Why Shang-Chi Is The Movie Asia’s Been Waiting For
I got instant goosebumps the second the movie began. The narrator’s fluent Mandarin filled the room while the screen transported the audience back to ancient China. It was then when I realised just how different Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is compared to other Marvel films.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is Marvel’s first predominantly Asian-cast superhero film that stars protagonists Chinese Canadian actor, Simu Liu as Shang-Chi; and Hong Kong cinematic legend, Tony Leung-Chiu Wai as Shang-Chi’s dad and power-hungry supervillain, Wenwu. The large Asian cast continues with other familiar faces including Chinese American Awkwafina as Katy, Shang-Chi’s best friend; Hong Kong actor Fala Chen as Ying Li, Shang-Chi’s mother and guardian of a mystical secret village named Ta Lo; and Malaysian Chinese actor Michelle Yeoh as Jiang Nan, Shang-Chi’s aunt who also guards Ta Lo.
The audience is first introduced to present-day Shang-Chi, who goes by the name Shaun—a college graduate working as a hotel valet with his best friend, Katy. Despite being friends for ten years, it wasn’t until the pair were attacked by members of Wenwu’s Ten Rings organisation did Katy find out about Shang-Chi’s hidden martial art powers.
After being attacked by members of members from Ten Rings, Shang-Chi finally opens up to his best friend about his traumatic past where he trained to become an assassin under his dad’s encouragement to avenge his mom’s death; the fact that his dad is a crime boss with ten magical iron kung fu rings that gives him immortality and enough power to single-handedly defeat an entire army; and that he has a sister living in Macau whom he hasn’t seen since he escaped from the Ten Rings compound when he was fourteen. Heavy stuff.
The two then travel to Macau to find Xu Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), Shang-Chi’s estranged sister to warn her about Wenwu’s plans and discovered that his timid little sister is long gone. In its place is a cool, badass fighter who owns an underground fight club. Before the siblings could make up, however, members of the Ten Rings enter the scene and the two find themselves in an intense fight scene on bamboo scaffoldings. By the end of the fight, Wenwu appears—an official game over for all the fighting to stop, and everyone returns to Ten Rings’ base in a helicopter ride. Once they arrive, Wenwu reveals the reason for his recent involvement: that he’s been hearing his late wife, Ying Li’s voice whispering to him, asking him to break her free from the Dark Gates at her magical hometown, Ta Lo—and he wants his children’s help to bring the family back together.
The audience’s view of Wenwu slowly changes from that moment onwards. Instead of seeing him as a power-hungry killer who is trying to make his kids’ life miserable, we now realise Wenwu is simply a lovesick husband who would do anything to save the one thing he ever cared about: his wife. Even though that’s no excuse for all the lives he’s willing to kill, the audience now emphasises, or even romanticizes the villain. After all, haven’t we all done stupid things for love?
With familiar cultural traditions and references that’ll ring a bell to Chinese and Asian viewers throughout the movie, traditional Chinese beats and a soundtrack by Asian American music label 88rising, not to mention the obvious: a predominantly Asian cast featuring Asian actors from all backgrounds including Hong Kong’s cinematic legend, Tony Leung-Chiu Wai. This is the movie that Asian Americans, Marvel-loving Hongkongers and Asians from around the world have been waiting for.
The numerous Chinese culture references are a welcomed, heart-warming and familiar sight. While most people don’t have fathers who own magical kung fu rings, the concept of complete devotion to our elders in order to gain their approval is one that many children from Asian families are no stranger to. Marvel also did a great job of highlighting the gender disparity women face in Chinese families through the story of Shang-Chi’s sister, Xialing. While her brother was off training with martial arts masters, she was left to secretly train by herself in the shadows.
Other details such as the importance of family heritage and family name are also highlighted by Wenwu when he asked Katy for her Chinese name, as is the tradition of paying respects to our ancestors through lighting incense. Even Wenwu’s magical ten rings are a nod to Chinese culture—iron rings have long been used in martial arts to assist the training of the mind and body.
Having grown up in Hong Kong, it’s surreal to see local stars act alongside some of my favourite Asian American/ Canadian ones. Admittedly, I went into the cinema more excited about seeing Liu and Awkwafina’s goofy and down-to-earth personas play out on the big screen. However, when Leung made his first appearance on-screen, everything changed. The quiet tension in the cinema broke. Hushed, animated chatter circled around the room. The same thing happened when former TVB actress, Fala Chen came on-screen. The couple next to me instantly sat up straighter, voice animated and exclaiming, “It’s Chen Fala!” A wave of Hong Kong pride washed over the cinema, and I was not immune to it. Hong Kong representation on top of international Asian representation in a blockbuster movie? It’s a crossover that we didn’t expect, but it’s certainly one that I’m glad to see happen.
Since the film’s debut, people have been praising Hong Kong cinematic icon Leung’s performance, with some even saying that he outshined Liu’s role. With nearly 40 years of acting experience under his belt, it’s not hard to understand why. He brought Wenwu to life, acting out all the conflicting emotions the character felt with the simplest gaze. Although Liu may have been the official leading hero in this film, it’s Leung’s character and story that we felt drawn to. While this does take away Shang-Chi’s impact as a superhero to the audience, the film remains a stunning work of art.
To me, the movie as a whole wasn’t about which character shone brighter, or which one the audience supported more. Instead, it was an opportunity for Marvel to introduce the first Asian superhero, and that means setting the foundation by explaining the Chinese heritage, culture, family bonds and traditions that made Shang-Chi the person he is. By understanding his background, the audience now understands the decisions Shang-Chi makes, or doesn’t make. I’m not worried about Shang-Chi not being impactful enough as a superhero, there’s plenty of time for the new character to develop in future films. This movie was about representation—and the impact it's had on the Asian community is enough for celebration.
“One thing that I hope comes out of the (hopeful) success of this project is a realization that every community deserves to be represented in the superhero space,” Liu stated in a recent Q&A on Reddit.
“Superheroes represent the best of humanity, in strength of character and morality. They inspire hope and endless possibility. Once you see yourself reflected as that, you believe that anything is possible.”