Can Marvel Studios interpret a Wuxia story for the global market? Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings suggests that it can.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings Synopsis
For a thousand years, the mystical Ten Rings afforded Xu Wenwu immortality and the superhuman might to lead a shadowy organisation. All that power, however, did not prevent Wenwu from falling in love with Ying Li, a mythical guardian of Ta Lo; he even gave up his powers for her. Jump forth to modern-day San Francisco, Shang-Chi, Wenxu’s son, leads a quiet life as a parking valet after leaving his father. Following a savage attack by mercenaries, though, he realises that it is no longer possible to flee from his heritage. But little does he know that Wenwu’s true purpose is not further domination, but for their entire family to reunite.
I looked forward to watching Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, but not because I’m a fan of the kung-fu superhero.
Instead, it’s because of curiosity. And that one name.
Yup. If you’re unfamiliar, Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu, with his signature moustache and all, is one of the worst examples of racial stereotyping in pre-modern pop culture. One of the key instigators of Yellow Peril too.
Within the Marvel universe, Shang-Chi was originally the son of this unsavoury, socio-politically controversial character too.
It’s thus like, how do you make a Shang-Chi movie while avoiding all mentions and remembrances of this ugly heritage? While also being mindful not to slip into orientalism?
Well, I’m personally convinced that the task is impossible, but I’d say too that director Destin Daniel Cretton mostly achieved a balance that is fun, visually attractive, and most importantly, “safe” for most audiences.
As a (western educated) Chinese watching this superhero popcorn flick, while gulping Mandarin Orange juice, I did find some parts of the show over-enthusiastic on representation. For example, was there really a need for so much Mandarin dialogue, when they all speak perfect English? Culturally, do all Chinese just speak Mandarin?
Beautiful as the Wuxia-inspired fight choreography was, at times, it does feel too eager to replicate Chinese periodic productions too.
But like I said earlier, the end balance was tasteful. This is a Wuxia/Xianxia story viewed through the MCU lens. Also built on a formula that’s long-familiar and thrilling to audiences worldwide, without excessive exotifications or racial shading.
More notably, I feel the reworked character of Xu Wenwu, so splendid played by Tony Leung, thoroughly explores the classic conundrums of Chinese families. The character is still villainous, of course, and admittedly, this exploration sometimes strays into certain areas of convenient stereotyping.
But Wenwu’s ambiguous expectations of his son highlight one of the key challenges of Chinese fathers, one that is still quite real in today’s world. Without giving away spoilers, let’s just say the trailers were slyly deceptive. The man didn’t want his boy back at his side as a henchman. He certainly didn’t want his son back to assume leadership too.
It’s all for something else.
Similarly, Simu Liu does a praiseworthy job portraying the “son” trapped by these family expectations. He’s a little uneven in between humour and heroic moments. But like other MCU leads, I’m sure he will eventually perfect his persona in future features. He may even outshine more famous names.
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What is Morris? That adorable, face-less pet? He’s a Dijiang!