East Meets West in Marvel’s Dazzling Shang-Chi

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Before the advent of the motion-picture, the martial arts were Asia’s greatest cultural export, imitated and appropriated by Western societies for decades. The latest film to continue this tradition comes from, of all places, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, albeit with a lot more care and consideration than is normal for a Hollywood production.

Since fleeing his homeland of China as a teenager, Shaun (Simu Liu) has led a modest life in San Francisco, keen to shun the criminal lifestyle practised by his father, Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung). The only connection he keeps to his past is a jade pendant – gifted to him by his deceased mother, Ying Li (Fala Chen) – which is worn around his neck for safekeeping; but the value of the pendant is more than sentimental, since armed mercenaries are willing to fight Shaun for it on public transport.

Though said mercenaries don’t reveal their motivations, nor their affiliations, Shaun is convinced that they are tied to Wenwu’s shady dealings, and will remain a threat to himself and others – principally his American friend, Katy (Awkwafina) with whom he shares a close bond; and his estranged sister, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) who is thought to be living in Macau. Whatever the case, one thing is for certain: Shaun will need to confront his murky past if he wants to ensure his future.

On most fronts, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) is rather innovative for a Marvel Studios feature, heavily drawing inspiration from the wuxia films that have long dominated Asian cinema. Kung fu is frequently incorporated into the action sequences, making for a refreshing chance from the usual superhero fisticuffs; there’s an Eastern influence in the soundtrack of Joel P. West too, with woodwind instruments and thumping drum beats heard throughout; and, more noticeably, the majority of the film’s narrative takes place in China.

The influence of Eastern movies even extends to the majority Asian cast, with Shang-Chi boasting two iconic stars of Hong Kong cinema – the aforementioned Leung, and Michelle Yeoh. While both actors provide delightful turns, it’s the lead performers who leave the greater impact, with Simu Liu looking confident and relaxed as the titular hero in his first-ever headline role; and Awkwafina constantly elevating key moments with her charisma alone. And there’s further delight still to be garnered from the supporting actors, such as comedian Ronny Chieng, and regular MCU bit-player Benedict Wong.

Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung) and Ying Li (Fala Chen) in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Although Shang-Chi does a great deal to singularise itself from its Marvel brethren, the film is somewhat lacking in originality, particularly in the screenplay department. The story here shares a few too many similarities with that of another MCU instalment released less than four months ago, Black Widow (2021) – both pictures follow a protagonist reuniting with an estranged sibling and returning to their country of birth to defeat a paternal figure. Whether intentional or not, these parallels will serve only to validate the notion that Marvel Studios’ output is becoming rather formulaic.

Other weaknesses are present in Shang-Chi, minor yet nonetheless irritating. One is the fight sequences, which have great choreography but could be more thrilling, for they lack the kind of death-defying stunts that Jackie Chan is renowned for executing. Also in need of refinement is the comedy, being decent and well-timed without ever reaching the level of hilarity found in other Marvel films. If Kevin Feige’s superhero factory is to continue beyond a fourth phase, both elements sorely need to be improved in any future releases.

There are some areas where this picture does improve over its predecessors, one being the depiction of its villain – blessedly, Shang-Chi has one of the better antagonists of the MCU in Wenwu, who is sinister, restrained and cool all at once, while possessing far more complexity and humanity than the average Marvel foe. The music too is above Marvel’s usual standards, with West being the closest a composer has come to matching the opulence of Alan Silvestri’s work in the Avengers movies – he deserves to be called upon for more of Feige’s projects in the years ahead.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings does for the world’s Asian communities what Black Panther (2018) did for the African diaspora, utilising the familiar Marvel tropes to craft a visual and aural celebration of Eastern culture. It’s not perfect, owing to the muted humour and unoriginal script, but more than ably satisfies with its beguiling action scenes, glorious soundtrack and exceptional cast.

Shang-Chi is currently screening in theatres, and will be available to stream on Disney+ from November 12th.

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