The APAHM Project Day 1: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Film: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Where to Watch: Disney +
written by: Kelly Jeu
Shang-Chi has arrived! Our first Asian superhero hit the big screen and what a debut it was! First off I got to say that Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is now my favorite film in the MCU. In fact, I saw it thrice in theaters and each time was like watching it for the first time. Why did I see it so often, you ask? Practically speaking, I wanted to demonstrate to Hollywood with my money and my presence that this is the content and representation I as an Asian American want. We are not one story. Also, it’s freaking amazing!
Speaking of amazing, let’s delve right into the why. In general I am liking the direction Phase 4 is going. The balance is shifting from action-packed punches to a more narrative feel which I personally enjoy, and Shang-Chi definitely follows this trend (but still has some beautiful action sequences). There were multiple points where I had to be reminded that this is an MCU film (e.g. Trevor mentioning Iron Man and Wong appearing on screen). The tone was just different despite there still being flying creatures and supernatural powers at play. It felt like we got more time to explore the characters’ development and their relationships with each other.
So if you haven’t seen Shang-Chi (this is your spoiler warning), let me recap. Our hero is portrayed by Chinese Canadian Simu Liu (AKA Jung from Kim’s Convenience and mister month of April on the WongFu Asian Bachelorette 2019 calendar). Shang-Chi is a Chinese man in his twenties living a seemingly normal life in San Francisco until his dangerous past comes back to remind him this isn’t the case. He and his best friend Katy travel to China where he is reunited with his younger sister and his formidable father, the leader of the criminal organization the Ten Rings. His father reveals his plan to rescue his late wife whom he believes to be trapped behind a door to another realm in her home village. It is later revealed that it is in fact not his wife who calls to him but a creature called the Dweller in Darkness who seeks to escape its prison behind the Dark Gate so that it can devour the souls of everyone in our world.
REPRESENTATION AND DIMENSIONAL CHARACTERS
Accurate representation is still a work-in-progress in Hollywood. Too often it seems they interpret diversity equating representation. When in fact, diversity barely scratches the surface without proper representation and exploration of what a certain trait means for a character. Oftentimes, they get stuck too on a single version of representation for an entire group and pat themselves on the back because they checked off the diversity box.
This film hits different. We get a whole cast of Chinese characters who all have very different personalities and challenges. No socially awkward Asian nerds or sidekicks here. Instead they were allowed to display a range of emotions including anger, tears, and humor. We also have various actors portraying these characters and members of the project behind the camera as well (Destin Daniel Cretton is of Japanese descent).
I love that a major Hollywood franchise like Marvel is introducing western audiences to more international talent. We get Hong Kong legend Tony Leung entering western media with a major role. His instantly magnetic presence on the screen immediately engages you in the story. His ability to express so much with just his eyes is phenomenal. Another Hong Kong star Fala Chen makes her US debut as Shang Chi’s mother. Yuen Wah who plays a Ta Lo elder has worked in over 160 films. Although Michelle Yeoh has been in Hollywood for decades, I feel that many people only started recognizing her after Crazy Rich Asians.
There are several moments that will resonate with Asian audience members, those Subtle Asian Traits if you will. Those IYKYK moments. From the love of karaoke to burning incense for those who have passed. Even the mythical creatures have some basis in Asian folklore (anyone else want to cuddle Morris?).
One of the scenes that stood out to me wasn’t some amazing action choreography or some witty line. It was the “shoe moment” right before Shaun enters Katy’s apartment. We get a close up of Shaun removing his Air Jordans on her doorstep before entering the home. This may leave many people wondering what was the point of that shot. However, if you have ever been to an Asian household, you know the significance of this gesture. As a sign of respect you leave your dirty shoes at the doorway. It’s a brief moment, but I just appreciate how this everyday action was presented, and we also see this act juxtaposed with his Air Jordans—a symbol of his assimilation into Western culture.
However, there were plenty of moments that broke the mold. Thank you, Katy, for kicking down the stereotype that Asian women are bad drivers - a skill that comes in handy multiple times in the film. We also see a break from the submissive Asian female trope. Xialing exudes serious girl boss energy. Not waiting for permission or approval, she carves out her own path to become the owner/leader of an underground fight ring. As she said, “If my dad won’t let me into his empire, I was going to build my own.”
The complexity of Wenwu is also refreshing. He’s a complicated antagonist because he is not just some evil villain who is obviously making a lot of bad decisions for the sake of power but rather you understand his motives and his motive is love. He’s trying to piece his family back together and restore what was lost. For him, his love for his wife justifies his means. Even the reunion in Macau between father and son is not quite what we expect. A gentle forehead touch shows there’s still some love there, twisted though it may be. Throughout the film, each is hoping the other will see his point of view.
THEMES OF DUALITY AND SELF-IDENTITY
One of the running themes weaved throughout the story is the struggle of light and dark, especially with Shang-Chi trying to reconcile both sides in himself. He is the offspring of a good-natured woman from a magic-infused village and a ruthless leader of a terrorist organization. He runs away and tries to cut his father out of his life. He wants to forget the assassin he once was trained to be. However, his father’s ambition sucks him back into this world, and Shang-Chi has to confront this darkness in him.
When Shang-Chi calls out his father for how ridiculous his plan is, Wenwu heatedly asks “When will you stop pretending?” The audience may perceive this as a surface plea for Shang-Chi to accept the truth in his father’s belief that his mother is alive and waiting for them. However, it’s a complex question. What is really being asked of the audience to reflect on is when will Shang-Chi stop pretending that this dark side of his life is not part of who he is. He’s not just some guy who went to an American high school and parks cars for a living. He’s much more complicated than that.
His mother and aunt offer a different perspective. Instead of shunning this part of him, they both encourage him to embrace it. While Shang-Chi is trying to learn how his mother was able to beat his father in combat, his Aunt Nan reminds him that he is the product of all who came before him—both his father’s and his mother’s side. When our hero is submerged in the lake of Ta Lo he subconsciously remembers the last words his mother spoke to him: “Look into your heart, the light, and the dark. To know yourself, you must face them both.”
However, his father Wenwu was not always the callous conqueror. He lets go of his power and immortality for a brief period by giving up his mysterious ten rings to build a family. We see this struggle of light and dark in Wenwu as well. He tried to be the good man his wife believed he could be but he ends up losing her anyway, making him question whether he should have given up the ten rings in the first place.
Another theme that I want to touch on briefly is the journey to self-identity. As discussed previously, this is something that Shang-Chi obviously wrestles with. Furthermore, his bestie Katy also deals with this albeit on a less dramatic scale. Her family and friends point out she holds an honors college degree and is not reaching her full potential as a valet. In the beginning of the film, Katy and Shaun insist they are not running from adulthood. When they reach Ta Lo, she mentions she envies how the members of the village all seem to know their purpose. Some sage wisdom offered to her is that if you aim at nothing, you hit nothing. We don’t get to explore Katy’s arc as in detail as Shang-Chi’s (it is only a 2-hour movie after all), but we do see her grow and learn that she played a vital role in the defeat of the Dweller in Darkness. Perhaps subsequent MCU films will explore her journey a little more.
THE FUTURE OF AAPI
There was a lot to pack into a superhero origin story while also setting up for future MCU adventures, but I think they executed all of this pretty well and to an amazing score no less. It had action. It had heart. I cried every time I watched it, and I was always in awe of the complex choreography for the fight sequences.
I have little sympathy for the white male who bemoans he can’t relate to one POC story. Do you know how many times I have had to try to relate to a white male protagonist growing up? But even if you don’t identify as AAPI, you can still relate because at the end of the day this is not just an Asian story but a human one. We can all relate to strained familial relationships, struggling with self identity, losing loved ones, and regretting our mistakes. These are the common grounds that bring us together. Representation matters because it allows you to see we are not so different after all if you are willing to listen.
Happy APAHM! May our stories continue to be told and may we continue to be seen.
“We need diverse representation not only so every kid can see themselves as the hero of the story, but so that every kid can understand that *other* kinds of kids are *also* the heroes of the story.” - Rabbi Danya Ruttenburg
SMALL BUSINESS SHOUT OUT:
Shout out to Asian-owned small business Subtle Cantonese Learning who makes learning the Cantonese language fun and engaging!
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The Eternals on Disney +
Invincible on Amazon Prime