Movie review: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

  • Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
  • Cast: Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, Tony Leung, Florian Munteanu, Fala Chen, Michelle Yeoh, Ben Kingsley, Benedict Wong Country/Language: USA/English
  • Duration: 2 hr 12 min
  • Release date: September 3, 2021

‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’, known widely as ‘Shang-Chi’, is a welcome entry in the superhero pantheon, and one of the more exciting action movies this year. Simu Liu is Shaun — or Shang-Chi — a hotel valet in San Francisco who must return to Macao and team up with his estranged sister, Xu Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), to stop their father, Wenwu (Tony Leung), from destroying the world. Wenwu is the feared leader of the legendary Ten Rings organization of warriors who have fought in countless wars throughout the centuries.

The cast is fantastic. Awkwafina (‘Crazy Rich Asians’, ‘Ocean’s Eight’) is a gift that keeps giving. Playing Katy, Shang-Chi’s best friend and side-kick, the actor is hilariously dorky and provides the levity needed to pull certain scenes from drowning into too much seriousness.

SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS, Simu Liu as Shang-Chi, 2021. © Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures / © Marvel Studios / Courtesy Everett Collection

Michelle Yeoh is also splendid, if a bit underused, as Ying Nan, a guardian of the mythical Ta Lo village. Her graceful martial arts scenes feel like a call back to her iconic fight scene in Ang Lee’s classic, ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’.

There’s a commendable subplot involving Ben Kingsley’s nutty Scouser, Trevor Slattery. Slattery is a bumbling Shakespearean actor who masqueraded previously in ‘Iron Man 3’ as the arch-villain, Mandarin. With the writing of Cretton, the comedian is provided with a depth and redemption arc that elevates him from the two-dimensional jester that he was in the messy ‘Iron Man’ film.

The veteran Cantonese actor, Tony Leung (‘In The Mood For Love’, ‘Chungking Express’), essays the prime antagonist named Xu Wenwu, the narcissistic father of Shang-Chi. Leung tries his best to portray him as a hardened but heartbroken husband. But the plot, which sees the warlord being softened by a warrior woman so effectively that he is pushed into insanity after her death, is not very convincing. After she dies, his grief is so severe that he believes she is kidnapped by her own village. And he believes this because he “can hear her voice”. This feels out-of-character for a man like Xenwu who shouldn’t be so gullible.

Thankfully, this plot doesn’t derail what is, otherwise, a brilliantly entertaining flick. Director Destin Daniel Cretton (‘Short Term 12’, ‘The Glass Castle’) adds his touch of sensitivity and humanity to what could have been a CGI-infested, multi-character mess of a superhero film where spectacle is prioritized over characters. ‘Shang-Chi’ has heart, laughs, beauty and action scenes that are genuinely thrilling.

One of the first action scenes in the film pays tribute to the Wuxia genre of Chinese films, a martial arts genre that is mixed with period drama and has beautifully shot kung-fu or sword-fighting scenes. The scenes contain oil paint-like colours and slow motion movements which render the fight scenes poetic, and the fighters almost dancer-like. The Wuxia genre’s influence has been increasingly visible in Hollywood since last year’s ‘Mulan’ (directed by Niki Caro), and even further back with Jackie Chan movies. Tony Leung and Fala Chen (and their stunt doubles) take our breath away in this fight scene.

The San Francisco tram-fight scene, involving Shaun and Katy, is intensely thrilling and even funny. When the duo leave for Hong Kong, we almost miss them being in the US, even though in any other superhero film, an American city would be a clichéd setting.

The climax fight scene in ‘Shang-Chi’ is almost predictable with the large-scale CGI use. Heavy CGI use is a tradition with superhero films and has notoriously dragged down the build-up in ‘Wonder Woman’ and ‘Thor: Ragnarok’. However, ‘Shang-Chi’ does not cross the line with the special effects. We always understand what is going on in spite of the many major characters involved in the battle. It never loses its sense of people, the anchor of this film.

Marvel’s Phase 3 and 4 films are genuinely an exciting era for film fans. Diehard Marvel fans have been bemoaning the ‘decay’ of Marvel cinema after the deaths and retirements of the older batch of superheroes. For them, the newer heroes do not deliver the “same level of entertainment”. Personally, for this author, the newer films since 2017 have been far more compelling. The new movies are culturally richer and more inclusive, even celebratory, such as ‘Black Panther’, which finds beauty in, and pays homage to, African culture and heritage. It was like no other superhero film seen before. Then there’s the arrival of the first (!) solo female superhero (‘Captain Marvel’ with Brie Larson) and a teen hero (‘Spider-man: Homecoming’ with Tom Holland) where the hero’s age actually matches that of the target audience. Additionally, Marvel has been hiring independent film auteurs, who’ve never tackled an action film before, to helm these movies such as Ryan Coogler for ‘Black Panther’, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck for ‘Captain Marvel’, Cate Shortland for ‘Black Widow’, and ‘Nomadland’ director Chloé Zhao whose ‘The Eternals’ comes out in November. We not only get thrills, but cinematography by a keen directorial eye and cultural commentary with substance.

A minor, but loud, voice among netizens has attacked the Phase 3 and 4 films with vitriol because they think the inclusion of women and non-white protagonists will lead to a priotization of “diversity over quality”. The new films have consistently proven them wrong. ‘Shang-Chi’, which steps outside the white male-dominated Anglophone sphere to explore Chinese myths and culture to create a unique, and even feminist, Marvel movie, is yet another addition to an increasing number of socially aware Hollywood entertainers such as ‘Coco’ (2017) and ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’ (2021).

‘Shang-Chi’ has been making waves in the box office, earning more revenue than expected. This is because not only is the movie super-fun, but it has a tremendous amount of love and sympathy for its many characters, for Chinese culture, for women, for the elderly, for second generation Americans, and the millenials and Gen Z. Stepping out of the cinemas after the movie is over, one might be filled with a new found love for mainstream cinema. It’s a great choice to watch at the theatres as your first movie since the start of the pandemic.

Don’t forget to check out the soundtrack, ‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings: The Album’, which was made in collaboration with 88rising collective, and is the coolest Marvel soundtrack to have blessed our ears since the ‘Black Panther’ album in 2018.

‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ is now playing in theatres.

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