Film: “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” of Chinese representation

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings has now been released and since my last post about it in April when the first trailer was teased, my expectations have been surprisingly shaken up. I was excited for some major on-screen representation but like many was a little apprehensive at how cliché some of the action sequences might be, how “The Mandarin” (now named Wenwu, an original creation for the MCU) would be portrayed and how authentic and respectful it would be to Chinese culture and traditions.

But I needn’t have worried so much. The film ticked nearly all the right boxes as both an epic Marvel film to add to its roster and crossed off my list of concerns I had previously expressed. Below are the ‘Ten Rings’ of representation I felt the film delivered on in its mission to bring the “first Asian superhero” and boost the profile of East Asians on the big screen:

Ring One: The Cast

Marvel brought together a host of Chinese talent to make up the cast of this film. From veteran actors including Tony Leung and Michelle Yeoh to rising stars like Simu Liu and Awkwafina, from newbies such as Meng’er Zhang to other popular actors from Asian cinema in the forms of Fala Chen, Yuen Wah, and Tsai Chin. Notably, lead actor Simu Liu was previously well-known for his role in Kim’s Convenience but little else, while this is Meng’er’s first on-screen credit – a big risk for Marvel to cast two relatively new or unknown actors into such prolific roles, but one that they surely won’t regret as they fulfilled them brilliantly and it will no doubt open more doors for them after this.

There was even the lovely added benefit of Benedict Wong as Wong from previous MCU films, who is known more for being Doctor Strange’s friend and sidekick in minor supporting roles. Here he appears without Strange and although he is not a major character again, he is given his own screentime without connections to Strange being mentioned or relevant. It also hints at a continued role that he may return to in the future.

Pleasantly, nearly the entire main cast are of ethnic Chinese origin, with just two supporting roles filled by non-Chinese actors; Florian Munteanu as Razor Fist, one of Wenwu’s henchmen, and Ben Kingsley who reprises his role as Trevor Slattery from Iron Man 3 (who ironically “portrayed” The Mandarin in it). The former is seen as no more than a vicious yes-man, while the latter provides a great deal of comic relief. There is no so-called White Saviour to help save the day nor is there any focus on White culture or hijacking of Chinese culture.

Ring Two: Chinese language

In my last post I was worried the film would be consciously made for a non-Chinese, English-speaking world audience. Mulan may have already pipped Shang-Chi to the post in being the first major film since Crazy Rich Asians to feature a nearly all Chinese or East Asian cast but failed epically in this area in that it was all in English. From the off-set, the narration by Fala Chen, Shang-Chi’s mother is in Mandarin and around at least a third of the film’s dialogue is too. There is no English spoken for at least the first five to nearly ten minutes, something that I bet has niggled some people who detest watching films with too many subtitles.

There is a nod to the cultural difference of Shang-Chi’s friend Katy’s life in that she speaks no Chinese bar a few words but appears to understand a smidgeon which is reiterated by the fact her mother converses with her and her brother in English. There is also a subtle explanation as to why English is often used between Shang-Chi, his sister Xialing and their father when he asks his son “have you been practising your English?” – and we later see why when he is sent on a mission to the States. Meanwhile, much of the rest of the English spoken is purely for the benefit of universal audiences.

Ring Three: Chinese culture

Chinese culture is represented on a large scale in this film and is therefore broken down into a few sub-categories with the following rings. But cultural aspects are present left, right and centre throughout. Filial piety is the most prominent, with the ingrained idea of respect for elders as well as family and honour (one that was a huge, recurring theme in Mulan too) being prevalent. From Katy’s fondness for her waipo and her acknowledgement as being a let-down to her mother because she’s nothing more than a parking valet, to Shang-Chi and his sister’s relationship with each other and their parents, it’s shown Chinese people cannot escape these basic components of Chinese culture and family life.

Shang-Chi is constantly torn between respecting and obeying his father and breaking free from his constraints when he grows up to find his own way and see truths he was blind to before. And similarly his sister is angered by him not returning and her father’s disdain towards her.

Even modern cultural aspects are depicted, such as a love of karaoke and the fast-paced lifestyle and environment of Macau, the Las Vegas of Asia. Other more traditional cultural ideals present include loyalty, saving face, discipline and being at one or connecting with nature, the latter of which relates to martial arts.

Through the film, different branches of Chinese culture are introduced to audiences and audiences can better understand different characters’ behaviours and thoughts because of them. For example, Wenwu’s devotion to his wife and the grief he feels after she dies spurs him back to using the Ten Rings and re-embracing his former self – all in the name of honour and face. Later, when he sees the error of his ways and after Shang-Chi pleads with him, he remembers that being with family and putting them first above glory and power is more important than vengeance.

Ring Four: Chinese traditions

From filial piety, family and honour stem traditions Chinese people are aware of and observe. Qingming Festival – or “The Day of the Dead” – is mentioned a couple of times in the film, firstly when Katy’s grandmother talks about her late husband’s life and death, and later when Wenwu says that is the date in which the forest will open up and lead him back to his wife. Shang-Chi and Xialing’s mother is remembered with a shrine in both Wenwu’s compound and in Ta Lo, where Ying Nan takes the two siblings to and where even in the midst of the film’s climax Wenwu lights an incense stick for her.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is also steeped in Chinese history. Granted, much of the history told in the story is fictional but many of the stories are interwoven with real history or based on it. There is constant talk of what happened several thousand years ago but it is traditions initiated back then passed down over the generations that are the focus of the story that show the strength of Chinese traditions and the seriousness and devotion in which many continue to follow them, particularly in rural or secluded areas.

Ring Five: Martial arts

Of course martial arts in this film is a big one to talk about. Many people were in two minds after the trailer about how this would be portrayed. Being a Hollywood film it would of course be very stylised and never 100% use techniques found in traditional kung fu films or even real people sometimes, but being one that is based heavily on Chinese culture, it would make sense for it to utilise styles that inspired it.

The filmmakers cited Jackie Chan films and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as influences for the action sequences and this is clear in several scenes, from the fight on the bamboo scaffolding which was a rehash from Rush Hour 2 but done on a much larger, more impressive and very CGI/green screen scale to the choreography between Simu Liu and Michelle Yeoh as she teaches him calmer, more graceful and ultimately better and more powerful kung fu, which was highly reminiscent of her and other fight scenes in CTHD as well as other famous wuxia films such as The House of Flying Daggers and Hero.

But thankfully, the martial arts in the film was respectful to the practice and culture while also appeasing a wider, international audience, especially Marvel fans who love a good hand-to-hand or magical/alien/advanced technological weapons combat. In my last post I mentioned Joseph Le was apparently the action choreographer, however I am now led to believe he was the “Action Designer”, whatever that means. But instead, two members of Jackie Chan’s stunt team appear to have been both Stunt and Fight Coordinators. Besides getting Jackie Chan himself to do the honours, who else better than veterans of the trade who studied from and worked with the legend himself to work on it?

Several disciplines were used in the film, each employed by different characters in line with their build, abilities and their background. Alongside real-life martial arts styles, inspiration was drawn from elements used in traditional Chinese wuxia films, including the ability to fly, manipulate the elements and of course, use weapons with magical properties.

One of the main concerns people seemed to have with the film was its portrayal of Chinese people performing martial arts, feeling it perpetuated the stereotype that that is all they can do, and that being the “Master of Kung Fu” as Shang-Chi is known in Marvel Comics, pigeonholes him as that and nothing else. For, although he is a supremely skilled martial artist, without the Ten Rings, he has no true superpowers or abilities akin to many other superheroes. No superhuman strength, speed, agility or regenerative powers that are shown, and certainly no magical or transformation skills.

And while I understand the problem that stems from the biggest Hollywood blockbuster in recent years to feature Asian characters is all about them being martial artists, firstly, representation is now at an all-time high because of it and secondly, is Asians being associated with martial arts really such a bad thing? Perhaps because it is not a Chinese company producing this film, many still feel it is a westernised portrayal of Asians. There are rarely any complaints of similar or all films featuring martial arts at the forefront when it’s an actual Chinese film, despite people believing it is a tired, old stereotype and theme of too many films. There are also no complaints of hijacking Chinese culture when other superheroes or characters in any films use Chinese fighting skills. It is instead seen as cool that they are that skilled, but mention of their Chinese origin is almost non-existent.

Ring Six: Chinese mythology

Under Chinese culture and traditions comes mythology. Legendary stories featuring mythological creatures that serve as strong, wise, fearsome and sometimes evil characters. The film depicts several, most notably dragons, the weird, faceless, Pokémon-like hundun, and guardian lions. Others include the nine-tailed fox (if you didn’t know your Chinese mythology you’d think it was another Pokémon-based creature), phoenixes, and the Qilin. Their inclusion in the film helps bring awareness of them to a wider audience, even if they’re not a focus of the story and not named, while “Morris” the friendly hundun who Trevor Slattery can communicate with probably completely baffled most people who watched it.

Marvel is known for creating stories, characters and backdrops that are influenced by the cultures, traditions and histories of the superheroes. For example much of Thor’s storylines and aspects are obviously based on Norse mythology, Black Panther draws inspiration from various African cultures and traditions, and some things in Doctor Strange are loosely based on ancient myths revolving around magic from distant Far Eastern lands.

Ring Seven: Chinese music

The music in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is varied but brilliant. The score, composed by Joel P. West (so not a Chinese composer), features many elements found in traditional Chinese music and is very reminiscent of what is heard in many other films, including the aforementioned Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, House of Flying Daggers and Hero. Beautifully and cleverly interspersed throughout the film to complement a number of scenes, the music evokes beauty, sadness, excitement and action.

The other songs on the soundtrack are more modern, with a variety of rising and known musicians – several of which are of Chinese or East Asian descent – performing more hip hop, dance and pop/R&B numbers. This conscious use of more Asian artists to contribute to the soundtrack was an inspired choice, though none are globally famous A-listers. However, this is perhaps more telling of contemporary Chinese music’s reach, in that it is unheard of outside of Chinese-speaking countries. It highlights the sad fact that there are no world renowned Chinese artists whose music is heard on English-speaking charts. This could be due to a multitude of reasons, ranging from none wanting to venture into western music or attempt to appeal to western audiences, to the music industry simply overlooking them.

Those who worked on the soundtrack are predominantly either only young and upcoming artists who are still new to the scene and not assigned to major labels with any big releases, or are more known in Asian countries (the most famous perhaps being Singaporean singer JJ Lin, who has been around since the early 2000s). And the majority of them are not of Chinese origin, but a mixture of Korean, Japanese and Indonesian as well.

However, while the music is great, this will hopefully not just open up more people to traditional Chinese music and the artists on the soundtrack, but perhaps for the sequel it will be spearheaded by a Chinese musician and composer, in a similar vein to Black Panther‘s album which was curated by Kendrick Lamar.

Ring Eight: Overseas Chinese representation

As previously mentioned, the character of Katy is one of many possible representations of overseas Chinese people. She is portrayed as a typical “banana” (yellow on the outside, White on the inside) who speaks and understands very little Chinese, has grown up more in touch with American culture and lifestyle than Chinese, and is thrown into the world of Chinese culture with some shock when she goes with Shang-Chi to Macau. Meanwhile, her mother is seen to be more traditional despite presumably having lived in America for a long time, showing she still thinks quite conservatively and expects her children to be more in touch with their roots – even though she speaks to them in English.

Then there’s Shang-Chi, who has lived in the States for a few years and become quite westernised. However, he still knows and sticks to his roots in spite of the fact he tries to distance himself from his upbringing. Their friend Soo, on the other hand, is more of a sensible Asian-American with career ambitions and turns down her nose a little at Shang-Chi and Katy. Over in Macau live Shang-Chi’s sister Xialing and her right-hand man Jon Jon. Xialing has been there for a few years and Jon Jon will remind many of the loud, outspoken and somewhat westernised but still very much eastern Chinese people who live in Asia.

Overseas Chinese people on the small or big screen are sadly very far and few between already and when characters are included – albeit in minor roles – they are more often than not, portrayed in unflattering or one-dimensional light. Seen as unassuming, non-confrontational and unadventurous or hard-working and career-minded, with parents mostly seen as hard-hearted and traditional. The inclusion of multi-faceted overseas Chinese characters in this film allows Marvel to reach a potential global audience that consists of around 50 million overseas Chinese people (5.5 million in the US) and will hopefully serve as a massive beacon of inspiration to many so they can see people like them that they can relate to in the media and entertainment industry.

Ring Nine: The re-empowerment of Chinese characters

As mentioned before, stereotypes of the Chinese was and is still under scrutiny by some. But what the film actually does is combat them. The main example is Tony Leung’s character Wenwu. Originally called Fu Manchu in the comics but changed to Wenwu because of the racial tropes surrounding it, Wenwu is also loosely based on The Mandarin – portrayed as a terrorist in Iron Man 3 who was actually a White actor (Trevor Slattery, played by Kingsley) forced into impersonating him.

In the film, Wenwu mentions The Mandarin, angry but also amused by the caricature of him (implying The Mandarin in the MCU doesn’t actually exist as a super villain). By having Slattery kidnapped with the intention of killing him, shows – in a very strange way – he is reclaiming his identity and fighting back against the stereotype and evil portrayal of him. For in the comics, The Mandarin and Fu Manchu are simply known to be bad guys, whereas Wenwu is bad but his intentions (at least after his wife’s death) come from an honourable place. Fuelled by love, grief, the desire to save face and loyalty, as well as anger and revenge, the reasons behind Wenwu’s actions against people, including his own children are somewhat understandable, even if said actions are deplorable.

The female leads in the film also re-empower some of the stereotypes about them (shy, meek, obedient, the object of the Male Gaze/Asian fetishisation, or a strict, overbearing Tiger Mum). Firstly, Xialing is a successful, underground businesswoman who built her empire up from nothing after fleeing China. But she is still vulnerable and sensitive, hurt by her father’s neglect and her brother’s broken promise to return. We later see her stand up to her father and take part in helping her brother in the final fight, to taking over her father’s original operations at the end, showing she is more dimensional than just a damsel in distress that Shang-Chi thinks he must rescue in Macau or a hardened, emotionless female.

Meng’er Zhang also reportedly asked for her appearance to be changed as she was originally meant to have a red streak in her hair – a stereotype known as the so-called “rebellious Asian girl”. Examples of this can be found in a number of western films with Asian women in small roles, including some of the X-Men films.

Katy also combats stereotypes as she, despite depicting a conundrum that a lot of overseas Chinese people find themselves going through, holds her own and proves she is more than just a clueless, funny sidekick to Shang-Chi. She is very demanding and straightforward, not taking no for an answer when she announces she’ll accompany Shang-Chi to Macau and is generally very bold and outspoken, even in the face of near death. She later helps at a pivotal moment with her newly found archery skills, showing growth as a character without completely changing. One would have expected her to suddenly start training in kung fu and then be brilliant by the end of the film, but she instead finds her own niche that she is good at and can use to help.

And finally, both Fala Chen as Shang-Chi and Xialing’s mother and Michelle Yeoh as (Auntie) Ying Nan, are seen as strong female warriors and protectors. But instead of being hard, cold, and ruthless fighters (compared to say, the Dora Milaje from Black Panther, the female Asgardian warriors from Thor, and even the Amazons from Wonder Woman), they are calm, wise and graceful, with the strength, power and knowledge to beat Wenwu that no-one else possesses. Ying Nan also takes charge in Ta Lo when Guang Bo, one of the senior leaders of the village initially refuses Shang-Chi and co entry. She orders him to stand aside and welcomes them in, later rallying the village to prepare for war as well as being one of the first fighters – instead of Guang Bo – to go after Wenwu.

Ring Ten: Anti-Chinese racism

Unfortunately, this “ring” was not filled in completely (tee-hee!) and was one thing I had pondered over whether it would be addressed in my last post. It was very lightly touched upon in one scene in which Shang-Chi and Katy talk to their friends about the first time they met in school, when Shang-Chi was called “Gangnam Style” by another kid. A lame, tired and very light insult by most standards. But it highlighted – even if very briefly and on a very low level – the racism and discrimination Asians in the West constantly face and in this example, the narrow-minded idea that they all look alike. It’s a subtle nod to only the very start of the problem but hey, it’s still a start.

I had half-hoped for something more substantial, seeing as Falcon and the Winter Soldier raised race issues in America a number times in the series. But I felt this film had missed an opportunity to somehow do the same, even if again it wasn’t a big part of it or just a more important scene than it actually was in the end.

Rating: Eight out of ‘Ten Rings’ ⭕️⭕️⭕️⭕️⭕️⭕️⭕️⭕️

Overall, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a marvellous (pun intended) film, and you can read my full, proper review of it here. It is a huge leap forward for Chinese representation in Western cinema, following on from other recent films but also righting some of their wrongs.

While a couple of things still slightly missed the mark and could have been improved upon, no-one can doubt the influence it can potentially have on future East Asian-centred films outside of China and the inspiration it can be for aspiring or even other well-established East Asian actors, as well as a younger generation of Marvel/superhero fans. And of course, those of us who are adults who didn’t have films and characters like this growing up, and if we did, they were either forgettable, disappointing, or sadly insulting. I look forward to seeing what will come of this for representation and from Shang-Chi in more Marvel appearances.

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