While so many of Disney's most popular live-action remakes have remained quite faithful to the animated original, Mulan is being defined by its differences. Many characters who appeared in the animated Disney version won't appear in the live-action remake, and that includes the primary male lead of the movie. In the animated Mulan, the title character meets Li Shang, who starts out as a leader and mentor for Mulan, but by the end of the story, he's a love interest as well. However, there's nobody by the name of Li Shang in the new film.
Back in 2018 I had a chance to visit the set of the new Mulan, and producer Jason Reed explained there that the decision to split Li Shang into two different characters came simply from the passage of time, and the fact that seeing Mulan in a personal relationship with a superior officer was especially uncomfortable in a modern context, and so the decision was made not to endorse such a relationship. According to Reed...
I think particularly in the time of the Me Too 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 that we’re doing everything we can to get out of our industry.
While the Ballad of Mulan is an ancient story, the romance angle is a modern addition, so there's no real reason to adhere to it. The new film can still be a Mulan story without it. There have been many changes to the Mulan story in various books and film and that's sort of the point of adaptation.
If you're going to try an update Mulan for a modern audience, there may be no better way to do it. Jason Reed's comment here, that including the relationship would be a tacit justification certainly makes some sense.
Still, the character of Li Shang is no less important to Disney's version of Mulan. What's more Li Shang has become something of an LGBTQ icon over the years, and it's clear the new film did not want to lose that, and so, the decision was made to simply change him a bit. One character became two. Jason Reed gores on...
So we split Li Shang into two characters. One became Commander Tung who serves as her surrogate father and her mentor in the course of the movie and the other is Honghui who is her equal in the squad and there is no power dynamic between them but there is the same dynamic that was in the original movie with Li Shang which is like ‘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 I think in this movie I actually think it plays in a little more sophisticated way.
It's impossible to divorce our own feelings entirely from a story, and so if you find the previous Mulan relationship hasn't aged well, or was full of problems to begin with, these changes will only help the new film. And Li Shang certainly was never a surrogate father in the animated movie, as that would have made relationships even more bizarre, so this decision actually adds some new dynamics to the film allowing it to try new things.
Really, the fact that Donnie Yen won't be singing "I'll Make A Man Out Of You" is the real loss.
Pre-sale tickets for Mulan are available now.