Review: Shang-Chi is a Top Tier MCU Film

Growing up as a young lad in the 70s, The Hands of Shang-Chi Master of Kung Fu, was one of my favorite comics to read, more so than Batman or Spider-Man. Yes, I knew it had some racist imagery, but there were no Chinese heroic characters in any comics at all at the time. We took what we could get. The writing by Doug Moench was a bit more mature and the art of greats like Paul Gulacy and the late Gene Day were eye popping. It helped, of course, that that era’s depiction of Shang-Chi was modeled heavily after the likeness of the late Bruce Lee. So it was with great anticipation, hope, and fear when Marvel announced they would be making a Shang-Chi movie. Would they make a cringe inducing cliché of orientalism like Mulan or would they make something that respects culture? Well, with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the MCU has expanded their roster of big screen characters and not only added more representation and diversity to their ever growing dramatis personae, but also created a top tier entry into the Marvel movie pantheon of heroes with one of the most if not the most compelling origin stories in years.

Simu Liu, who is best known for his stint on the Canadian series Kim’s Convenience, makes his leading role debut on the big screen as the title character of Shang-Chi (calling himself Shaun in America) where he plays an everyday slacker youth pretty happy at his job as a San Francisco hotel parking attendant (honestly, in San Francisco, that can be pretty decent money). He is content to do his job and hang out with best friend Katy (Akwafina).

That simple contented life is interrupted one day as a random stranger demands the pendant he wears around his neck that was given to him by his late mother. And in the tradition of Jackie Chan, he is forced to defend himself . What follows is an incredible fight scene with choreography by the late Brad Allan, a former member of Jackie Chan’s stunt team. With a judicious blend of practical stunts and effects mixed with some CG, we get the first true action scene that will probably go don as one of the most memorable in MCU history. The influences of Jackie Chan films are very clear as the stakes go higher and Simu Liu plays the reluctant badass fighter.

It is revealed after this that Shaun, came to America to get away from his criminal father and his past. His real name is Shang-Chi and his father is the true criminal mastermind behind the Ten Rings organization that made its first appearance in Iron Man and was given the false face of The Mandarin in Iron Man 3. Shang-Chi reveals that if the men who attacked him were after his pendant, then they are after his sister’s as well. He decides to travel to Macau to find his sister, Xialing, played by Meng’er Zhang. Since Katy is his best friend, she goes along for the ride, because that’s what best buds do.

It doesn’t take long (besides another excellent fight, this time on scaffolding) before we have a full family reunion with their imposing father who is played by Hong Kong cinema’s legendary Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, as Xu Wenwu. Against comic book tropes, he is not a villain of pure evil. His history is much more nuanced than that and he knows he has done many bad things in the past in a personal quest for power. He gave all that up when he met their mother, but reverted back to his ways after her death. And in that time trained Shang-Chi to be an instrument of death by training him in every form of martial art.

Revealing much more after that will give away too much plot details. In fact, there is not much wasted in this film and an odd side effect of that is that the not so great trailers were the way they were because showing more would give away too much of the plot. And there is a nice plot going on with some drama and performances that stand out more than is not usually seen in films based on comic books. The family dynamic here is believable, much more than what is portrayed in Black Widow which wavered from fake to just jokes. And much of that believability belongs to Tony Leung, who lends a majestic gravitas to his performance as man who has lived for over a thousand years because of the power granted to him by the Ten Rings. Tony Leung is a legend of an actor and if you have not had a chance to see any of his films, especially ones directed by Wong Kar Wai, I highly recommend you seek them out.

Not content to have only one regal supporting role from Asian cinema’s legends, we also graced with MIchelle Yeoh, who plays the aunt of Shang-Chi and Xialing and who wants to stop Wenwu. As in everything that she has done lately, Michelle Yeoh instantly classes the place up. Whether it’s in the high profile Crazy Rich Asians or the little rom-com Last Christmas she provides an air of legitimacy to the more fantastical elements of the plot latter. Yeoh plays the protector of a village that holds a secret that Wenwu desperately wishes for. As is often the case, be careful what you wish for. Though his motivations are not unsound, his reasonings definitely are relatable.

At one point, the movie has to acknowledge that it’s a Marvel film and, for better or worse, we have the inevitable effects laden last battle that has become not only a mainstay of Marvel movies, but comic book movies on the whole. I would understand those that check out at this point because the movie goes full on fantastical. We are treated to mystical creatures straight out of Chinese mythology and a CGI filled battle between multiple forces that humans and non-humans. But bare with me, what still keeps this interesting is the family conflict between father and son. Shang-Chi must inevitably battle his father and yet there is an emotional honesty between their conflict. Neither wants this but they have to do what they have to do. And it is a testament to Tony Leung power as an actor, who has never been featured in a Hollywood movie, to provide us with a character that is human and sympathetic instead of a two-dimensional villain who merely wants power.

It is both a good and bad thing that this is a Marvel film. It does fit well into the Marvel universe. But unfortunately it also has to be part of that larger narrative and as such the Ten Rings will indeed be very important. We don’t know where they truly come from, only that they are very old and they are very powerful. Don’t bother checking up wiki or YouTube because any explanation of them you’ll find are from the comics and the actual powers are fully explored yet. And of course there is the heavy CG battle that was mentioned previously. For some this may come as a heavy break from the relatively grounded fights from earlier. This, for me, nails the multiple genres of Chinese martial arts films and manages to balance the two of fantasy kung fu with grounded fights. This is a genuine martial arts fantasy that does not render itself into absurdity.

Simu Liu is a true breakout star in this vehicle. His character is not the usual arrogant flippant quip filled protagonist who has to be humbled like a Tony Stark or Stephen Strange. He is pretty much a guy who enjoys his working class life until he has to step up. Now, Awkwafina, who I have been a fan with her performances in Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell, is there to not only provide the comic relief but is also there as our anchor from the normal world to this fantastical world of mysticism and martial arts. And against typical trope, she does not serve as the typical love interest for the hero, they are best friends and she is not afraid to call him out for doing something stupid, such as choosing the name Shaun from Shang-Chi to hide from his father. Meng’er Zhang, who has mostly done stage work in China, is another breakout star of the film as Xialing, Shang-Chi’s sister. Fala Chan manages to hold her own against Tony Leung, playing his wife and the mother of Shang-Chi and Xialing. Needless to say, this movie does really well in its portrayal of women who are able to hold their own.

Director, Destin Daniel Cretton makes his big-budget debut with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. His previous film, Just Mercy, featured performances from MCU alums Michael B. Jordan and Brie Larson (who was also in Cretton’s Short Term 12). He made a very conscious and rather brave choice to have the actors speak much of their lines in Mandarin and it gives the film an air of authenticity. He also contributed to the screenplay with Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham. This is not only the first Marvel film with a predominantly Asian cast, it’s the first one with an Asian director. Chloe Zhao will be Marvel’s first Asian woman, and first Academy Award winning director when The Eternals comes out. Cretton very consciously breaks away from Asian stereotypes yet still manages to add the touches of Asian culture that is authentic, such as what many typical Chinese household have for breakfast.

Yes, representation matters, both in front and behind the camera. Shang-Chi feels Asian in not only it’s the performance off its actors but from the production as well. There are subtle details that add verisimilitude to not only Asians but Asian Americans as well, such as that one point that Wenwu addresses Katy as “American Girl” and asks her if she even knows her own Chinese name. This is actually a big thing about the Chinese and Chinese American experience. Katy is not just the outlet for the outsider to this world, but she is the outsider to the Chinese. Her family is inhabited by three generations, hers, her mother, and her grandmother. The grandmother speaks Mandarin, while the mother speaks slightly accented English. Katy is straight up ABC (American Born Chinese). There’s even a joke when Katy and Shang-Chi meet a character who speaks Mandarin to her, he pauses and says “Don’t worry, I speak ABC.”

I highly recommend this movie, not just because it’s part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it’s a damn good film that is enjoyable on its own as a martial arts film that genuinely entertains. Forget what you know from the 70s comics and even the modern ones for a bit. You may be feeling a bit of Marvel fatigue, you may be feeling superhero fatigue, but if you pass up seeing this, preferably in a theater, you are missing out on something that is genuinely fun to watch. Yes, see this in the theater if you feel safe to do so. And need I say that you have to stay through the very end as there is a mid credits scene and a post credit scene? Yes, it’s Marvel.

Final Verdict: 9/10

Movie Review: The Farewell

The Farewell is a small budget film from Lulu Wang set mostly in China with dialogue mostly in Mandarin. It stars an almost all Chinese cast that comes to grips with a family dilemma that many people, not just Asians have to deal with, saying goodbye to a loved one for the last time while that loved one is still alive.

Current rising star, Awkwafina, hot on the heels of her breakout role in Crazy Rich Asians, takes on a more serious role as Billi Wang. Billi is an aspiring writer who was received the bad news that she was rejected for a grant. She also receives the news from her parents that her Nai Nai, her paternal grandmother is dying of cancer. With the pretense of a all the family going to China to visit her for the wedding of one of her grandchildren, and Billi’s cousin, the family come to not only pay respects to the matriarch of the family but to also say their goodbyes. It is also decided among family members that the little time she has left she not be told about her condition.

This may sound odd to western audiences, but it is not all that unusual in Asia. Billi is not asked to join her parents as she would be the one most likely to tell Nai Nai the truth. She is also the most westernized of the extended family. Nevertheless, she scrapes up her own money to fly to China as well. While there she reconnects with her extended family and her grandmother. Yet underlying that is the fact that she is back in a China that has changed. her childhood neighborhood is no longer there and her understanding of the family dynamic his different as she had grown up with strained relationships with her own parents.

Yet, Billi has amazing love for her grandmother and internally and with other members is the constant debate on whether to reveal the truth to her grandmother about her condition. To a one, they all believe not to because it would place a burden on her. Whereas the family members take on the burden of her illness so that she may enjoy her last days surrounded by loved ones. And for someone like Nai Nai, she would see herself as a burden on others with her illness.

Being among her family brings out a sparking joy to Nai Nai as she is with her loving family. Billi especially has a rekindling of her bonds with her grandmother and finds the comfort and closeness that she has seemed to have lost with her own parents. And it is through her that she begins to understand her parents more.

The wedding subterfuge is rather interesting as it is for Billi’s cousin Hao Hao, who like her is a transplant, but to Japan. His girlfriend is Japanese which gives just a little bit of cultural tension as she does not speak Mandarin like everyone else. An it is never really stated how much she is in on the deception. Chen Han, as Hao Hao may not have much dialog, but he is always seen in the background feeling the pain of the deception that he must pull off in from of the family matriarch.

Crazy Rich Asians may have been Awkwafina’s breakthrough role, but this is without a doubt her starring breakout. Her comedic talents were a highlight in Crazy Rich Asians, but here where she is the star, she brings a strong dramatic turn as an Asian American caught between the multiple cultures, American, Chinese, and Chinese-American.

Bili’s father is played by Tzi Ma, a veteran Chinese-American actor with one of those faces that like many other Chinese-American actors has popped up in film and television for decades. It is about time he got as meaty a role as he got with The Farewell.

Nai Nai is played wonderfully by Zhao Shuzhen who does not seem to have any other credits to her name according to IMDB, but she turns in such a natural and charming performance that it is as if she embodies all that is good and beloved of everyone’s grandmother.

the-farewell-movie

In a theatrical field that seems to be flooded these days with big budgeted blockbusters and tent pole titles, it is significant that a film with a $3 million budget is actually one of the best films of the year. We are blessed that films such as The Farewell still exist. It is full of charm, heart, performances that are filled with natural verisimilitude. That natural verisimilitude may be because, as the opening title card says, that the story is based on a real lie. Lulu Wang based the screenplay on her own family experience and relationship with her own Nai Nai.

One of the reasons why representation matters in Hollywood is that even though on the surface, this is a family melodrama, it is from a perspective of Asian and Asian-American culture that much of movie goers in the west may not be familiar with and certainly something that Hollywood has been reluctant to include in their searches for the next big hit. What films like this, Crazy Rich Asians, and Netflix’s Always be my Maybe show is that Asian-Americans can tell their stories just as well as mainstream Hollywood. And because of their diversity they can tell these stories in a unique and original way.

I lost both my parents some years ago and managed t be by their bedsides for their last moments. Unfortunately the circumstances being what they were, neither time were they in a very conscious state and neither of their passings were what the family was prepared for. Lulu Wang’s new film, The Farewell deals with a touchy subject that is handled deftly with both humor and heart-touching drama.

Final Score: 9/10