This review contains spoilers for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
After the misfires of Crazy Rich Asians and Mulan, I can’t say I had high hopes for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. The big marketing push for an Asian Hollywood film in an Asian country (i.e., Singapore) felt a little bit too commercialised. All those good early reviews seemed manufactured, and here we had Awkwafina in another Asian Hollywood movie because, of course, every Asian Hollywood movie needs Awkwafina in it. (Groans)
I was wrong.
Finally. Marvel got it right with Asian representation in Shang-Chi. Not once did I feel pandered or condescended to with its portrayal of Chinese culture (I’m Chinese), which is a first for a Hollywood movie. There are other elements to love, like the martial arts set pieces, introducing a new corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and the main character himself. But to be able to step into a cinema and say yes, that’s what we Chinese would do, is an amazing leap forward for Hollywood cinema.
As the 25th instalment of the MCU and the 2nd movie in Phase 4, you’d expect that a lot of pre-reading is required to catch all the nuances of Shang-Chi. But the film is surprisingly self-contained. It tells two tales—one of the eponymous Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), a highly-skilled martial artist who has been trained from young but now leads a life where he keeps his abilities secret; and that of his father Wenwu (Tony Leung), the wielder of the powerful Ten Rings, who finds himself unexpectedly falling in love with a woman from a mystical village, Jiang Li (Fala Chen), and starting a family with her.
If there’s any good jumping-on point for the MCU, then this would be it—especially since it hints at what we will get to see in Phase 4.
As a Hollywood wuxia movie, it is absolutely amazing. The martial arts choreography is beautifully executed, from straight-up brawls to elegant duels to unarmed fights to mass battles reminiscent of yore’s wuxia films. That should come as no surprise, given that the late Brad Allan was the supervising stunt coordinator for the film. As a protege of Jackie Chan, Allan’s work has made the martial arts feel as authentic as the culture it’s portraying. And it also helps that almost every fight takes place in some evocative location, like the scaffolding of a skyscraper or the site of an ancient mystical portal.
But what impressed me was the Mandarin dialogue. Since the characters are Chinese, a good part of their dialogue is Mandarin—mainly when Awkwafina’s character, Katy, isn’t around because she’s not good at the language. Everything is pronounced correctly, not just phonetically but tonally. That’s important given that Mandarin is a tonal language, and many Hollywood films pay lip service by having Mandarin dialogue that’s pronounced phonetically right but tonally wrong. This was surprisingly coherent after hearing Mandarin butchered so many times in Hollywood films (I’m sure the same goes for other languages).
Yes, Ronny Chieng’s Mandarin has a noticeable Malaysian twang, and Tony Leung seems the slightest bit stilted (although he gives a masterful performance in the film) speaking Mandarin. But even English-speaking actors have different accents, and it’s perfectly natural to have the characters speak in different accents when they’re genuinely speaking a language they understand. So the accents elevate the feel of having an international Chinese cast.
But while everyone is terrific, Awkwafina isn’t. Here, she plays the same tired old stereotype, the awkward but spunky friend who accompanies Shang-Chi on his journey to resolve his family drama and save the world. What’s made worse is how her character Katy is also used as some exposition mouthpiece to literally describe what happened in the scenes before or to have things explained to her. Take her out, and there’ll be no difference to Shang-Chi, just that they’ll probably speak in Mandarin a lot more. Maybe that was her function—to give everyone a reason to speak English in the film.
The finale is also a strange letdown. The film builds up the tension and conflict between Shang-Chi and Wenwu, and we do get their final showdown in the climax. But instead of ending with that, the film goes on to a giant CGI battle that loses all the emotional resonance built up earlier. Why Marvel? Why?
And while it gets the Asian representation right, it falls short in gender equality during the battle scenes where all the women are always gaping, mouths wide open when, at the end, Shang-Chi flies into the air and reveals his full potential. That’s the full potential of the Ten Rings, not anything else you might have imagined, please.
Plus, the title is quite the misnomer. Spoiler alert: the film doesn’t actually reveal the legend of the Ten Rings.
The Ten Rings play an essential role in the movie, and parables are spoken of. But for a story that purports to reveal the legend of the Ten Rings, you’re going to leave the cinema hall still wondering what it is that the Ten Rings do. But it’s all right, I guess, because the wuxia sequences more than make up for the vague definition of the film’s titular artefact.
No review would be complete without a mention of Tony Leung’s performance. Even speaking in a language that’s not his first, his portrayal of Wenwu as a tragic and conflicted character is moving. His small stature, in no way detracts from the great presence he commands in his scenes. His character is revealed to be that of the real Mandarin from Iron Man 3. Still, a clever piece of dialogue manages to address that potentially problematic name (imagine a supervillain named the Melayu or the Tamil). In the comics, the Mandarin is Iron Man’s archnemesis, and in Iron Man 3, the Mandarin was a shadowy figurehead that was revealed to be a smokescreen for the film’s real villain.
Phase 4 should have started with Shang-Chi, not Black Widow (it doesn’t affect the overall narrative of Phase 4), and it would have made the future of the MCU that much more promising. Disney CEO Bob Chapek had previously called it an “interesting experiment” because it’s not getting a same-day release on Disney+ as other Disney films have.
But if cinematic merit automatically translates into box office earnings, then Shang-Chi will have paid off handsomely in this experiment. With its Asian representation and martial arts choreography, Shang-Chi may very well be the watershed film that might change Asian Hollywood movies for the better.