‘Shang-Chi’ film: A beautiful, poetic story

Simu Liu as the superhero Shang-Chi. Press photo

By Wendell Gaa

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” the latest film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is a dazzling triumph of the highest order. 

As MCU’s first Asian-led feature, this is a movie which happily exceeded my expectations and is truly the superhero genre’s homage to the best of Asian and martial arts cinema.  Visually it is worthy of the production caliber of an MCU movie and just as I felt when I watched some of the most epic martial arts films in modern times — such as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Hero” — I was mesmerized and transfixed into watching a story with a unique Chinese cultural setting unfold in a beautiful poetic way.

The story unravels how thousands of years ago in ancient China, a man named Xu Wenwu discovers ten rings with mystical powers which grant the user immortal life and super strength.  Wenwu assembles an army of warriors called the Ten Rings which he goes on to lead for many generations to forge an empire by overpowering several kingdoms and successive governments.  By the late 1990s, in an effort to expand his power, Wenwu embarks on a quest to find the legendary village of Ta Lo which is rumored to be home to mythical creatures. 

Upon finding the gateway entrance to the village, he encounters the beautiful guardian Ying Li, with whom he falls in love and then bears two children with her, son Shang-Chi and daughter Xialing.  Wenwu then forsakes his life with the Ten Rings army in order to raise his family in peace.  But eventually members of the rival Iron Gang, enemies he’s made during his lordship over the Ten Rings, come back to wreck vengeance on his family by murdering Ying Li.  To protect his children as well as to maintain the legacy of his organization, Wenwu — who goes by the name of the infamous Marvel supervillain the Mandarin — trains the 14-year-old Shang-Chi in the ways of the martial arts and then sends his son to assassinate the leader of the Iron Gang.  Shang-Chi is wrought by guilt over his actions and flees to San Francisco to start a new life, where he adopts the name “Shaun.” 

As a young adult, Shang-Chi finds employment working as a valet along with his best friend and fellow Chinese American Katy (comedian Awkwafina).  San Francisco seems to provide Shaun with a comfortable life where he and Katy make many new friends and hang out at restaurants and karaoke bars.  But Shaun’s hopes for his continued normal and happy life take a turn for the unexpected during what seems to be a routine bus ride to work.  He is soon attacked by members of his father’s Ten Rings organization who seek to take the pendant he wears around his neck, which was given to him by his mother before her death. 

Realizing who his assailants were, Shaun, who is joined by a determined Katy, departs for Macau on a quest to track down his estranged sister to warn her and to confront the threat posed to the both of them by the Ten Rings organization. 

Directed by Hawaii-born Asian-American Destin Daniel Cretton, this film’s plot pacing and cinematography is as equally compelling and hauntingly attractive in such a way that only a great Asian-setting cinematic piece can offer.  The professionalism and experience of the cast and crew is evident given how excellent the fight and stunt choreography are in this film.  Complementing the real-life action here are the impressive visuals which are truly reflective of classic Chinese-inspired designs in the form of period costumes, mythological creatures, stunning mountainous landscape scenery, and the ancient weaponry used by the fighters. 

Simu Liu absolutely nails the titular hero role of Shang-Chi, and his dedication and passion for the character naturally shines through.  I have been a fan of Simu’s work in the Netflix comedy series “Kim’s Convenience” about the life and times of a Korean family in Toronto, Canada, and I am glad to see how his likeability and sincerity flow smoothly well into Marvel’s first lead Asian superhero.  I was further impressed to learn how in preparation for the role, he underwent rigorous real-life training in tai chi and wushu combat. 

Awkwafina as Katy provides welcome comic relief here as she has done in such hits as “Crazy Rich Asians,” though in a very balanced manner and her character does step up to the plate to help the good guys when necessary.  The onscreen chemistry between Simu and Awkwafina is adoringly humorous and endearing and one can tell how much they enjoyed working on this film together.      

Hong Kong legend Tony Leung does bring a measure of depth and nuance to the supervillain role of Xu Wenwu/Mandarin.  Although for me the best supporting standout is newcomer Chinese actress Meng’er Zhang as Xialing, who possesses a flavor of raw independence and enigma which in many ways personifies the very mystique which makes “Shang-Chi” so absorbing to watch.

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© The FilAm 2021

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