Last Thursday, I caught an early screening of Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. I’m so happy that this film exists. I’m excited for many around the world to learn about Chinese culture in an entertaining yet authentic way. Slight spoilers ahead.
Prior to Shang Chi’s release, I was pumped for it to come. But I was also worried. If the movie came out and it was full of stereotypes (looking at you Iron Fist…) or if the plot fell flat, I’d still show my support for the hard-working cast and crew, but I wouldn’t be able to wholeheartedly recommend it to others.
It felt like there was a lot hanging on this movie for me, despite how fantastical I knew the film would be. I think to a degree, it’s less prominent for many other Marvel productions (minus some which stands on a similar ground such as Black Panther). If Iron Man 28 had turned out to be mediocre, there are still many other movies in the MCU that portrays excellent American culture that’s plenty entertaining. We, as Asians, don’t have that. Maybe it’s silly, but I saw this as a make or break type of scenario.
Watching Shang Chi was a breath of fresh air. The nostalgia it brought me tickled something in my heart I didn’t realize was there. It brought me back to nights when I’d watch TVB dramas or Hong Kong movies with my parents in our Canadian living room. I loved mo hup (wuxia) dramas, always fascinated with how the characters on screen can manipulate the air and elements using their internal focus, and fight in a flurry of moves that was reminiscent of dancing. Even key phrases that I haven’t heard in a long time such as “A blood debt must be paid in blood” (血债血偿), and “I’ve eaten more salt than you’ve eaten rice” are such classic sayings in Chinese mo hup films. Their existence grounds the Shang Chi experience for me (and no doubt, my dad).
Other subtle nods that I’m happy many others will get to learn about includes the Qing Ming festival (our day for celebrating the dead), shrines to the dead where we leave offerings/incense, and small stuff like taking off our shoes and conversations with our elders. I’m sure there are many other points I’ve missed, but it’s likely because those elements felt so second nature to me as a Chinese person.
Another fun easter egg they put in was Trevor (a.k.a the actor dude hired to be “The Mandarin” back in Iron Man 3). I remember when I watched Iron Man 3, I was very curious and excited to see someone whom I assumed would be Asian appearing even just as the villain. I was super confused when I saw Ben Kingsley appear on screen… and I actually doubted my own expectations. Was I stereotyping? Shang Chi aims to right the wrong that was The Mandarin and I was really happy with how they called out this problematic character while still building on Trevor’s motivations and story.
Shang Chi’s family is really well fleshed out. My heart completely broke when I heard his mom tell Shang Chi that he was her pride (also, gave me an off-tangent throwback to Joey Yung’s song!). Seeing Xialing, his sister, try to gain any recognition in a society that valued sons over daughters was so validating to my own experience both from my time in Hong Kong, as well as growing up in a family where my parents only had daughters. I cheered Xialing on as she strove to pave her own way in the world, and prayed that she’d stay true to the light and not cave to what I imagine is a painful darkness given how often she was overlooked and ignored growing up. I’m stoked to see her more in the future movies.
Wenwu, Shang Chi’s dad, is also another character I’m so happy to see in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There isn’t some mythical Chinese motivation that’s causing him to turn evil. He isn’t threatened by the West and forced to be the bad guy. He lost his one true love. The one reason he found after a thousand years of living for him to put down his rings and grow old. If that doesn’t resonate with someone as an understandable motivation to do anything one can do to get back to their wife, I don’t know what will.
I’m probably not the best person to touch on the “action” bits of what was undoubtedly a well choreographed action film. My dad loved every part of it and he’s a huge action movie buff. It’s also worth mentioning that my dad caught up with every single Marvel movie (and even various TV shows) during the pandemic since he was laid off (and now retired) from his job. He left the Shang Chi theater saying this was his favourite movie out of all of them and that made my heart swell with pride. After watching countless movies from Marvel, he’s found one he can relate to and now has a superhero he’s excited for other Marvel fans to get to know.
There are many other aspects to Shang Chi that I wholeheartedly love. It includes seeing Michelle Yeoh and even Yuen Wah (Kung Fu Hustle anyone?) which made the film so comforting. It was like being welcomed by these age-old, tried and true Asian actors from my childhood. There wasn’t just a lot of Asian-ness to Shang Chi as a movie, but also a lot of Asian American love and validation. I’m so happy that there is a clear intent to tie Shang Chi’s story to the larger MCU, and I cannot wait to see what lies ahead for Shang Chi in the future.