It’s been almost four years since the release of Black Panther. Two dozen films down and only one black-led film and two female-led films isn’t exactly an accomplishment. But in their defense, which isn’t much coming from me I know, Marvel seems to be attempting to right their past oversight. Black Panther was a monolith of a film. The Ryan Coogler directed Afro-centric, afrofuturist film saw the proper introduction of the nation of Wakanda, the stellar performance of the late Chadwick Boseman as the eponymous hero, and gave an entire community a movie to rally behind, draw inspiration from, and champion as uniquely for them. Destin Daniel Cretton seeks to do this for the AAPI community with Shang-Chi and let me say up front, this film delivers on all of its expectations.
Let’s get into those expectations real quick. Six years ago a YouTube channel called “Every Frame a Painting” put out a video called “Jackie Chan – How to Do Action Comedy.” In nine minutes, it walks through the differences between American-shot action films and Asian-shot action films. The differences, once pointed out, are stark. Where a Chinese-directed Jackie Chan action film will leave the camera stationary to capture the action in long form, American-directed action films tend to move the camera a lot, draw in close, or cut up the action. In many cases the latter style is used to obscure the stunt actor from the viewer, or to hide the actor (who likely doesn’t know how to fight) and their movements from attentive viewers. Honestly there is a ton of information in this video that has framed the way I see action in movies. Especially martial arts. The biggest expectation Shang-Chi had to live up to was: Would it take the time to create action sequences that felt real, fast, and physical? Short answer: YES.
There is truly so much to this film. Destin Daniel Cretton, director of Short Term 12 and Just Mercy, takes the already daunting task of “make a Marvel movie” with the added modifier of “help us kickstart our Asian representation” and then makes one of the most reverent, diverse, and magical movies of the MCU. A movie that spans thousands of years of history, travels from San Francisco to Macau to a hidden land, and positively vibrates with style and voice. And, on top of all of that, delivers – without a doubt – some of the most entertaining hand to hand combat in the MCU.
The film focuses on Shaun, a late twenty-something valet, and his best friend Katy (also a valet). Both are kind of slouching their way through life, doing what they enjoy but not pushing themselves. Certainly not as much as Katy’s mother and grandmother want. The trajectory of their lives changes rapidly when they are attacked by assassins sent by Shaun’s (actually, Shang-Chi’s) father Wenwu, leader of the Ten Rings.
In terms of origin stories for super heroes, most of the time I roll my eyes pretty heavy at each attempt. Perhaps it is the fact that there are multiple origin stories for heroes like Batman, Spider-man, and Daredevil. How many times do we need to see Bruce Wayne’s parents die, am I right? Shang-Chi feels like it avoids a lot of these faux pas. Of course, we’ve never seen this hero before, so we don’t run the risk of retreading known material. But even mechanically, as origin stories are told, the introductory montage isn’t here, the “pre-powers to post-powers” short story isn’t here. Shang-Chi and his story feels like it picks up where its characters are, not particularly worried about viewer knowledge driving the script. As the film progresses, yes, you are told where each character comes from. You’re even given a bit of the “this was my childhood” story, but it feels so much less forced than hero origin films of yore.
The cast for Shang-Chi is phenomenal and almost entirely East Asian. Simu Liu of Kim’s Convenience plays Shang-Chi. His dedication to stunt work and martial arts training is apparent the entire movie. He also absolutely has the ability to demand your full attention be it in moments of drama and comedy. His best fried Katy is played hysterically by Nora Lum aka Awkwafina (Ocean’s Eight, Crazy Rich Asians). Tony Chiu-Wai Leung (The Grandmaster, Europe Raiders), Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Crazy Rich Asians), Benedict Wong (Nine Days, Doctor Strange), Fala Chen (The Undoing), and newcomer Meng’er Zhang fill out the remainder of the cast. Each actor elevates the film in their own way. Yeoh’s experience working on Crouching Tiger comes through in her scenes with Liu. Leung’s years of experience in Chinese cinema lends a tremendously genuine energy the scenes he shares with younger actors. Wong is always a welcome cameo in the MCU, and his house guest raises easily a dozen questions. Meng’er Zhang’s debut is nothing short of laudable. She positively commands the camera, even sharing a scene with Liu.
I was also pleasantly surprised by how much of this movie is in Chinese. The entire opening is subtitled, prompting my brain for a moment to ask if I had mistakenly sat in a Chinese language screening (no it doesn’t make sense, don’t pick on me). Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is completely unashamed of its heritage, its place in the MCU, the responsibility on its shoulders, and the watchful eyes of the AAPI community looking for their Black Panther moment. I cannot speak with one hundred percent assuredness, as I am not AAPI myself, but this film is made with so much respect for its influences I imagine the AAPI community will find what they have been looking for here, in spades.
Shang-Chi has it all. From incredibly choreographed fight scenes that would make the most scrutinizing of fans happy, to flourishing movement and martial arts reminiscent of the classic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The film carries you from gritty action drama to Studio Ghibli magical adventure at a moment’s notice, mixing fantastical locations and millennia-old myths with urban fight clubs and Kung Fu brawls. Imperial Guardian Lions come to life and huli jing prance and call. As I mentioned before, this movie is wild. Where Shang-Chi, as a character, fits into the MCU will reveal itself as time progresses. Suffice it to say though, this movie definitely gives you an idea of where his story will lead.
I went into Shang-Chi hoping that an Asian led, Asian starring Kung Fu movie would have good fight scenes. While that hope is a little shallow, what Shang-Chi did was far more important than that. Were the fight scenes good? Hell yeah. But what I fell in love with even more was this film’s care for its people, their culture, showing how that culture fits next to the rest of us, and its dedication to telling you their stories the way they want to tell them. I am not AAPI, but I am BIPOC, and I remember exactly how I felt walking out of Black Panther. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings has done the work to be a film of equal importance to Asian audiences around the world. After just our first serving, I cannot wait for more. | Caleb Sawyer