Review by Tim Robins
Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings is an enjoyable action movie that hops from place to place and from time to time in a colourful adventure with lots of engaging performances from the cast and sundry CGI beasts, some owing their origin to Chinese mythology others owing more to H.P. Lovecraft and the Marvel Universe.
The film is the cinematic debut of the character Shang-Chi, who made his debut in Marvel Comics in the 1970s, in the title Hands of Shang-Chi: Master of Kung Fu. As the comic’s title suggests, Shang-Chi hails from a time when so-called “martial arts” were wrapped in an entirely bogus glamour that enchanted the West, but was about as plausible as that other 1970s’ obsession – ancient astronauts. The character has been updated many times, although the story of his rebellion against his crime boss father remains a common thread.
The movie’s cast does much to make the absurdities of the plot palitable. Simu Liu won me over as Shang-Chi, not an easy task as, thanks to the wonderful artwork of Paul Gulacy, the original character in the comics more closely resembled Bruce Lee. The fight scenes with Liu are convincingly visceral, something lost when the character is replaced by CGI.
We first meet Shang-Chi working as a car valet under a Westernized name, Shaun. His friend, fellow valet and soul mate, Katy aka Ruiwen (played by Awkwafina) is a fun-loving San Franciscan who finds herself on a trajectory that takes her into the realms of Chinese mythology she barely knew existed.
Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, as Shang-Chi’s Father, Xu Wenwu, makes an entirely plausible 1000 year-old warlord, tormented by his wife’s death at the hands of a rival gang. Although, since Wenwu can live for eternity, I’m not entirely sure why he needs to train Shang-Chi to take over from him. The film’s exceptional female cast – including Meng’er Zhang as Shang-Chi’s estranged sister, Xu Xialing, Fala Chen as Jiang Li, Michelle Yeoh as Ying Nan, his aunt and guardian of the mystic realm of “Ta Lo” – stayed with me long after I’d confused the fight scenes with those from other movies.
That said, director Destin Daniel Cretton, has done an exemplary job mastering the three-ringed circus that is an MCU movie. By giving time for the fights between Shang-Chi and various assailants to be choreographed, many of the sparring matches stand up to the exacting tastes of today’s action movie fans. A fight between Shang-Chi and Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu) on a barely under control bus is particularly gripping, despite two blink-and-I-hope-you-will-miss-them moments in which Simu Liu’s CGI’d face looks under-defined. As the bus careered over the hills of San Francisco only to plough into a line of parked cars all I could think was, “This will all end in tyres!”.
The film’s requisite MCU world building is relatively painless. Much of it is played for laughs. Dr Strange’s manservant ‘Wong’ (Bruce Wong) is seen in a Mixed Mystical and Martial Arts (MMMA) fight with The Abomination. Ben Kingsley, reprising his role as Trevor Slattery, introduces a welcome change of energy playing a double act with Morris, a mythical DiJiang. (Although it’s difficult not to notice that the double butt DiJiang from Chinese folklore bears a passing resemblance to the orifice-free pet in Daniel Clowes’ Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron and the reprehensible alien ‘Zirk’ from “Axel Pressbutton”, first seen in Dez Skinn’s Warrior magazine).
My only disappointment with the film’s take on Shang-Chi was the rings themselves. Once upon a time, Shang-Chi’s hands and fighting skills were the focus of the character, but now the energised bracelets of power, which also now appear in the comic, have reduced Shangi-Chi to yet another superhero wielding CGI energy blasts. It’s not surprising that the critics have heaped praise on the fights scenes before Shang-Chi acquires these.
The script, credited to Cretton, Andrew Lanham and Dave Callaham is the one ring that rules them all. The writers’ meticulously structure the digressionary, picaresque plot by using the opening scenes to set up the main characters, involve us in their lives and foreshadow their actions later in the film. Shang-Chi’s and Katy’s disregard for responsibility in favour of a late night Karaoke bar sets up an amusing mid-end-credit joke.
There are numerous nods to other movies through the film. What you spot depends on your previous movie watching experience. I noted scenes recalling Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Kill Bill Vol 1 (2003) and Speed (1994). Apparently, The ‘ten rings’ echo the iron rings used by Chiu Chi-ling’s Tailor in Kung Fu Hustle (eagle-eyed fans have spotted a poster for that on Shaun’s bedroom wall).
In contrast, some aspects of the film have not been universally welcomed, particularly in China. Part of the problem is that, in the 1970s, Marvel acquired the rights to Sax Rohmer’s stories featuring ‘Fu Manchu’ and proceeded to make the character Shang-Chi’s father. Thankfully, Marvel eventually lost the rights to Rohmer’s characters but there were already “Fu Manchu” types in the Marvel Universe ready to take his place, whose roots stem from similarly grotesque caricatures. Among them, “The Mandarin” (who first appeared in Tales of Suspense #50, cover-dated February 1964), and “The Yellow Claw”, (who first appeared in Yellow Claw #1, cover-dated October 1956, published by Atlas Comics, the 1950s predecessor of Marvel, who Jim Steranko revived for Marvel, first appearing as a robot in the “Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.” feature in Strange Tales #160 (September 1967).
(Amazingly, Marvel intended to use “The Mandarin” as the head of ‘The Ten Rings’ gang in Iron Man 3, before some kind of sanity prevailed and he was turned into Kingsley’s comedic Liverpudlian fall-guy).
Marvel have been trying to walk-back the offending character but, despite their efforts, Shang-Chi’s father is still being credited as ‘The Mandarin,’ even though the script has Shang-Chi and Katy ridiculing the name as referring to a duck dish or an orange.
As with other films and other media, it is incredibly hard to extricate or even disassociate Oriental stereotypes from popular culture. One of the posters for Shang-Chi features his father looming over him. The armbands stand out from the background and after a quick glimpse of the image, to my eyes, they looked exactly like ten glowing talons.
Even less impressive is Marvel’s claim to be supporting Asia-American identity politics. That fans created a GoFundMe page to raise money for Asian American Pacific Islander (API) children at the Boys & Girls Club in San Gabriel Valley to see the film is lovely to hear, but is not exactly community activism. Nor is the information that private screenings were organised for other non-profit groups on its opening weekend “to help the film earn a successful opening weekend box office gross”.
The role model here is, of course, Black Panther (2018) but, as hard as it is for some Hollywood executives to understand this, becoming a blockbuster is not a hallmark for emancipation. Especially if all “community” means is being an audience for the products of Marvel Studios.
Beyond selling cinema tickets, Marvel’s ‘business’ is offering commodified identities to its audience. “Being all you can be” (the main message of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings) is imagined as an endless shopping trip, in which Marvel’s products are seen as participating in, and even enabling, a materialistic process of “becoming”. In this way, Shang-Chi and the Legend of The Ten Rings is really no different than the obnoxious advertisements that preceded the screening of the film I saw.
One, for example, also currently airing in various commercial TV channels, used concerns about climate change and young people’s environmental activism to sell the idea that buying a pair of Levi’s jeans will save the planet. The message it carries is that expensive clothes last longer, so they don’t have to be replaced as regularly as cheaper ones made by rival companies. In a similar way, Marvel Studios hawks the idea that American Asian and Pacific Islands communities and identities can be achieved and celebrated by buying more of their stuff.
Sometimes sitting in the cinema and watching an MCU movie feels like being trapped in the belly of a beast who’s digestive juices are gradually eating me away from the inside out. It’s hardly surprising that, although I left the cinema in high spirits, I couldn’t shake the feeling that my soul had just been sucked dry by an acquisitive Dweller in the Darkness.
Looking down at my notes, written in the all-digesting darkness, I found that I had scrawled “Embrace the nonsense!”. And, if you want to enjoy this movie, you will have to embrace it too. Enjoy the feast!
• Shang-Chi and the Legend of The Ten Rings is in cinemas now, and is estimated for general home release in November 2021
Dear reader, a review is an opinion. Other opinions are available
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