Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (dir. Destin Daniel Cretton, 2021) – An unprovoked attack forces Shang-Chi back to the dysfunctional family whom he once walked away from.
Shang-Chi has a lot to live up to. For starters, he isn’t as well known or talked about as the other Avengers. He has but a tenuous tie to the established Marvel cinematic universe, and a reputation to be built from scratch. There are quite some stereotypes to dispel, too, given Marvel’s history with Asian caricatures.
It is an astonishing feat for the Phase 4 film to come up tops in spite of this immense pressure of being a newcomer to an already massive franchise of 25 movies. More so, to make Shang-Chi a fan favourite in the overcrowded roster of heroes.
Simu Liu does enough on his own. Fresh off Kim’s Convenience, he brings the same charm and humour to his valet parker who goes by Shaun, content with his life and antics with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina). But when an army comes after his family pendant, he is forced to reckon with his past as Shang-Chi and search for his sister Xialing (Meng-er Zhang).
Of course, he fights along the way. Every hand-to-hand combat is thrillingly choreographed, avoiding the trap of Marvel’s rapid-fire cuts (mostly), while paying obvious but welcome homage to Hong Kong action cinema. One would expect no less from the cast, which managed to assemble the likes of kungfu legends Michelle Yeoh and Wah Yuen.
While martial arts remains Shang-Chi’s schtick, there is more to him than his fists of fury. His complicated childhood involves a complicated relationship with his now-estranged father, whom he has no wish to hurt. Forget Fu Manchu. What better way to retcon a problematic comic villain than to cast one of the most charismatic leading men in Hong Kong cinema?
Re-introduced as Wenwu (Tony Leung), Shang-chi’s father is obsessed with the power of the ten rings. But he is not interested in the tired quest for world domination, at least not anymore. His story became one of love and grief, lending a strong emotional centre to the father-son enmity.
The settings to which their confrontation unfolds cannot be ignored. There are also nods to traditions that we seldom see in Hollywood, albeit with an odd inclusion of the Japanese toro nagashi. Nuances in Mandarin lines get lost in translation, but remain easter eggs for native speakers. Entrenched in Chinese culture, their hometown Ta Lo allows for the fun introduction of mythical creatures like Hun Dun (Morris!) and stone lions, the latter roped into epic battle at one point.
Eventually, the final fight does break away from the intimate story of complex family dynamics and ends in explosive territory, as the superhero genre tends to do. But the neat build-up is enough to get one excited for where the story can go next. After all, Shang-Chi does live in a mangled timeline of endless possibilities, all thanks to the chaotic post-Blip meddling of Wanda and Loki.
In Marvel’s assembly of one too many superheroes, Shang-chi stands out with its layered characters and respectful settings.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is in theatres.