Film: “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” – how will it help Asian representation?

Marvel Studios have released the long-awaited trailer for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the first superhero film with a Chinese lead and a nearly all ethnic Chinese cast. Shang-Chi is one of very few but one of the most prominent Asian superheroes, especially in the Marvel world and following on from the massive success of Black Panther, other minorities have been aching for them to be represented on the big screen in the same way.

Upon first impressions, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings looks to have all the right makings of a great, action-packed, and dramatic thriller of a superhero film (with nods to Kill Bill and a familiar-looking rehashed fight sequence lifted from Captain Marvel, plus the fact the idea behind the “Ten Rings” sounds quite similar to Thanos and the Infinity Stones). But that’s not the main point I’ll be discussing in this post. What the Asian (predominantly the Chinese) community are more excited about is the fact there is finally a superhero that looks like them and one they can, on some level, hopefully relate to, particularly the younger audiences. This is certainly the feeling many Black Panther fans had. The premise of the film is that it will tell the story of Shang-Chi, living his life in the States with a past that for the last ten years he has tried to separate himself from but must now face a choice – embrace the past to let it become his future or endanger his life by cutting himself off for good and fighting against it?

Martial arts

Shang-Chi was part-based on Bruce Lee

Visually, it looks like Shang-Chi draws on the traditional martial arts and wuxia films that are so popular but plentiful in Asian cinema. But mix that with the exhilarating and top-notch visual effects and technology the MCU is famed for (that China, as mentioned when reviewing Vanguard, is not) and the modern-day Western world backdrop in some scenes, and you’ve got a big slice of Eastern culture thrown out there for Western audiences to lap up. The problem with this though, especially when Shang-Chi’s main superhuman abilities are “master martial artist” and “master of chi” and not much else, is that these are concepts seen time and time again by many. The creators of the film were inspired by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Jackie Chan fight sequences, and from the short trailer these inspirations are evident, but again, not new to anybody. Before they were popularised in Hollywood, these styles were rife and synonymous with Asian action films. I mean, Shang-Chi himself is based on Bruce Lee, so beyond being a fictional superhero version of him, what else can be expected?

I do not doubt at all that the action and fight sequences in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings will be outstanding, but whether it will match and surpass some of the close combat battles that have become legendary in the MCU (for example, Agent May in Agents of Shield, Natasha Romanoff in almost any fight scene, Captain America vs Hydra agents in the iconic lift tussle sequence, and T’Challa in his two ritual fight scenes in Black Panther), is yet to be determined. Will they get lost in the sea of Hollywood martial arts-inspired films like The Matrix?

It appears, according to IMDB, that Joseph Le is the man behind the fight and action choreography. This idea to pick a guy who may well be an experienced choreographer in this field but has no other major titles under his film credits already is questionable. What is his style and vision for the film? If the film’s big bosses love Jackie Chan’s fight scenes so much, why not hire him or Yuen Woo-ping who choreographed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon among many others? They’ve certainly got the budget. Can Joseph Le do it justice or will it be too stylised for Hollywood audiences with the overuse of special effects, clever camera angles, stunt doubles and green screens?

Representation

Hats off to Marvel Studios for their mostly ethnically correct casting choices

The film features a host of some of Hollywood’s biggest Asian names. Lead Simu Liu is not yet universally known but is best known for his role in Korean-Canadian TV show Kim’s Convenience. Awkwafina, one of Hollywood’s rising Asian-American actresses whose breakthrough was a supporting role in Crazy Rich Asians plays Shang-Chi’s close friend and unsurprisingly adds some comic relief to the film. The world’s biggest and best female action star Michelle Yeoh also appears in the film, but is unfortunately absent from the trailer so how big her part is is yet unknown – I’m hoping a major part! Meanwhile, Hong Kong superstar actor Tony Leung portrays Shang-Chi’s father and the main antagonist, The Mandarin. From just these few names, East Asian representation has been given a boost already, never mind the film being a Marvel one, with millions of fans eager for any new film or show they can watch in awe and compare with the comics, and the potential to rake in at least hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office.

Simu Liu isn’t world famous yet, but this role should help put him on the map

It’s also good to see that actors of Chinese ethnicity were chosen to portray the characters. Marvel Studios was adamant that the actor portraying Shang-Chi had to be of Chinese descent. People think that it doesn’t really matter all the time or that it’s not a big deal, but for example a Japanese actor playing the role of an ethnically Chinese superhero is counter-productive to authenticity and representation. There are Japanese superheroes in Marvel Comics and DC Comics – allow them to have and own those roles! In the comic books, Shang-Chi is biracial, with a Chinese father and a White mother, but in this version he appears to be fully Chinese and it’s not yet known if the film will mention his mother at all. The MCU often alter character backgrounds so this is not a surprise and nor should it be a problem, for the film focuses more on Shang-Chi’s Chinese heritage anyway.

One unfortunate thing I spotted from the trailer, and one I’ve lamented about before with Mulan, is the lack of Chinese spoken. It would have been awesome for a film backed by a production company of this magnitude to at least have some dialogue in the native language of its characters. As I’ve said many times before, if you want better authenticity, having characters who should be able to speak the same language other than English, should converse in their own language. And don’t tell me it wouldn’t make sense. Many MCU films employ the use of other languages in their dialogue, however little it may be. French and German has been used by villains in films, Natasha Romanoff speaks Russian at some point, Hawkeye converses with Japanese gangs in Japanese, many of the non-Earth beings have their own languages (some even specifically created for the MCU), and the Wakandans also have their own language (Xhosa in the films). I’ll be disappointed if there’s not even a hint of Mandarin or any other Chinese dialect used in this film.

Fighting stereotypes

Left: Fu Manchu, Right: The Mandarin

As already mentioned, Shang-Chi’s superpower is being a master of martial arts. That in itself embodies a stereotype associated with Asians. Yes, it’s one that isn’t necessarily always seen or portrayed as negative because of course being skilled in martial arts, fighting or self-defence is a pretty cool talent and potentially very useful. But the character itself was – sorry, Stan Lee – unimaginative, as far as superheroes and their powers go. There are a few Chinese and other East Asian superheroes with more interesting and non-stereotypical powers that could have been picked, but alas, are not well-known.

But at the same time, martial arts are constantly the in-thing. It would be great if Shang-Chi, or any other superhero for that matter, had more to him than being a master of martial arts but for the time being, we’ll have to settle for the representation Shang-Chi is giving us. Judging from the trailer though, Shang-Chi is more than just a skilled martial artist. There appears to be depth and more dimensions to his character and his life in the West is relatable to many as he confronts both his past and his culture.

Tony Leung as The Mandarin

Further to the aforementioned fact about alterations the MCU makes to characters, what is interesting about Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is that Shang-Chi’s father in the comics is Fu Manchu, and has been changed to The Mandarin for the film. Fu Manchu was consciously not used due to the racial stereotyping of the character’s look and history of being negatively portrayed as a villain or an “Asian threat” (Yellow Peril). The film’s creators have done well to make sure harmful stereotypes that are used as racist tropes are absent by changing the character.

So they picked The Mandarin – another super villain of Chinese origin in the Marvel world (half-Chinese according to the comics). He does not embody the look of a typical “evil” Chinese caricature. He instead, still looks like a typical Chinese warlord from ancient China depicted in countless Chinese TV shows and films. Some Chinese netizens however, are still not satisfied, believing The Mandarin to also still be a bad choice. It shows there’s no pleasing everybody. In the trailer, it appears we’ll get a tried and used blend of traditional and ancient Chinese settings interwoven with modern, 21st Century America. Do they think as soon as you enter China you’re transported back 200 years? I have no real problem with that misgiving as it does look like an exciting film, but it does not look like one that’s going to be doing anything new and unique except bring Asian faces to the forefront of Western cinema.

How will it affect Asians in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic?

Needless to say, Asians and East Asians in America and across the world in mostly White-dominated countries, have had it very hard since the beginning of 2020, with little signs of it getting much better any time soon. Will this major step forward in representation from Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings have any positive effect on them? Looking at comments on the video and social media, excitement is high for this film and the Chinese community especially seem to be looking forward to it. Some obviously do have a few reservations, many of which I have mentioned above, but the general consensus is that this is a good thing. Films are obviously a great means of escape from reality for us for a couple of hours and Marvel films in particular, are practically universally loved and bring thousands of fans together to appreciate and debate everything. Only time will tell though whether it will empower many Asians like Black Panther empowered and inspired many Black people.

However, it’s highly unlikely to change the current general negative perception towards Asians (some racists will claim to love eating our food and watching our kung fu films, but draw the line at the cultural aspects they don’t like or understand and still hate the people for whatever reason), but that of course is not surprising nor is it what we expect from it or an agenda of the film’s creators. The film has clearly been in the works for some years (even Yuen Woo-ping and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon director Ang Lee are said to have been involved in a couple of earlier developments that fell through) as filming only began in 2020 and was postponed for a few months before it resumed. It’d be amazing if a scene has since been put into the film that touches on the issue of racial discrimination and hate to snap people back to the reality of what is happening, but that is something we’d have to wait and see. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier has done this a couple of times now so this awareness of real-world problems and the drive to address them in their productions is not beyond Disney and Marvel Studios’ capabilities.

It may just be “good timing” that this film is coming out during the height of Sinophobia, whether that helps boost morale or not or simply showcases Asian acting talent as well as culture. I for one, am trying not to judge the film too heavily from the mere two-minute-long trailer we’ve all only seen so far, and am looking forward to its release both as a Marvel fan and an advocate for Asian representation. I just hope it proves some of my worries wrong and presents us with a few nice surprises.

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