Cast: Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen, Florian Munteanu. Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton.
Representation is at the forefront of every major release, and with good reason. For years it seemed like Hollywood had never thought that a Black or Asian or *shudder* woman director could helm a big-budget film. But though change has taken time, the time has come. Thanks in no small part to the money-making bonanzas of both Wonder Woman and Black Panther, Marvel Studios have plowed a metric ton of money into a low tier superhero Shang-Chi for a big budget outing.
Xu Shang-Chi going by the name Shaun lives out his life as a water-treading twenty-something in San Fransisco with his best friend Katy. When he’s attacked by a group of highly trained warriors on a bus and his pendant stolen, Shang-Chi must reunite with his estranged sister and face the oncoming threat of a legendary history spanning warlord – who happens to be their father.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings starts off in blisteringly confident fashion, telling the legend of Xu Wenwu, a near immortal warlord who conquered all he saw for centuries with the aid of his ten mystical arm rings. This sort of exposition dump intro is done with an element on tongue-in-cheek knowing it’s lichee but still offering deliciously gorgeous visuals to keep you going. It gives way to a beautiful wuxia-style fight that almost turns into a dance between two characters. It’s a spellbinding five minutes, filled with lush colours, the sort of shot composition that made Hong Kong cinema so thrilling to begin with.
This is the table that Destin Daniel Cretton sets out for us, big Marvel-style action but with a distinctly East Asian view. Cretton is not a director you would associate with big budget action films – less so than Ryan Coogler or Kenneth Branagh, Cretton’s previous output is worthy awards courting dramas – Short Term 12, The Glass Castle, Just Mercy – not the sort of effects driven mayhem on offer here. But Cretton knows that just like Coogler before him, he’s telling a story about identity. This is about what it means to be Asian in the modern world.
The film is not wanting for Asian stars, either, Simu Liu, perhaps best known for his role in sitcom Kim’s Convenience, makes a superstar of himself here, full of the right pain and anguish for a heroes origin story he knows when it’s time to bring the charm, and he does in spades. The story of a young man thrust into the heir of his father’s empire could have come across as overtly Thor or Black Panther-like but Liu eschews T’Challa’s stoicism and Thor’s bravado for a more mild-mannered hero that keeps you onside throughout.
He’s helped by a plethora of supporting players, Awkwafina mines the depths she showed in the wonderful The Farewell as well as her penchant for screaming obscenities for her role as Katy, not just a comic relief role that it could have been Katy is given a depth and a journey herself. In fact, the four primary characters are all given their own emotional arc, they’re not just in service to Shang-Chi. Similarly Meng’er Zhang as Shang-Chi’s estranged sister Xialing is a real standout, her no-nonsence introduction gives way to a character with hidden depth and heart. She strides out as the real MVP of the film, conveying deep emotion from just a flickering of her eyes.
It’s no surprise that the heavyweight cast members – Michelle Yeoh and Tony Leung – are exceptional. Both cast for their strong affiliation with martial arts epics but also because they can bring gravitas to even the silliest of dialogue. Yeoh channels her role in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as well as showing that she really is an under-appreciated presence in cinema. Leung in his first English speaking film brings the weight of his roles in Red Cliff, The Grandmaster and a strange as it may sound Lust, Caution to the film.
Leung’s Wenwu is not just another marvel baddie there to be punched, he’s given the same tragedy and honest motivation – as well as true menace – as Thanos was. The film takes time to show him as both man and myth and that gives the film its emotional depth.
The action is a slick as you’d like, from a show-stopping showdown on a bus – no Speed jokes give it minus points though – to a fight on some scaffolding that at times does give you a sense of the danger. There appears to be an element of DVD flicking, the action is loving to the tradition of Asian cinema but mixes it up so it never gets stale. Liu’s bus fight feels like pure Jackie Chan action, while later more climactic action brings in the more graceful wushu-style of fighting. The mid-film showdown with a gang of baddies and our heroes feels like it’s a slow-motion dove away from John Woo.
The film is not without its flaws, namely that when the third act becomes Godzilla: King of the Monsters the interest begins to dissipate. It becomes yet another Marvel effects climax and like so many, it loses interest, especially when the familial drama playing out between brother/sister and their dad is so rich for emotion and for a Martial Arts version of the fight from Civil War.
It must also be said that when the visual effects really kick in it does almost appear like we’re in Detective Pikachu territory with mythical animals and the like, which undoes the very real feeling combat and human connection we’ve had until that point.
Even so, this is a confident and often thrilling adventure featuring a new hero for people to look up to. For Asian audiences, it may ring as deep to them as Black Panther did to Black audiences, but for everyone else, this is simply a thrilling, funny, and at times moving escapade that shows that Marvel can switch it up. It shows that in the end, representation benefits everyone.