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Length: 132 minutes
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Cast: Simu Liu, Tony Leung, Awkwafina, Zhang Meng’er, Fala Chen, Michelle Yeoh, Ben Kingsley, Ronny Chieng, Florian Munteanu
In theatres 1 September (Singapore)
5 out of 5 stars
Marvel Studios' latest blockbuster, Shang-chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings, will drop in theatres next week. This time, there's no premier access option for the movie on Disney Plus, like what they did for Black Widow (the latter move earned Disney a lawsuit from Scarlett Johansson), so you gotta watch it at the cinema.
Shang-chi is an expertly crafted origin story for its eponymous superhero: action-packed but also packing emotional depth, and very funny too, I might add. It's the perfect introduction for the Master of Kungfu to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Everyone just wants to forget that flop of a show about that other martial arts master from the MCU, Iron Fist.)
This movie is also super exciting for Asian fans of the MCU because, for the Chinese community, it will do what Black Panther did for the Black community – it's the first MCU movie that's being led by an Asian cast, providing a rocket booster of Chinese representation in, oh, only the biggest box office franchise in history.
And what a cast it is! The main antagonist Xu Wenwu, a unique MCU character based loosely on the Mandarin from the comics, is played by none other than Hong Kong thespian Tony Leung Chiu-wai, a giant of Chinese cinema. Tony displays here the subtle yet profoundly powerful acting that he is known for, flitting in an instant from ruthless killer to stern father to tender lover.
The heart of the story rests on the conflicted relationships between Shang-chi (Simu Liu) and his estranged family: his father Wenwu aka leader of the criminal organisation The Ten Rings, and his sister Xialing (Zhang Meng'er), all dealing with the aftermath of the death of the siblings' mother and Wenwu's wife, Ying Li (Fala Chen).
Simu, known for playing Jung in the beloved Canadian TV comedy Kim's Convenience, shows off his physical and athletic prowess, performing amazing acrobatics in his fights. In terms of acting, he holds his own against his veteran co-stars, conveying a mixture of anger, grief, guilt and yearning. Zhang is another wonder from the casting department: a theatre actress from China appearing in her screen debut, she morphs from glowering kick-ass fighter to vulnerable sibling.
Awkwafina and Ben Kingsley are hilarious as Shang-chi's bestie sidekick Katy and eccentric failed actor Trevor respectively. In a surprise move that wasn't revealed until Kingsley turned up at the Hollywood premiere of Shang-chi last week, the actor reprises his role as Trevor Slattery, who impersonated the Mandarin in Iron Man 3. I won't spoil his role in the movie for you; suffice to say that you'll never look at Planet Of The Apes the same way again.
As an ethnic Chinese myself, I'm happy to report that the portrayal of Chinese culture in Shang-chi is on point. There's a ton of Mandarin dialogue, all spoken perfectly by the actors, right down to the pronunciation and intonation. I loved that Chinese characters spoke to other Chinese characters in Chinese, just like they would in real life. Remember that this is Hollywood we're talking about, where Chinese characters often speak terrible Chinese, or speak English just for the benefit of the majority white audience. Director Destin Daniel Cretton said in a press conference last week that what language the characters spoke in any scene "was always rooted in just the logic of the characters, and who would naturally be speaking what language", and the writers and actors "were constantly having the discussion of what made sense for the scene". The commitment to cultural authenticity is real, yo.
Exciting, lightning-paced action sequences bring to mind Jackie Chan movies, which isn't a coincidence – the action choreographer Brad Allan, who sadly died earlier this month, was a protege of Jackie Chan himself. Besides more conventional martial arts, the film pays homage to classic fantasy kungfu styles from the wuxia genre which will be familiar to Asian viewers, including beautiful choreography featuring qing gong and tai ji quan. A fight between Ying Li and Wenwu is a breathtaking dance that showcases the other-worldly kungfu of the denizens of the magical village of Ta Lo. Michelle Yeoh's maternal surrogate figure, Ying Nan, imparts a tai ji-inspired style of fighting to Shang-chi, which he employs against his father's more brutal style. In fact, the movie's cast includes veteran Hong Kong martial arts film star Yuen Wah in a supporting role, although he doesn't have a major fight scene of his own.
There are fascinating and beautiful interpretations of various Chinese mythological creatures, including the celestial dragon, shíshī, xièzhì and húlijīng. The depictions feel accurate, if that makes sense for fantasy creatures from another dimension based on Chinese mythological creatures.
The movie climaxes in an epic third act battle which amazingly weaves Shang-chi's emotional journey of self-discovery together with the need to defeat a world-ending extra-dimensional threat (which adds more to the lore of the multiverse that's being slowly established in the MCU, beginning with Loki and What If...?)
Basically, Shang-chi is a smashing good action adventure that will also hit you in the feels and is laugh-out-loud funny. It's also a fantastic case study in how a behemoth entertainment franchise can be sensitive and authentic in centring minority cultures. If this is any indication of how the MCU plans to portray diversity in Phase 4, consider me shooked.
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