Hollywood blockbuster films are not exactly laden with movies that feature an all-Asian cast. In American cinematic history, the ones that many can recall are The Joy Luck Club, Crazy Rich Asians, and now, Shang-Chi: Legend of the Ten Rings. But what is it that makes Shang-Chi special? Is it just a movie with an all-Asian cast or does it have a story to tell?
While many Marvel fans may not know who Shang-Chi’s star, Simu Liu is, devoted Netflix binge-watchers know him as the lovable character, Jung from the Canadian sitcom, Kim’s Convenience. Liu played Jung, the estranged son of Mr. and Mrs. Kim and longtime star employee of Handy Car Rentals. Although it may not make much sense for Liu to go from a lighthearted sitcom actor to an action hero, Shang-Chi seems like the perfect vehicle for Liu to make this transition.
Shang-Chi follows the journey of a young assassin prodigy as he attempts to run from his problematic past. Admittedly, this was a huge risk for Marvel: a film with an all Asian cast, a relatively unknown actor who is more renowned for his comedic chops than being an action star, and starring a character who is definitely one of the less popular superheroes on Marvel’s roster. And yet, Shang-Chi knocks it all out of the park; not just as an Asian-influenced film but a film, overall.
Not Your Everyday Kung Fu Movie
At first glance, Shang-Chi: Legend of the Ten Rings resembles your average blockbuster kung fu movie of years past: mystical ancient Chinese secrets, a blood debt, martial arts, etc. but Shang-Chi is so much more than the typical kung fu movie. The film does a great job of marrying the atmosphere of the classic kung fu movies we know and love with the cultural relevance of today. Part of this is due to the fact that the film utilized the two members of the same stunt team as Jackie Chan. If the scene of Shang-Chi, Katy, and Xu Xialing fighting on the bamboo scaffolding looks familiar, that is because it is an homage to the parkour fighting styles of previous Jackie Chan movies such as Rush Hour, Shanghai Noon, Who Am I?, etc. This makes Shang-Chi both an homage to the other films that came before it in addition to being its own vehicle.
Moreover, there are several nods and in-jokes that show that the Asian backdrop of the film is not meant to be idle fan service for the Asian community. I think I speak for many of the Asian community when I say that we all breathed a sigh or had a knowing chuckle at Shang-Chi removing his shoes before entering Katy’s house and her grandma asking when Shang-Chi and Katy would be getting married after having been childhood friends for many years. Little details like this show that Shang-Chi: Legend of the Ten Rings understands its Asian audience. I must commend director Destin Daniel Cretton for his attention to such detail.
The cast is absolutely impeccable. Xu Wenwu (played by Tony Leung) as the centuries-old warlord hellbent on resurrecting his wife and seeking vengeance on the world that took her from him, Xu Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) as the little sister who never forgave her big brother for abandoning her with their mentally unstable father, and Katy (Awkwafina) as the best friend who has stuck by Shang-Chi’s side through thick and thin and is now coming to terms with who he is and the past he has hidden from her. Both the main and supporting cast all felt that they had a reason to be in this film and were a crucial part of its story and it succeeded in doing just that.
Superheroes are Human Too
What Marvel (in both comic books and films) has always excelled at is showing the human side of their characters. Just like Spider-Man is not just an Avenger but a high schooler trying to figure out how to manage to be a teenager as well as a superhero, Shang-Chi is a reformed assassin who also happens to have a lot of red in his ledger, (much like another Avenger) who is trying to reconcile his past while being a good friend to his closest ally, Katy. Throughout the film, we know that Shang-Chi has dealt with the following obstacles throughout his life: being a person of color (which coincidentally is how he meets his best friend, Katy), feelings of guilt in not being honest with one of his most trusted friends, feelings of guilt for abandoning his younger sister, Xu Xialing; etc. Overall, the film, its stellar cast, the director, and everyone involved telling an incredible story of not just a superhero, but a human being.
Of course, what is a superhero without their best friend? Awkwafina perfectly plays Shang-Chi’s best friend, Katy. The two became acquainted when Shang-Chi was bullied for being a person of color (something any person of color is fully familiar with.) What is great about Katy is she does not serve as some sort of love interest for the male protagonist; she is a valuable asset in Shang-Chi’s life and it is very clear that they have a very deep, but platonic friendship. It’s refreshing to see a female co-star not serve as a damsel-in-distress for the male lead. It is Katy who comes to Shang-Chi’s rescue, not once but TWICE in the film. In fact, the entire reason they became friends is due to Katy intervening when Shang-Chi (then known as “Shawn”) is the victim of a microaggression at his new high school. The trend of Katy rescuing Shang-Chi carries on into the last moments of the film, as well. It’s very clear that they both need each other as much as the other.
What Makes a Marvel Movie?
After about 2 decades of films, there are certain hallmarks of Marvel movies: a great film score, impeccable casting, serious moments offset with comic relief, etc. Shang-Chi does not miss a beat with any of these. Historically, the soundtrack to every Marvel movie includes an original score along with music from other artists. The film, Shang-Chi features various artists of Asian descent to bolster the Asian backdrop of the film. Not only that, the use of hip hop Asian musicians lends a more modern ambiance to the film than the kung fu movies of yesteryear. In terms of casting, Shang-Chi boasts an eclectic cast of both dramatic and comedic actors and actresses.
Despite being relative newcomers to starring roles in major Hollywood blockbusters, Liu and Awkwafina are able to hold their own next to such incredible talent as Tony Leung, Wah Yuen, Benedict Wong, and of course, the illustrious kung fu living legend, Michelle Yeoh. Liu and Awkwafina offer both compelling storytelling and comic relief when necessary throughout the film. It is safe to say that the latest installment in the Marvel Cinematic film franchise lives up to its predecessors. Then again, with a cast that includes amazing up-and-coming talent like Simu Liu and Awkwafina in combination with seasoned kung fu film veterans like Yeoh, it is hard to mess up such a recipe for success.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is playing in theaters