Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings — the new Marvel movie, now playing in cinemas — makes some very smart choices. Its villain (and beating heart) is played by Hong Kong screen legend Tony Leung, known for engrossing romantic drama In the Mood for Love and crime thriller Infernal Affairs. Leung is excellent here as a grieving widower who wants the love of his life back, with his raw charisma and menacing energy boosting every scene he is in. The Shang-Chi cast also includes the Malaysian superstar Michelle Yeoh, who’s been everywhere from Star Trek: Discovery to the Oscar-winning martial arts film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon — one of many inspirations for this Marvel chapter. Yeoh has always been elegance personified, and she’s a magnetic draw on Shang-Chi.
Speaking of martial arts inspirations, if you’re making a movie in Hollywood that’s inspired by the genre, you cannot go wrong with William Pope. There’s few out there better suited for the task after all — Pope was the cinematographer on The Matrix and its first two sequels, so it’s sensible for Shang-Chi to pick him. Good action is about choreography of course but also cinematography, and hence, Pope benefits the film because he’s bringing expertise to the screen. I wasn’t blown away by the Shang-Chi choreography like I’ve seen and heard other critics talk about, but yes, there are flashes of brilliance. The wire fu and wuxia stuff — there’s an element of grace to it that further enriches the experience — set Shang-Chi apart from other Marvel Cinematic Universe movies.
But the most commendable choice of all is Shang-Chi director Destin Daniel Cretton’s — also co-writer with Dave Callaham (Wonder Woman 1984) and Andrew Lanham (Just Mercy) — commitment to an authentic experience. I was not ready for the amount of Mandarin there is in Shang-Chi (though it could be more, with characters switching to English when they could’ve continued in Mandarin). It seems Marvel purposely hid that from the trailers, almost as if it was afraid of scaring away audiences. But it’s nice to see the film is bold enough to hold its own.
In that vein, Shang-Chi‘s greatest achievement might be helping normalising subtitles. English-speaking audiences, especially native speakers, seem to have a particular dislike for reading at the movies. A couple of years ago, Oscar-winning Parasite director Bong Joon-ho asked people to get over the one-inch tall barrier, but despite its success, there’s only so many watching films like Parasite. If there’s any pop culture juggernaut that can push subtitles into the mainstream, it’s the MCU. Watch more movies (that aren’t in your language) with subtitles, is what I’m saying.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings opens by introducing Leung’s aforementioned villain: Xu Wenwu, an immortal leader thanks to his ten magical rings that also give name to his clandestine force, the Ten Rings. Yes, that makes him the real Mandarin — unlike the fake one played by Ben Kingsley’s character in Iron Man 3 — though don’t bring up that word with him. Wenwu scoffs at why someone would name themselves after an orange or a chicken dish (or the Chinese language, you know), which is a way for the Shang-Chi writers to poke fun at the Mandarin’s Marvel Comics origins. Wenwu was a greedy warmonger, Shang-Chi tells us, but then gave up the power of the rings for love. It’s a great way to instantly humanise him, making you connect with the villain.
But he wasn’t the only one who sacrificed something. His wife Li Jiang (Fala Chen, almost angelic in her brief role) gave up her magical powers, her family and her life in the mythical land of Ta Lo to be with Wenwu. Together, they had two children: Xu Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and Xu Xialing (Meng’er Zhang). Shang-Chi‘s opening moments between Wenwu and Jiang are amazing — with different visuals, different sounds (composer Joel P. West, Cretton’s frequent collaborator, brings in a variety of East Asian instruments and is helped by the entirely new soundscape they provide), and in a different language than what we’re used to with Marvel, they perfectly set the stage. I craved more of that energy throughout Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
Following the death of their mother, Shang-Chi was trained as an assassin from a young age by his father. But he then ran away when he was 14 and made a life for himself in the US — he met his girlfriend Katy (Awkwafina) in high school and has now known her for a decade. The latter’s grandmother teases the two on when they’re getting married but they are both just middling through life, shying away from embracing adulthood (and responsibilities). All that changes when some goons show up chasing one part of a MacGuffin, forcing Shang-Chi to find his estranged sister who has the other half of the MacGuffin. Turns out their father has some big plans for the family — that kicks off a mythological and magical journey as Shang-Chi and Xialing learn more about their origins.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is, at its core, a story about loss, trauma, and daddy issues. And everyone in the Xu family reacts differently to those events. Shang-Chi has internalised his problems — the fact that he’s running away from life (with Katy) is because he doesn’t want to face who he really is. That can be hard to portray on film though, and he does come across as a bit vanilla at times. His sister Xialing, one could argue, has suffered more. Her father didn’t allow women in the Ten Rings — they are overlooked everywhere but as is the case in Eastern cultures, there’s a paternalistic overture to it. Both Xialing and Jiang paid a heavy price, having to fend for themselves. And Wenwu, who thought he could leave his past behind, is now lashing out at the world in his grief.
Don’t take that to mean that Shang-Chi is a dark depressing tale. It’s anything but. Where the early scenes between Wenwu and Jiang are swooning, the Marvel movie shifts into a slapstick gear with Liu and Awkwafina — who go from doing a mini-Speed on the streets of San Francisco, a Jackie Chan-inspired high-stakes survival on bamboo scaffolding at a Macau skyscraper, to a climactic sequence that goes all out. There are dragons, colourful horses, giant cuddly lions, and dog-like creatures with no faces. Shang-Chi readily acknowledges its absurdity, with Awkwafina in the role of poking fun at how crazy things are. She’s like the audience surrogate. But as the action scales up, Katy’s presence feels curious amidst it all, though Shang-Chi hints that there’s more to her character.
As an origin story and a solo Marvel adventure, Shang-Chi is much better than the studio’s most recent efforts: the Brie Larson-led Captain Marvel and the Scarlett Johansson-led Black Widow, respectively, that were handicapped by the decisions they made. I’d argue that it’s better than the Benedict Cumberbatch-led Doctor Strange too, thanks to its emotional power, which in fact might be stronger here than even Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. Though I’ll stop short of saying it’s a better movie — that’s a high bar, after all. Shang-Chi partly owes its existence to Black Panther, with Marvel Studios fast-tracking its first movie with Asian superhero in the lead, following the critical and commercial success of its African one.
That’s too broad a term for my liking though — it’s turning the most diverse and populated continent into one identity, and that’s not okay — I prefer Marvel’s first Chinese superhero instead. And it’s great that it’s filled with authentic choices and voices. In addition to the Chinese and Southeast Asian cast, the creators also have Chinese or Japanese ancestry. It’s a bit funny because Marvel’s parent company Disney made some very incorrect choices with last year’s Mulan (where the crew was largely white and everyone mostly spoke in English on-screen). Kudos to Marvel for getting that right. But it’s also worth noting that Shang-Chi is standing on the shoulders of giants — and I hope this film pushes Marvel fans to explore movies and entire genres that it’s inspired by.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is released Friday, Setepmber 3 in cinemas worldwide. In India, it’s available in English, Hindi, Kannada, Tamil, and Telugu.