New Mulan: Why Media Giants Leave Creativity on the Cutting Room Floor

Updated: Jul 12, 2020

Li Shang has been cut from the upcoming Disney live action adaptation of Mulan. The character was Mulan’s love interest and military commander in the 1998 animated version of Mulan, and sang the popular song, “I’ll Make a Man out of You.” Li Shang has been a fan favorite for years, particularly among the queer and bisexual communities. Li Shang’s feelings for Mulan began while Mulan was disguised as a man, so Li Shang’s sexuality is open to bisexual attraction or attraction to trans men.

There’s precedence for such a change in Mulan. Li Shang does not appear in the original Ballad of Mulan, which dates back to fifteenth century China. The Ballad of Mulan has been changed by poets throughout the years and adapted it to their peculiar circumstances. Some adaptations see Mulan commit suicide at the end, while in the original Mulan lives to tell the tale. The live action version of Mulan has changed in other ways, it won’t feature music, which means Li Shang wouldn’t have sung his popular song anyways, but the removal of Li Shang does not seem to align with some new poetic invention.

Instead, Li Shang has been taken out of Mulan, at the expense of LGBTQ communities in order cater to feminist concerns. Producer Jason Reed says “I think particularly in the time of the #MeToo movement, having a commanding officer that is also a sexual love interest was very uncomfortable and we didn’t think it was appropriate.” So while appeasing some imaginary base of feminists, Disney angered the very real LGBT community who held Li Shang up as an honorary bisexual.

The removal of Li Shang is not to serve the narrative or a new telling of Mulan. Instead its to preempt feminist criticism and to avoid the conflict that comes with the territory of a romantic plot line with a power differential, between a commanding officer and a soldier.

This preemptive self censorship is the latest in a trend in cinematic storytelling that avoids tension, ambiguity and conflict. The romantic link between Mulan and Li Shang was deemed too complicated for modern audiences (or too controversial for movie critics at least) so the whole thing was cut out. Li Shang was split in two- there will be a commanding officer character, but Mulan’s love interest will be a fellow soldier.

What's lost in the change is the power differential between Li Shang and Mulan, which far from problematic, was a powerful engine of romantic conflict. Without the power differential, the relationship loses a large amount of danger and tension.

It is a brute fact of Imperial China that men had power over women, but animated Mulan subverts this fact to some degree. Li Shang has power over a woman, Mulan, but not because Mulan is a woman, but because Mulan is posing as a man in Li Shang’s army. The power of men over women is always reinforced by the power of men over other men.

There is an important internal conflict for Mulan as to whether Li Shang discovering her true identity will be good or not. If Li Shang knew Mulan is a woman, they could potentially pursue a relationship together. But if Li Shang found out the truth, he would be forced to discharge Mulan from the army and the potential for a relationship would be lost.

It's the great internal conflict within Mulan, and the external conflict between Mulan and Li Shang that keeps the story moving while the conflict between the Chinese and the invading Huns is far away. What you lose when you lose Li Shang is the grey area of the narrative. Everything becomes black and white, and easy to digest. By making Mulan's love interest a fellow soldier, the live action movie will likely make Mulan’s love interest completely good. If he’s obviously totally good, then the conflict is gone.

I was watching the HBO series Westworld with my dad, and he was having trouble following because he didn’t know who was the good guy and who was the bad guy. Everytime he asked, I had to say, “Well, Dolores is the bad guy from one point of view, but she thinks she’s the good guy” and so on with all the other characters.

Westworld's confusing narrative choices aside, it falls into the broad category that I prefer; cinematic storytelling that dwells in problematic material, tension, grey areas and ambiguity, while my dad is accustomed to rollercoaster films and media,, which are mass tested with obvious good guys and bad guys.

Martin Scorcese drew out the distinction between cinema and rollercoaster films in an essay on why he doesn’t think Marvel is cinema. This ties in directly to Mulan, as both Mulan and Marvel are mass produced by the same media giant, Disney.

I’m inclined to agree with Scorcese. I’ve seen Marvel films, I’ve enjoyed a great many of them, but at the end of the day they’re rollercoasters and the conflict is obviously black and white. There’s no real debate over whether Thanos’ plan to kill half of all life is a good thing. Thanos is very obviously very bad,, and Earth obviously needs to assemble the Avengers to stop his plan (as in Avengers Infinity War) or to undo Thanos’ plan (as in Avengers Endgame).

Scorcese writes, “Many of the elements that define cinema as I know it are there in Marvel pictures. What’s not there is revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger. Nothing is at risk. The pictures are made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and they are designed as variations on a finite number of themes.

They are sequels in name but they are remakes in spirit, and everything in them is officially sanctioned because it can’t really be any other way. That’s the nature of modern film franchises: market-researched, audience-tested, vetted, modified, revetted and remodified until they’re ready for consumption.

Another way of putting it would be that they are everything that the films of Paul Thomas Anderson or Claire Denis or Spike Lee or Ari Aster or Kathryn Bigelow or Wes Anderson are not. When I watch a movie by any of those filmmakers, I know I’m going to see something absolutely new and be taken to unexpected and maybe even unnameable areas of experience. My sense of what is possible in telling stories with moving images and sounds is going to be expanded.

So, you might ask, what’s my problem? Why not just let superhero films and other franchise films be? The reason is simple. In many places around this country and around the world, franchise films are now your primary choice if you want to see something on the big screen.”

With franchise films and their cookie cutter conflict dominant, there’s little room for taking risks or innovating. Film studios, and even tv to a degree, have loaded more and more money into franchise films with a set group of heroes who you know will win the day. There should always room for that easy to digest storytelling, but it becomes a problem when that is the dominant storytelling form. Disney, via Marvel and its other properties has an almost monopolistic control on the film industry, and drew in 40 percent of all box office receipts in 2019.

Central to this success has been Disney’s funding of safe rollercoaster films, as seen in the live action/CGI reboots of classic Disney Stories, such as The Jungle Book (2016), Beauty and the Beast (2017), and The Lion King (2019). The original Disney Renaissance films tend towards cinema, like the Little Mermaid (1989), The Lion King (1994), Mulan (1998), Tarzan (1999). I’m not saying cartoons are peak cinema, but the 1990s versions were far more cinematic and complex than the cash grab CGI remakes.

While Disney retains its status as hegemon, it will take fewer risks. Remakes and sequels get butts in seats, and if you’re the king of the hill, why take a risk? There’s a lot to lose in a risk, but a lot to gain in reboots.

Let's take a closer look at the 1998 Mulan and how it navigates tension, ambiguity and conflict, particularly the tension between male and female. The masculine duty of Mulan’s father to join the army stands in contrast to Mulan’s feminine duty to find a husband and, as the song goes, “bring honor to us all.” When Mulan’s father proves weak and likely to die at the hands of the Hun invaders, Mulan’s new duty is to take up the trappings of the masculine, disguise herself as a man and take her father’s place in the army.

The poignant “Reflection” is an impressive image of transformation, one that finds favor in the transgender community with such lines as “When will my reflection show/ Who I am inside.” This is a universal transformation and can represent the passage from boy to man, from adult to elder, and also, from man to woman and woman to man.

Arriving at the soldier’s camp, “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” injects the narrative with fun dramatic irony. “Making a Man” is idiomatic for making a military man out of weaklings- while only the audience gets the double meaning that Mulan isn’t actually a man. Nevertheless, by the training sequence’s end, she and her friendly bumbling recruits can fight with the best of them, “like men.”

This situation of men teaching women gets reversed in the third act. When the Huns have infiltrated the Chinese capital, Mulan, now dressed as a woman, recruits her soldier friends to infiltrate the palace. To do so she must “make a woman” out of them and disguise them as geishas. In act two the representative of femininity, Mulan, learns from the masculine Chinese Army. Act three sees the reciprocal occur, wherein the masculine Chinese soldiers learn “feminine wiles” from Mulan. Far from a problematic or oppressive relationship, men and women learn from and compliment one another.

By virtue of mass testing and mass marketing to so many different audiences, Disney has backed itself into a corner and self-censors to make the maximum profitable product. The problem is that the most profitable film is not the same as the best piece of cinema. That tension between market and art is always there, but with the increasing monopolization of media and film, the market is set to win more often than not. More and more artists will be forced to self censor for fear of upsetting some demographic at the expense of other demographics that quite liked what was removed.

What makes me nervous about the preemptive self censorship is not the removal of Li Shang, but the removal of Mulan's dragon sidekick Mushu. First of all, the pitiful slapstick dragon Mushu doesn’t comport with the Chinese vision of dragons, which tend to be more wise and benevolent than their tricky, fire breathing Western counterparts.

But it's not just the audience reaction to Mushu that prompted his removal. The real reason, I suspect, is that many of Mushu’s scenes are with ghosts.

Ghosts are banned from Chinese films. Horror films like Crimson Peaks aren’t allowed to screen in China. Even the female Ghostbusters reboot was barred from Chinese markets, not because it stars women, but because there are ghosts in it.

The elimination of ghosts from film is an easy way for China to preemptively censor social satire. “Throughout Chinese literature and history, ghosts have been a metaphor, and evil ghosts often symbolize corrupt government officials. Ghost stories became a political tool anyone could use and that the government found hard to control.”

Increasingly, media companies have two key demographics: kids and China. These media companies will remove whatever it takes from their products to achieve maximum profit within those demographics, quality of the film be damned.

The Rise of the Superhero means the Death of the Movie Star

Mass marketed films have meant the rise of the super hero and the franchise at the expense of the auteur screenwriter, director and the movie star. Before a movie star could prop up a lesser known director or an obscure script by virtue of the movie star's name recognition. “Oh, it's a Robert Redford movie? I’ll go see that.” Nowadays you’ll go see a franchise film because it’s supposed to be Number One at the box office. “Captain America 2? Sounds cool. Oh hey cool Robert Redford happens to be in it.”

Anthony Mackie of the MCU puts it well, “Anthony Mackie isn’t a movie star. The Falcon is a movie star.” There are fewer movie stars. With fewer movie stars, there are fewer personalities that can champion an auteur's unique vision, which means more franchise films, which means worse storytelling.

Moving forward, there will be more parts for diverse actors and worse parts for those actors and worse movies for those actors to appear in. The case of Finn in the Disney Star Wars Trilogy is a great example of good casting, but bad storytelling. Finn had a great introduction in the Force Awakens, but in the Last Jedi and the Rise of Skywalker, Finn was sidelined from the action. Part of it has to do with the Chinese audience. Finn might have been Rey’s love interest and featured more prominently in Episodes 8 and 9, but Chinese racial attitudes remain largely xenophobic towards black people. So Disney cast a black actor to cater to American audiences, then sidelined that same actor to cater to Chinese audiences.

The Disney Star Wars trilogy epitomizes a rollercoaster approach to film and a hypersensitivity to critics. When the franchise was first bought, the fans had complained for years that the prequels were not enough like the originals, so The Force Awakens was a remake of A New Hope. People complained The Force Awakens was too safe, so The Last Jedi overcorrected by deconstructing Star Wars mythology. This went too far for some, so The Rise of Skywalker bent backwards to adhere closer to the originals and deliver a Return of the Jedi-type finale to the trilogy.

This trend of triangulation has not sparked a conversation about media monopolization. Instead, conflict over these kinds of story quibbles are redirected into the usual culture war camps. Negative to middling response towards the Last Jedi, which did not score particularly high on audience ratings, was all blamed on toxic men, the alt-right or Russian bots.

Overall, media monopolies and the resulting demographic triangulation has had two ongoing trends: the diversity in films goes up, but the quality of those films has gone down. This is not the fault of the diversity of the creators. The missing middle term between rising diversity and lost quality is the process of media monopolization and triangulation.

The media conglomerates are willing to take the step to cast diverse actors, but that's the only risk they want to take for that film. It’s much easier to neglect artful cinema and embrace paint by number rollercoaster movies that corporate bodies can cut and shape in post-production to appeal to the appropriate demographics and maximize profit.

Diversity in casting and storytelling best walk hand in hand. The need for media companies to triangulate globally reduces the possibilities of ambiguous, complicated and diverse forms of storytelling, and whatever diversity is promoted for American markets is quickly hampered by Chinese audiences.

Fewer ghosts will appear on the silver screen going forward thanks to Chinese censors. Instead, as monopolies rise, the quality of film falls, a little ghost will whisper in your ear, “They sure don’t make them like they used to.”

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