn’t a trope that is entirely without its merits, when it is handled with care and finesse, but the “mean streak” and “bullying” is an uncomfortable and deeply disappointing shift in the narrative from the role Li Shang played.
It would have been easy to set Shang up as a typical foil to Mulan, in the same way the live-action adaptation appears to be doing with Honghui. The son and heir of a prominent and respected General, Shang is appointed the commander of the new troops, tasked with preparing them for battle. But despite his elevated position, he’s absent of the posturing masculinity you might stereotypically expect of a ranked officer.
There is an emphasis on duty and honor throughout the animated version of Mulan, which especially shines through in Shang’s dedication to his father — much like Mulan is, though it takes a different form, and they provide an interesting juxtaposition to each other. Over time, Shang and Mulan find a common ground, and forge a relationship based on mutual respect — long before he discovers that Mulan is a woman.
In fact, Shang’s reaction to discovering the truth of Mulan’s identity isn’t a sudden attraction, but rather a betrayal of his trust in her. There is very little nuance to be found in the alternative being presented to us in Chen Honghui, a rival that changes his tune as soon as he learns Mulan is female. But, more than that, it erases the queer subtext present in the animated film.
Shang has, in the ensuing years between the release of the animated Mulan and now, become something of a queer icon. His fledgling attraction to Mulan came when she was still Ping and, to his knowledge, a man. There are many within the queer community — myself included — that read him as bisexual, and it is not a quiet belief either. The removal of that relationship also means that the possibility for further representation is removed with it. What we are left with is everything Li Shang wasn’t — a posturing, mean bully, who is decidedly heterosexual.
The unarguable potential for Disney’s live-action adaptions of their earlier animated properties is to build on the foundation of what came before. But when it is changed beyond recognition, and forgets the lesson at the heart of one of its own films, are they even necessary?