On Shang-Chi

September 09, 2021 09:17
Photo: Reuters

Shang-Chi (played by Simu Liu in this enthralling, ambitious debut) is, in many ways, an uncharacteristic Marvel/Hollywood superhero.

He is not white – for starters (obviously); though with the increasing diversity seen in blockbusters, that feature alone doesn’t make him stand out.

So perhaps it’s to do with the fact that throughout large swathes of his origins story, he has no superpowers – despite the (somewhat awkward) attempts on the part of Marvel to insist that Kung-Fu constitutes a form of “superpower”. Tell that to Jackie Chan, or, indeed, audience’s favourite Yuen Wah, whose appearance in this flick sent uncles and aunties in my theatre reeling.

Yet that’s no biggie either – given that Black Widow, Hawkeye, and, indeed, Falcon are all “ordinary folks” trained to levels of impeccable precision and proficiency. They’re superheroes, but they don’t have superpowers.

What tells Shang-Chi apart from the rest, is that his story, for perhaps the first time ever in cinematic Marvel’s history, places at frontstage the values, cultures, and beliefs of Asian-Americans – juxtaposing them, of course, against the “Asian-Asian” values that permeate the Ta Lo village (somewhat suspiciously named in some form of pidgin Chinese, though I suppose one could find an eponymously named entity in Chinese mythology), as well as the American zeitgeist symbolised by the lavish hotel where Shang-Chi (“Shaun”) works as a parking valet.

I was particularly struck by the movie’s willingness to capture the multi-dimensional, pluralistically faceted aspects of Asian-American culture – from the traditionalist fixation over marriage (“When are you getting married ah, aiya!”) of the grandmother, to the rather grating (yet incredibly typical) berating from the mother concerning one’s career choices, to the struggles to make sense of origins and how one places in relation to the rest of the world, perhaps best epitomised by the fundamental differences in cultural mores and beliefs distinguishing Awkwafina’s Katy from the protagonist. The movie felt real, to someone who’d straddled and lived across both cultures – like myself… even if it wasn’t.

The acting is spot-on in many ways – enhanced, doubtlessly, by the tactful and fitting casting choices, one that certainly brings out the best from the plot. Fala Chen, Meng’er Zhang, and Michelle Yeoh steal the show in their respective ways – she exudes elegance and admirable defiance, blending together perfectly the roles of a doting wife, a mother driven by sacrificial love, and a stern stalwart in her tribe. Michelle, as always, charms with her assertive, steely cool and elder-esque profundity. Breakout star Meng’er Zhang puts on an incredibly sturdy debut performance in the Marvel cinematic universe – fusing a level of fortitude beyond her years (and her portrayed character’s years), with a spectacularly complex and rich affection for her family.

Tony Leung’s rigorous character-acting – blended with his enigmatic charisma and subdued mannerisms – adds depth, resonance, complexity, and curious relatability to a character that would otherwise be broadly lacking in audience appeal or, indeed, sympathisability. Wenwu – an innovative reinvention by Marvel – certainly is a marked improvement over the stereotype-ridden Mandarin, itself an allusion to a deeply ignominious series of comics, movies, and pictures centered around Fu Manchu (a caricature of a Chinese villain).

Last but not least, the chemistry between Awkwafina and Simu Liu certainly works. It’s clear that they’re not your stereotypical couple – the Stone-Gosling pairing in La La Land – or your standard superhero-and-sidekick (Batman and Robin, anyone?). Shang-Chi is an unwitting hero, someone who is seeking to bury his past, to put behind memories of a life he had never wanted to enter or embark upon living; Katy, on the other hand, is in equal parts cherubically unsuspecting and jaded with street-smartness. She is savvy, she knows her way around town (and indeed, is a hell of a driver) – yet she is also surprisingly (or not!) clueless about the world of mystics, myths, and magic. Above all, the relationship between the two is sufficiently Platonic as to render the relationship intriguing through its ambiguities.

In any case, Shang-Chi and the Ten Rings validates the Asian-American experience – not as an offshoot to your neighbourhood WASP culture; nor, indeed, as an aspiring remaking of “Asian culture” – the byproduct of dated, Orientalist tropes imbued with attempts to commodify diversity in placating the critics. This time, it’s different. As times as tumultuous as these, when bigotry directed towards Asian-Americans and Asians is surging across the world, it sure feels good to see someone who looks (somewhat) like me on the screen – embraced and valued by many others around the world, as a role model to which they can look up.

For far too long, Hollywood has been dominated by whiteness – not just in terms of demographics or diversity of the actors and actresses cast, but also the permeating discourses, rhetoric, and narratives told about “other” cultures. Marvel’s sensitive, emphatic, and empowering treatment of Shang-Chi must be commended. And indeed, I could not recommend the movie enough. Check it out – whilst it’s still in cinemas!

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Assistant Professor, HKU

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