As a culture writer, a Chinese person, and a comics nerd, I’ve had a deep interest in the character of Shang-Chi, and the way he has been used over the last half century. I’ve written about him in the build up to Marvel’s first Asian led movie, but now that I have seen the film, and had a chance to really digest it, I’ve got a lot to discuss.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, directed by Destin Daniel-Cretton, is an origin story of Xu Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), drawing more from the later sanitised version of the character. We first see him as a lowly immigrant, working as a car valet in San Francisco, with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina). The pair are atypically unambitious, content in their menial jobs and choosing fun over responsibility at all turns. One day, as they take the bus to work, they are attacked by assassins, and Shang-Chi reveals his kickass kungfu skills, and subsequently, the past he’s kept hidden. Katy volunteers to go with her friend, whom she’s previously only known as Shaun, on his journey to confront his family. Amidst flashbacks to his childhood with his late mother Ying Li (Fala Chen) in the mountain retreats of China, they track down Shang-Chi’s sister Xu Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) in Macao. As the siblings meet in the fighting ring and then battle more assassins, it becomes clear just who is behind it all.
The film deserves a lot of points for getting the Asian culture right, whether it is the traditional or the contemporary. Katy’s family breakfast scene would have resonated with many of us, though the makers seemed to think that exploring the typical dynamics within an Asian family was somehow at odds with what Marvel’s core audience wants, the kungfu fighting. It is dealt with as briefly as possible to leave as short a gap until the next fight. Similarly, the ABC BFF sidekick barely has time to react to her best friend’s secret-keeping, or to all the culture shock that ensues, before something else more incredible takes place. Nevertheless, the brevity of these scenes detracts little from their cultural accuracy. The pushy parent, the emotionally manipulative grandmother, the crippling anxiety about disappointing high expectations, all deftly painted in concise brush strokes. Impressive for the MCU. These short vignettes are peppered through the film, even to the mid-credit easter egg, when Shang-Chi, Katy and Wong, bond over karaoke. Stereotypical? Yes, but also, accurate.
On the subject of music, the soundtrack, featuring 88 Rising, not only taps into the hip-hop x kungfu connection, but also promotes Asian American artists, whilst the presence of the Mayday posters on the wall of Xialing’s teenage bedroom, alongside ACDC ones, is a lovely detail that shows respect for the role models of rebellion from her own culture.
I was impressed by the quality of the Mandarin spoken by the leads (compared to the usual level in such works) and the amount of subtitled dialogue. The film even boldly begins in a foreign language. This removes one of the problems I had with films Disney’s last foray into Chinese culture, with the live action Mulan, in which Chinese actors, playing Chinese characters, are made to converse in awkward English for the entirety of the film. It’s only natural that Shang-Chi’s mother would speak to him in his mother tongue, and that when meeting after six years, the first words that come out of his mouth to his little sister, would be in Chinese.
It’s hugely positive to see how much screen time is given to Shang-Chi’s past and upbringing, not only his childhood, but also the history of his parents, especially compared to the early comics. I have gone on record, in earlier articles, that Shang-Chi’s relationship with his father is one of the most problematic aspects of the character’s origins, and that any contemporary continuation of his story would need to effectively address it. Ten Rings does this both admirably, and with dexterity.
Our villain, Xu Wenwu (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung) is presented as an individual, rather than a fear-derived stereotype of a nation, and Leung’s performance does not disappoint, delivering the portrait of character that develops and is driven by complex emotions. No longer a Sax Rohmer horror show, he brings us a man of charisma, a father, husband, rather than just a power-hungry warlord. The mocking joke at the dinner table about the ineffectual imposter who claimed his organisation, and named themselves after an orange, acknowledges the character’s uncomfortable past in the comics universe, with enough self-mockery to be suitably humble, whilst indirectly poking fun at the Mandarin’s poor representation in Ironman III.
At the risk of turning into a jukebox kungfu movie, Ten Rings offers the audience every kind of fight scene in the cinematic repertoire, set to a soundtrack of melodic Eastern-style incidental music or energetic hip hop. There is the Jackie Chan-style slapstick improv in a confined space on a moving vehicle, the illicit fighting ring, the bitter family feuds, the risky bamboo scaffold tangle, the moody assassins fight of one against many on a building site, the lingering lover’s duel, the gangster’s brawl, the crowd battle scene alongside mythical creatures, the final showdown with the nemesis, and of course, a fight involving a dragon.
For the audience in China, or the seasoned fan of kungfu cinema, the wushu in this film may feel rather basic, but it sits at an appropriate level for the movie’s target audiences, who may not possess the visual language, knowledge or, even interest of C Drama-level discussions of kungfu. The film doesn’t stray far from the core principles of wushu, harnessing the surrounding energies, knowing oneself, and the Chinese approach of 以柔克刚 (yirou kegang), subduing strength with supple agility, as can be seen in the skills of Ying Li. Of course, no kungfu movie is complete without a training scene with a special teacher and a moment of levelling up. Michelle Yeoh, who has now played a few wise wuxia instructors, delivers her role perfectly here as Yingnan, Shang-Chi’s aunt, the one who enlightens him and enables him to raise his abilities to match the power-enhanced Wenwu.
Ten years ago, Western kungfu films would have drawn a different set of influences, but scenes such as the bamboo maze, the colour schemes and costume design of Talo wouldn’t have been possible without visual influences from works like Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers, and the final face-off between Shang-Chi and Wenwu against a background of blackened volcanic rocks, with light rays crackling from their weapons, are very reminiscent of contemporary Chinese qihuan fantasy series. There’s a wonderful kind of incongruity, between the seedy mahjong parlour where Wenwu seeks revenge (a cinematic construct that bears the unmistakable mark of Hong Kong cinema), and the visual world of Mainland 5th Gen wuxia, when Shang-Chi’s parents first meet. In Sinophone cinema, you’d rarely see an idyllic world of ethnic hanfu in the same film as a bride in republican-era cheongsam. However, in a creative space outside of the native genres, there’s the potential for something different and new.
I was delighted with the traditional cultural appreciation, rather than appropriation, not just in the sense of the old and immutable but as something that is still alive and growing. Ten Rings was released (and set) during Ghost Month, China’s second annual festival of the dead, a time when spirits of the dearly departed return to the living world to visit their loved ones. As a story about confronting one’s buried past, remembering a lost relative and seeking to (literally on Wenwu’s part) to reconnect with them, it couldn’t have been a more appropriate occasion.
The offering of miniature figurines of the deceased’s favourite things, and the burning of paper effigies of them instead of paper money has been a ritual development from the past two decades in China, where cremation of the body followed by a memorial space in the cemetery, has become a lot more prevalent as a burial rite. We can see these gifts being prepared by Katy’s grandmother at the breakfast table, cigarettes and a paper car. The way her waipo (maternal grandma, played by Tsai Chin) speaks about her late waigong as if he’s still alive vividly demonstrates Chinese attitudes to the dead.
Shrines for the dead are one of the most charming Chinese rites of remembrance, and also visually stunning. The scenes of Shang-Chi at his mother’s shrine at the family home, and then again in the Talo ancestral hall, provide some lovely contemplative respite from all the fighting, and comes directly from the 2020 reboot comics. Equally beautiful are the shuidenglong (floating lanterns) along the river in Talo, a ritual to light the way for the souls of the dead either en route, or on their return, to the underworld.
Like the martial arts set pieces, the architectural inspirations in the film seem be a whistlestop tour of memorable landscapes from wuxia cinematic history. The inner courtyard that is the staple of historical dramas, the yellow rooftops, green ceiling struts, red pillars and white railings that serve as the backdrop to so many palace stories. Nevertheless, and perhaps because of this, they convey different kinds of atmospheres so effectively, from the harsh and forbidding stone courtyards of within Wenwu’s fortress; to the open, rustics designs and warm colours of Talo, where, in the clothing of its inhabitants can be seen a mixture of South-East Asian cultures.
It gave me a thrill to see the mythical creatures from my culture in a Marvel movie, the Fenghuang (Chinese phoenix), the Qilin and the Long (Chinese dragon), three of the Ruishou (Auspicious Creatures), as well as the Jiuweihu (nine-tailed fox), another commonly featured creature of good fortune. Also wandering around in Talo are the lesser known Suanni, fierce leonine creatures that guard to Dark Gate with the Great Protector, and of course, Dijiang, the six-legged, four-winged mythical bird that can sing and dance; though I have to admit, it took me a little while to get over the fact that Marvel had taken this wondrous creatures from my culture’s mythos, and named it Morris. Most of these beings can be found in China’s ultimate mythical bestiary, the Shanhaijing (and no, none of them are Pokemon). I shall be writing more about them all soon.
I was nervous going into this film, knowing that they would be featuring dragons, and a little voice in my head kept whispering “Fin Fang Foom”, but as I watched the magnificent white dragon soar through the water carrying Shang-Chi and Xialing on their way to vanquish the Dweller-in-Darkness, the film deserves credit for trying its best to right the wrongs of cultural misrepresentation in the early days of the Master of Kungfu. Even my discomfort at Morris dissolved, as he plays a key role as a guide in the plot, and as I came to see the need for the everyman voice the film was trying to provide with Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley), the Impostor Mandarin, as it takes the audience into another dimension, immersed in Eastern mythos. The now cleaned up and humbled Trevor serves a far better purpose here as the comic relief than he ever did in Ironman III. While Marvel’s back-peddling on the Mandarin is transparent, it is pleasing because they acknowledged the need to do so.
In the first stinger, Wong tells Katy and Shang-Chi that what they are about to experience would be like nothing they’ve known before. This is unlikely, considering the Master of Kungfu’s half a century of journey through the Marvel comics universe, where he had been an ally and fought alongside multiple superhero groups, including the Avengers themselves. It’s certainly rewarding for the comics fans to see the MCU continuing some of the cultural world building that already exist, such as Shang-Chi’s otherworldly origins that was explored in the K’un-lun of the Marvel alternate Battleworlds (2015), now given another dimension from his mother in the film; the sibling rivalry that is part of the backstory in Shang-Chi 2020, with Shi Hua leading the rival organisation of the House of Hammer, now given a punkier and feminist twist with Xialing at the helm and her army showing gender parity in their new soldiers. Considering all the positivity coming out of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, I can’t wait to see what the sequel brings.
Posted in Commentary and tagged china, Chinese, cinema, comics, culture, film, Ghost Month, kungfu, Mandarin, Marvel, MCU, reaction, Shang-chi, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, wushu, Wuxia