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honghui making the polite cat face Image: Disney

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Mulan’s live-action love interest is better than her old animated one

And he’s just as much a bisexual icon as Shang ever was

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Petrana Radulovic is an entertainment reporter specializing in animation, fandom culture, theme parks, Disney, and young adult fantasy franchises.

When the news broke two years ago that Disney’s animated Mulan character Li Shang, captain in the Emperor’s Imperial Army, singer of the workout classic “I’ll Make a Man Out of You,” and bisexual icon, was not going to be in the new live-action Mulan, fans of the original movie took to social media to complain.

Part of the reason director Niki Caro chose to change Shang was because of the unfortunate implications of Mulan getting together with her commanding officer. In the live-action Mulan, Li Shang is split into two characters: Commander Tung (Donnie Yen), who serves as a sort of father figure to Mulan (Liu Yifei), and Cheng Honghui (Yoson An), a fellow soldier. The casting call that circulated around the internet described Honghui as “full of himself, with a mean, bullying streak to him” and positioned him as a chief rival to Mulan, until he realizes she’s a woman and starts to respect her.

People weren’t happy with that, claiming the take ruined Shang’s supposed bisexuality. For years, fans have argued that Shang, who starts to develop feelings for Mulan while she’s disguised as Ping, is bisexual. Animated Disney movies are still bereft of any meaningful LGBTQ representation, so audiences have eagerly claimed characters and stories for their own. Mulan, with its interrogation of gender roles, has always been chock full of queer subtext and it doesn’t take a lot of deep reading or fan theories to read Shang as bisexual. When it came to his erasure in the movie, many felt that it was a deliberate move on Disney’s part to erase the queer subtext from the original animated movie.

Look, I love bisexual icon Captain Li Shang as much as the next Disney fan. But Chen Honghui won my heart when I saw him in action. He may even be a more nuanced character than Shang, especially when it comes to his sexuality.

[Ed. note: This story contains spoilers for Mulan (2020) and Mulan (1998).]

Blasphemy, I know. But hear me out: because Honghui is now just a soldier, he establishes an actual rapport with Mulan early on in the movie, so the burgeoning attraction he feels toward her is present from the very beginning. Which means Hongui should be considered just as much a bisexual icon as Li Shang. Placing him on equal footing with Mulan gives the story a different flavor, and a fulfilling arc for the character, building up from an attraction to a mutual respect.

In the original 1998 movie, Shang doesn’t really interact with Mulan, beyond the musical sequence where he’s barking orders at everyone. They have a brief conversation when the emperor’s adviser, Chi Fu, tells Shang his soldiers aren’t ready, and Mulan assures Shang that he’s a great captain. (After that conversation, guardian dragon Mushu scolds her for checking him out and getting distracted from the mission at hand). But aside from that brief interaction, Mulan and Shang don’t ever spend much time together off the battlefield.

By placing Honghui in closer proximity to Mulan, the filmmakers immediately build more of a relationship between the two characters. He’s cocky, but he’s far from the mean bully that the casting call made him out to be. That character description did him dirty. They do, admittedly, get off on the wrong foot, but Mulan gets off on the wrong foot with just about everyone in the army. She first meets Honghui after she’s accidentally knocked back in line by some bickering soldiers and falls on her butt. He offers her a hand up, condescendingly calling her “little man.” On the defensive and thirsting to prove herself, she refuses his help and immediately goes for her sword, holding it up to his throat — and he does the same to her. Not the best first meeting, but not proof that he’s a bully, either.

honghui with his sword pointed at mulan — and hers under his chin Image: Disney

Actually, Honghui is one of the first soldiers to start talking to Mulan as a friend, directly addressing her when they’re in group settings. If the live-action Mulan succeeds at anything, it’s in encapsulating the sheer awkwardness Mulan feels in the camp, trying to hide her true identity and fit in among the male soldiers. She is even more out of place here than in the original movie, adjusting her binder in the secrecy of the early morning, and volunteering to take guard shifts during shower time.

Honghui is clearly drawn to her, even if he can’t particularly articulate why. He watches her closely in a way that definitely reads like he has a crush, even if he thinks she’s a man. He notices that she’s very skilled, especially after she demonstrates her superpowered chi thing. But instead of being the bully that early reports made him out to be, he’s the first one to approach her and try to form a friendship. Mulan bluntly refuses him, though it comes off as a countermeasure to protect her identity, and not because she doesn’t enjoy his company.

Honghui’s burgeoning crush on Mulan is further solidified when he has a bit of a heart-to-heart with her, asking if she’s been matched with anyone for an arranged marriage yet. Then he goes on to confide to her that he has a hard time talking to women, and it’s so much easier to talk to men. It doesn’t feel like he’s saying “Hurr durr, women are so complicated,” so much as like he’s confessing he feels emotionally attracted to men. This is also the scene where Mulan’s own feelings start to bubble forth, as she quietly tells him that she thinks women would like him.

Honghui eying mulan
Ah yes, a dude looking at his homie in a totally platonic way
Image: Disney

Caro admittedly does sideline the other soldiers in order for Honghui to grow. Instead of being lovable comedic buffoons, they all blend together, apart from wide-eyed Cricket, another new addition to the movie, played by Jun Yu. They’re given crass, loud dialogue in group settings that usually serves as noise for Honghui to cut through so he can address Mulan directly. It absolutely feels like he’s making a point of talking to his crush, who is a bit too awkward to speak up during group banter. Mulan appreciates this and the two share some awkward smiles as they bridge the gap of friendship.

If the filmmakers intended to start this relationship off in an antagonistic, non-romantic way, they totally failed. As it plays out onscreen, Honghui has it bad for Mulan, even if he thinks she’s a dude.

But the real difference between Honghui and Shang comes from the stakes involved with their positions. In the animated movie, Shang spares Mulan’s life and is one of the few people who listens to her when she explains that Shan Yu and his followers are out to kill the emperor. He’s partially able to do this because he’s an army officer, and has the authority to bring his people in to foil Shan Yu’s plot.

But when Honghui stands up for Mulan — after she’s been exiled from the army, but returns to warn them that the emperor is in danger — he doesn’t have any position of power. He’s risking his life and status, because he believes and trusts her. Unlike what the casting call implied, his view of her doesn’t change because he realizes she’s a woman. It was built from the very beginning.

As with the animated movie, Honghui and Mulan don’t officially get together at the end. They share a moment right before Mulan returns home. Honghui is a bit smoother than Shang and his “You fight good” line, telling her that he’d like to say goodbye to her properly before she rides out of his life. They share a brief hand-clasp of respect, and he says he’ll meet her again. The ambiguity of their relationship status works: At that point, Honghui’s attraction and curiosity, coupled with Mulan’s aloofness, have evolved into mutual respect. Unlike in the animated movie, Honghui doesn’t follow Mulan home and show up at her doorstep.

Yes, Shang still has my whole heart, especially his awkwardness when he reunites with Mulan. But I am a sucker for an ending where two characters fundamentally and deeply change each other, and part from each other in a bittersweet way. Honghui might never follow Mulan home. But she inspired him to defy direct orders and stand up for what he believes is right, while he gave her support, friendship, and validation when she needed it most. And that imbues a possible romantic arc with a deeper satisfaction. He isn’t Shang, but he isn’t a weak afterthought, either.