Representation is a big thing in American cinema right now. Finally. For too long Hollywood has pushed stories centring on young, straight, white men and is now realising that this is neither necessary (which was a publicly unspoken commercial rationale) or appropriate (which was just ignorance). For more on the checkered history of this read Helen O’Hara’s Women Vs Hollywood: The Fall and Rise of Women in Film, which as the title states focuses on female representation but actually looks more widely at why this very narrow proportion of human beings have dominated this field for so long.
It isn’t long ago that Wonder Woman came out and for the first real time little girls had a hero they could identify with on screen. Running behind, Marvel Studios then followed this with Ant-Man and the Wasp and Captain Marvel. This studio also gave us Black Panther with an almost entirely African-American cast and they are shortly releasing Eternals where one of the central group is gay. Disney have slowly been dropping gay characters into their family films too with Le Fou in Beauty and the Beast and Officer Spector in Onward. We’ve yet to see an openly gay protagonist in any of these movies but it’s got to be close. Netflix animation Meet the Mitchells had a lesbian lead although she was merely coded gay for the majority of the film only being revealed as actually having a girlfriend at the end. Raya and the Last Dragon was the first Disney Princess film to tell a story from South East Asia and Crazy Rich Asians was also just three years ago when everyone cheered because of how it centred solely on a different culture. We can dream of a time when this isn’t an issue anymore and we can start to hope that that time might actually be coming. Slowly all kinds of groups are beginning to see people like them on up the big screen.
Following this exciting trend Marvel have now brought us Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings which has a Chinese superhero at its centre. Marvel Studios actually have some work to do with their representations of Chinese people. Twice when they wanted to bring established characters with this background from the comics to the big screen, they were so cautious about reinforcing the offensive stereotypes seen on the page that they just ran from it. The Ancient One in Doctor Strange was a wizened old Chinese man with a long beard in print but rather than address this they just cast Tilda Swinton instead, and when they introduced The Mandarin in Iron Man 3, a villain who originated in the 60s and fed into attitudes about evil Asians fuelled by the Vietnam War, they revealed that said terrorist leader was actually an actor called Trevor Slattery from Liverpool, covering for some else’s nefarious schemes. The latter story twist was a brilliant about face but it didn’t address damage done by the way the character had been presented previously.
Recognising this Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings actually has the real Mandarin as the bad guy but he isn’t really called that and they do explicitly tackle the ignorance in the invention and the acceptance of that title. Here the man, Xu Wenwu, known variably as Master Khan, The Most Dangerous Man on Earth, Warrior King and Conquerer (but not The Mandarin) is the leader of the Army of the Ten Rings, as was the case with the fiction created around Trevor Slattery, and he is not a stereotype at all. Said fighting force is named after a denary of ancient mystical bracelets that Wenwu wears giving him incredible powers. Wenwu’s son was supposed to follow in his father’s footsteps and was trained to do so but ran from this and he is the Shang-Chi of the title. Incidentally, Shang-Chi is the son of Fu Manchu in the comics but the company no longer has the rights to that character anymore. This is not something they’d fight because Fu Manchu has been a terrible racist stereotype in every incarnation from the original 1910s novels, through the Christopher Lee films and every pop culture reference since. Thank goodness he’s gone.
The good news then, is that on this occasion Hollywood and Marvel have got it right. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a great movie in every respect.
The first thing is that, as much as this English bloke can see, it feels very in keeping with Chinese cinema. The action starts in San Francisco but quickly moves to Macau and a fair portion of it is in Mandarin (the language not the reductive moniker). Even in the US set sections it feels reflective of films like Kung Fu Hustle, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, The Assassin, House of Flying Daggers and Ip Man, and in the later stages when the mystical and fantasy elements kick in it looks like a live action version of Chinese Donghua animation (which if you are not familiar, is very similar in style to Japanese anime).
The martial arts fighting is also superb. This is not a film that can rely on the incredible skills of its actors like The Raid; no one here is a modern day Jackie Chan, but while the combat moves are strong it is the orchestration rather than the choreography that makes these scenes special. There is a superb fight on a bus and brilliant one when they have just exited a skyscraper but I won’t say more about this so that you can discover it for yourself.
This film may not have a Jackie Chan but it does have another Hong Kong movie legend. This is Tony Leung’s American cinema debut but he has an extensive filmography including Hard Boiled, Infernal Affairs, Hero, Lust Caution and In the Mood for Love (for which he won best actor at Cannes) all of which I strongly recommend. Leung’s performance as Xu Wenwu is a highlight of the movie, in the acting and the writing. He is reminiscent of Ra’s al Ghul in Nolan’s Batman films but he is a nuanced villain, driven by more than arrogance and power, at least by the time the bulk of the film is set (there are flashbacks – this further fills and broadens the MCU timeline). There is tragedy in his characterisation and when you learn of his treatment of old Trevor Slattery, who was snatched by the Army of the Ten Rings for impersonating their boss, then you’ll get the true measure of the man.
Shang-Chi himself is played by Simu Liu who is also excellent and is probably the most downright likeable hero in the MCU since Cap. Whereas Steve Rogers was a normal guy who got superpowers though, Shang-Chi got powers and then became a normal guy. His dynamic with best mate Katy, played by Awkwafina, is wonderful as they work to live and live to party. I was disappointed when I learnt Awkwafina was only in the friend role in this film but actually this is managed well. She stands to become as significant a supporting player in the MCU as Happy Hogan or Wong, Pepper or Hope. Wong incidentally does appear in this film, along with some other familiar faces. If you know the previous work of director Destin Daniel Cretton, one of these cameos won’t be a surprise.
Of all the things I didn’t expect that this film gives, the best is the ambition. Shang-Chi is a new player in the MCU and is not well known in popular culture, so I had thought this might be a movie with a smaller focus like Ant-Man, Spider-Man Homecoming or Black Widow. It isn’t though, it is epic, possibly even more so than Captain Marvel, Doctor Strange or Black Panther. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings opens up the MCU again, like Thor did back in the day when it introduced aliens.
There might be stuff here that is a lot for some people to swallow, even for a series that has a talking racoon who is besties with a walking tree. There is one major plot progression instigated by a four winged headless bear. If you can roll with it though this is a raucous thrill that you’ll be happy to sing a long with. This is actually what sets it apart, the nationality of those involved being both deeply relevant and kind of irrelevant. This is just a great superhero movie that stands right next to any other.
The Ripley Factor:
Here’s the thing; Xu Wenwu didn’t only have a son, he also had a daughter. Xialing, played with immense cool by Meng’er Zhang, is every bit her brother’s equal and totally key to the narrative. If it weren’t for the chauvinism of her father and of decades of comic publishing this could have been her story. I don’t think we’ll see a sequel titled Shang-Chi and Xialing, like we did with Ant-Man and The Wasp, as her arc is going off in a different direction but where the final events of the film promise a return for him, the final ‘James Bond will be back’ style message at the end of the credits promises a return for her.
There are clear feminist messages in the film and these concentrate mostly on Xialing. It seems cultural representation is not the only goal here and this is yet another thing in its favour.