Can ‘Shang-Chi’ Be A Seminal Moment For Martial Arts?


Modern-day martial arts have been a major phenomenon for eastern culture, dating back to 527 A.D. Like many things from the east, martial arts have spread across the globe like wildfire, and have found an ever-present home in cinema. Movies such as Iron Monkey, starring Donnie Yen, and The Karate Kid with its match-ending crane kick have introduced western movie audiences to martial arts culture. And yet, it is exactly this burgeoning popularity that has led to decades of Asian actors being typecast in roles and stories that reaffirm negative stereotypes. The latest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, might just change that.

From what we have seen of the film so far, it looks set to retain the MCU’s typical levels of style and action while bringing an exciting blend of martial arts to the forefront—a first for the franchise. Shang-Chi, the master of Kung Fu, is a character who is inextricably tied up with martial arts; the character made his comic debut in the same year Enter the Dragon starring Bruce Lee was released. Is this, however, a film that will follow the same path as some other martial arts and action-oriented movies in exoticising and stereotyping Asian people? Or will Shang-Chi break away from this trope and show the true meaning of martial arts?

The idea of a movie based around Marvel’s first Asian superhero is not one that the studio themselves are wholly responsible for. It is also partly thanks to the actor playing the title character, Simu Liu. In 2018, Liu tweeted Marvel directly asking about the possibility of a Shang-Chi solo film. Of course, we cannot straight up assume that it was all down to this that the movie came out (and talk of a Shang-Chi movie has been floating around for years, with the late Brandon Lee once considered for the part pre-MCU). But it seems safe to say that Liu’s intervention had a big influence. Within a year of this tweet, Marvel announced that the film was in development—something that not even Liu expected. 

Liu has demonstrated in the past how he feels about the westernisation of Chinese culture. He has been openly critical of films like Disney’s Mulan (both the animated and live-action films) and the way Chinese characters have been portrayed, coming across playfully in this tongue-in-cheek tweet. When last year’s live-action Mulan was released, many fans of the animated movie were hugely let down by not only the movie, but the decisions made during its development as well. The net result is this; a film that is complicit in human rights abuses, regurgitates current nationalistic myths, grossly appropriates one of China’s most beloved characters, and all in all fails both eastern and western viewers alike. The film westernises the celebration of Chinese nationalism, an act that has been roundly criticised by Chinese critics who have slated Mulan‘s historical inaccuracies and its depiction of Chinese people (the film’s production team is almost solely white).

Disney and Marvel did not want to make the same mistakes when producing Shang-Chi. The casting of Liu is one step in this direction, not only because of his heritage but also because of how outspoken he has been on these issues in the past. He would not have taken the main role of Shang-Chi if it simply regurgitated the errors of Mulan, suggesting that either the story was strong enough on a first reading or he had some say in any modifications. 

Liu believes that this movie is different from its predecessors, a sentiment he has repeated across the many interviews he has given since Shang-Chi was announced. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, he says that “there was a time [as an Asian actor], I didn’t want anybody to see me doing martial arts… but I grew up watching Jet Li and Jackie Chan, and I remember the immense amount of pride that I felt watching them kick ass. I think Shang-Chi can absolutely be that for Asian Americans.” Of course, Liu is always going to insist that something he had poured his energy into will be incredible. Nevertheless, what is definitely clear is that Liu’s shame at originally fitting an exoticising stereotype has been replaced with hope that he can be a new kind of role model in the MCU.

In the same interview, Liu talks about growing up in the west and how Hollywood has typically represented martial arts. This can be seen in movies such as the 1993 film Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, a movie based on the life of Bruce Lee. Although this is a film that celebrates Lee’s identity and pushes back against prejudice, certain scenes achieve this by rendering Kung Fu as something very exotic that adds fuel to the idea that Lee is irreconcilably different. The scene below, where Lee confronts a group of men racially insulting him, is just one example.

Taking a closer look at the two trailers that have come out for Shang-Chi, you can see a mixture of the same exoticising and honest portrayals of martial arts. The movie does not just have just a Chinese good and bad guy, nor are either reduced to the typified role of an Asian martial arts expert. Instead, a range of backgrounds and fighting styles are occupying the same action sequences, and Shang-Chi is rarely seen fighting more than one opponent at once. This is in contrast with many movies that have come before such as Kiss Of The Dragon. In this film, Jet Li fights multiple ‘experienced’ Kung Fu opponents and yet manages to come out on top. Scenes like these can be seen throughout many other traditional martial art movies, heavily adding to the exoticisation and false representation of martial arts. It suggests to viewers that not only is the Asian man the only one capable of fighting well, but that anyone can take on hundreds of people fighting in the style of Kung Fu.

The trailers also portray the rigorous training involved in martial arts. In the first trailer, you can see a young Shang-Chi where he is punching a pole with one of his trainers who is hitting him every time he stops. You also see him trying to push himself away from martial arts, stating in the second trailer how he wants a new identity. For a character of his strength and ability to say this evokes how martial arts is not for the light-hearted and should be respected. 

However, certain moments in the trailers seem to divert from this honesty in favour of exoticising glamour and wonder. When Liu meets his mother, she performs a style of martial arts which Liu looks at as representing some form of unspoken beauty. She could also be there to highlight two opposing views of how martial arts are used, views unavoidably drawn down gender lines; the father of Shang-Chi being the offensive and power-greedy side, and the mother being the peaceful and defensive side.

These engrained gender norms, whereby the women do not participate in martial arts’ violent side, is common throughout the genre (one welcome exception is Hammer Girl from The Raid 2, one of the most brutal villains of recent martial art movies). This is despite women having a much greater role in martial arts than this simple division would suggest. Wing Chun, the style of fighting that Bruce Lee was originally trained in, is believed to have been founded by a woman. This gendered norm is something that, at first glance, Shang-Chi doesn’t appear to be challenging.

We cannot truly tell which way the movie swings when it comes to its portrayal of the martial arts or of the Far East until the movie is out. But what we can tell from the trailer is that family and identity will be key themes in the movie. Whether these themes will be used to romanticise or exemplify martial arts is yet to be seen, but Liu’s involvement is a positive step and Marvel has had more than enough time to learn from the mistakes of the past.

Martial arts, and the characters who practice it, have for too long played a part in tried and tested imagery used to essentialise certain aspects of Asian culture. If Shang-Chi does indeed deliver on Liu’s promise, it is set to be one of the most important representations of both martial arts and eastern culture in a Hollywood film we have seen for some time.

Words by Arib Dauhoo

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