This time last year I was disheartened by the troubling ways that Disney’s live-action Mulan collaborated with the Chinese government to squander a golden opportunity to adapt the animated film, going so far as to alter its screenplay to placate state censors and shoot the film in Xinjiang, in the same area as Uyghur detention camps.
So I had few expectations of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, other than the casting of Hong Kong legend Tony Leung Chiu-Wai in his first Hollywood role, as Xu Wenwu the corruptible-though-redeemable crime lord and grieving father of protagonist Shang-Chi (Simu Liu). It was therefore a satisfying prove-me-wrong moment to watch the film in a cinema filled with an audience who whooped at every meticulously choreographed levitating kick, punch and tai chi-inspired fight sequence. I left with hope and elation, not disappointment.
Shang-Chi is a film so very unlike Mulan, which featured a bland “superheroine” who simply reacted to a series of fantastical, though unconnected, events around her. In stark contrast Shang-Chi is a heartfelt reimagining of the story by two Asian-American film-makers, director Destin Daniel Cretton and writer David Callaham, along with co-writer Andrew Lanham. Cretton and Callaham have created a modern bildungsroman, eradicating the “yellow peril” origins of its superhero; Marvel’s initial comic series was developed as a spin-off from Sax Rohmer’s notorious Dr Fu Manchu novels. Instead they offer up a story of revenge, redemption, grief and familial trauma – and several of the most spectacular fight sequences ever shown in cinema, the first being a balletic seduction scene which I have no doubt will be replicated many times.
The film also touches on Chinese cultural traditions in a manner far more subtle than the laboured Crazy Rich Asians, including Qingming (China’s “Day of the Dead”), and the importance of family names. It also features important spaces for Chinese immigrants, such as the city where Shang-Chi flees: San Francisco’s Chinatown (a city my own Beijing-born father lived and worked in). A nail-biting fight staged on bamboo scaffolding on a Macau skyscraper notwithstanding, the film also packs in as many Hong Kong film influences as it can muster: Rumble in the Bronx, A Better Tomorrow and Kung Fu Hustle to name a few. A bittersweet device, considering the city only last month proposed a law which means new and past films will face censorship or bans if they are deemed by the state as “subversive”.
Ironically, despite the choice of Mandarin and not Cantonese as the film’s dual language, Shang-Chi has still not been approved for release in China, and is the first Marvel film to fail to do so. Last year’s live-action Mulan controversy has no doubt had an effect on this decision – as well as the fact that mainland Chinese audiences appeared to object to the casting of Simu Liu, who is apparently “too ugly” to play the role of Marvel’s first lead Asian superhero. Clearly, they’ve never binge-watched Kim’s Convenience.
The film has a few flaws too, mostly involving a handful of well-worn symbolic tropes, but this isn’t serious enough to counter the importance and power this film will have for younger generations. Seeing an American Chinese heritage hero and particularly strong female representation – this is bad ass. Shang-Chi has redeemed the stain left by Mulan and has moved the goalposts again for Asian representation in Hollywood cinema. A powerful, slick, tender story of intergenerational fracture, and a nostalgic homage to Hong Kong kung fu cinema. No wonder China won’t distribute it.