“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is an homage to both “wuxia” dramas and Jackie Chan movies, ripe with both the traditional mythological elements of Chinese culture and traditional martial arts, and the modern grittier bus chase scenes that harken back to “Police Story.” The film tells the story of Shang-Chi, played by Simu Liu, a young man living in Los Angeles and his fight against his warlord father Wenwu, owner of the titular Ten Rings and played by the incredible Tony Leung, who is trying to destroy his mother’s mythical village. Also along for the ride are Shang-Chi’s younger sister Xialing, played by Meng’er Zhang, and Shang-Chi’s American-born Chinese (ABC) best friend Katy, played by Awkwafina.
To be honest, the movie was kind of a let-down.
Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t all bad. For a superhero movie — and for a Marvel movie at that — it was pretty good. It had an incredible soundtrack, beautifully choreographed fight scenes and even managed to make me laugh at times. Plus, Tony Leung’s acting was convincing, as always. Overall, the movie provided a pretty enjoyable viewing experience.
Even so, there are so many wasted opportunities within “Shang-Chi.” I wanted to see more of the father-son relationship, and the resolution of their conflict. I wanted to see Shang-Chi discuss why he had abandoned Xialing who he knew didn’t get along with his father. I wanted to see Xialing hash it out with her father about his treatment of her. Most importantly, I wanted the climax of the movie to be centered around the two siblings and their father, rather than watch two CGI monsters — that maybe got five minutes of exposition combined — fight each other. It felt like the directors couldn’t decide whether they wanted it to be a family movie, a superhero movie or a mythology movie, and so tried (and failed) to do all three.
The way the screen time was split up also felt odd. Half the time spent on expensive CGI elements could have been spent developing Xialing whose story is worth diving into more deeply. In the middle of the film, Xialing discusses how she was sidelined during her childhood for being a girl and how she grew beyond that, only for the film to sideline her for the rest of the story. It’s as if the directors were playing some sort of cruel joke on her. I wanted to see much much more of her and much much less overtly annoying jokes and remarks from Katy – who the filmmakers apparently could not decide whether she spoke Mandarin or not. Awkwafina is not my favorite person on the best of days, but especially in this movie, it felt as though her only role was basically to be the funny American (as opposed to the funny white person, who is, of course, Ben Kingsley).
I also think that this movie falls into a bit of an orientalist narrative. The movie is chock-full of Chinese mythological references, which are quite beautiful, but at the same time, seem accentuated for the white gaze. Everything in the movie – from the narrative of the mythical village to Shang-Chi’s father’s war mansion to the giant dragon that flies out of the water in the climax — feels overly ethnicized and visually fetishized. This, by itself, might not be a flaw — after all, a film with a Chinese superhero is not wrong to showcase Chinese culture. But its kind of tiring to absorb a narrative about ancient Chinese culture and wuxia when all we see are copies of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “House of Flying Daggers.”
Of course, there are also the general pitfalls of any Marvel movie: very odd pacing at times, underdeveloped characters and overdeveloped comic relief, extremely over-the-top CGI, the apparent necessity to have a sky portal with so many monsters coming out of it that you don’t know what’s going on. But honestly, I do think this is one of the better Marvel movies, which does count for something.