Marvel’s latest offering is both a strong addition to the superhero cinematic universe as well as a celebration of East Asian culture
It is undeniable how much of an impact Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings will have. The film has already been hailed as a momentous cultural event for East Asians around the world, and was tipped to break box office records before its release to cinemas worldwide.
The latest offering from Marvel Studios brings us our first new MCU superhero in over two years, ever since Brie Larson stepped out as Carol Danvers in Captain Marvel back in 2019. The film focuses on Xu Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), or ‘Shaun’ as he is introduced to us, and his struggle to face his inner demons when agents from his father’s army (known as the Ten Rings) confront him in present-day America. As the plot moves from San Francisco to Macau to the fictional Chinese village of Ta Lo, Shang-Chi must learn to face the past and make peace with the conflicting emotions and experiences within him, as he battles to save his mother’s home village—and, by default, the wider world in general.
In his debut feature film, Simu Liu gives a solid performance as Xu Shang-Chi, blending humour and likeability with the more serious nature of his character’s journey as the plot unfolds. His performance is even more impressive when we consider that Liu also performs many of his stunts himself. Shaun’s best friend Katy (Awkwafina) provides the catalyst for many of the laughs at the start of the film, but the more interesting aspect of her character is the way she subverts expectations. Katy is loud, brash, and outspoken—not the way people would stereotypically describe East Asian women. This can be also seen in Xu XiaLing (Zhang Meng’er), who rebels against her father’s misogynistic views and teaches herself martial arts and weaponry when no one else would take her seriously.
The strongest members of the cast however are undoubtedly Michelle Yeoh as Jiang Nan, a member of the magical village of Ta Lo, and Tony Leung as Xu WenWu, Shang-Chi’s destructive father. The inclusion of such veteran actors in the film is what gives Shang-Chi its edge. Michelle Yeoh is a force to behold on screen, having had previous martial arts experience with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, while iconic Hong Kong actor Tony Leung brings an incredible complexity to the character of The Mandarin. Despite being the ‘villain’ of the film, Leung is completely captivating and constantly blurs the lines as to the audience’s perception of Shang-Chi’s father. Gone are the days when it was clear who the bad guy is, and why—a la Thanos and Ultron. Instead, there exists a gray area—a muddied pool of conflict, grief and past mistakes, which could only be pulled off by an actor as accomplished as Leung.
As Shang-Chi boasts the first East Asian superhero in the Marvel series, and the first film to be helmed by an Asian director, naturally there are many aspects of East Asian culture that have been woven into the story (in subtle and not-so-subtle ways). Certain understated references in the film include taking one’s shoes off before entering a home, the mention of Chinese congee (zhou), and the Qingming festival—where families gather to sweep the graves of relatives and to remember their ancestors. This last example feels particularly emotive; like many of the traditions in Chinese culture, the Qingming festival revolves entirely around one’s family, both past and present. Though a small detail, for those in the know it further highlights the crushing experiences in Shang-Chi’s upbringing.
One important point is that these inclusions never feel laboured, offensive, or out of place—no matter how noticeable they are. One particularly memorable aspect is the delivery of the introductory exposition almost entirely in Mandarin. A bold decision from Destin Daniel Cretton, audiences worldwide are immediately immersed in Chinese culture whilst an implicit and important message is conveyed: we are proud of our heritage, and are willing to showcase this to Marvel’s typically-white fanbase.
Another very recognisable element of East Asian culture is the inclusion of martial arts. A staple in many of the films of yester-year involving East Asian locations or characters, it is brought to the fore in Shang-Chi. Whereas many Western films depict martial arts in stereotypically derogatory or limiting ways (see: the representation of the legend Bruce Lee in Once Upon A Time in Hollywood), Marvel leans into their prior experience with action and stunt-choreography to create fight-scenes that highlight the art form in all its glory, at once elevating East Asian practitioners instead of mocking them. Due to the inclusion of many different styles of martial arts, some of the action sequences are almost beautiful to watch. The first time Xu WenWu meets Wu LeiKo (Fala Chen), it is as though the characters are involved in an elaborate yet deadly dance, with the differing fighting styles of the two characters brought into sharp focus for the audience. Additionally, Shang-Chi also brilliantly utilises Awkwafina’s character, Katy, early on in the film to sidestep the stereotypical assumption that because martial arts originated in East Asia, all East Asians are therefore martial arts masters (as someone of East Asian descent, I can absolutely and sadly confirm this is not the case).
The men in Shang-Chi are emotionally complex, with one of the main themes of the film being the importance of accepting your past mistakes in order to grow as a person. However, Shang-Chi also serves to challenge the Western stereotype that East Asian men are emasculated and undesirable. Case in point: Simu Liu appears shirtless early on in the film, at which point I heard both my housemates audibly gasp at his incredible physique. Not that I am advocating for the objectification of East Asian men, of course, but it certainly makes me happy to think that we are moving towards eradicating the trope where Asian men are only portrayed as the punchline of a joke.
Nonetheless, all of this is not to say that Shang-Chi is without its failings. Personally I felt there were times when it did lose steam slightly. Due to the more fantastical elements in the story, there is a lot of exposition and as a result the pacing can be somewhat uneven, especially in contrast to the polished action sequences. Additionally, some of the comedy injected into the latter part of the film felt oddly jarring and left me feeling mildly irritated rather than amused.
Despite the film’s few flaws, Shang-Chi is not one to be missed. The plot is rich and dense with East Asian nuance, the characters are well-fleshed out and developed, and the action sequences are incredible to behold. Fans of Tony Leung and Michelle Yeoh will not leave disappointed, and it will be interesting to see how the character of Shang-Chi fits in with the rest of the superheroes in the films of Phase 4 of Marvel’s plan.
Don’t forget to stay for the two end credits scenes either—neither are to be missed!
Words by Yasmin Bye
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