Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings
US (2021) Dir. Destin Daniel Cretton
Now in a post-Avengers mode, Marvel is expanding its cinematic universe by digging out other properties in its expansive canon for the big screen treatment. And with the wider representation movement in Hollywood in full flow, this is a great time for them to dig up a more obscure title.
1000 years ago, a warrior named Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung) discovers the mystical Ten Rings which grants him unlimited power and immortality. In the 1990s, Wenwu travels to the mythical village of Ta Lo, where he meets his future wife, guardian Ying Li (Fala Chen). Expelled from the village, Ling Yi moves to Macau with a reformed Wenwu and they have two children, Shang-Chi and Xu Xialing.
Present day, Shang-Chi aka Shaun (Simu Liu), a car valet in the US with childhood friend Katy (Awkwafina). When on a bus journey, Shang-Chi is attacked for his pendant by members of the Ten Rings on behalf of his father. Realising his sister is next, Shang-Chi and Katy travel to Macau to find Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) before Wenwu does.
“Marvel does Kung Fu” might be a flippant way to describe this film yet this is exactly how the character began. Created in the 1970s to capitalise on the martial arts craze that swept the west, Shang-Chi was originally the son of Sax Rohmer’s legendary villain Fu Manchu as Marvel had the comic book rights to the character at the time. Apparently, it was not the most nuanced or tactful representation of Chinese culture, so anyone who did read it at the time may not recognise this version.
Destin Daniel Cretton and crew have done a good job in taking a crudely dated character and making it acceptable and palatable to a sensitive modern environment. This is still a Marvel film though, so it comes with some caveats regarding cultural representation, but the good news is the balance is more in favour of getting it right than wrong.
This is a film of two halves – a modern day wu xia tale in the first half and a fantasy spectacle in the second. The opening act, succinctly informs us of the basic details whilst leaving room for the story to be fleshed out further in due course. And with an unnecessary 2 ¼ hour run time there is a lot of ground to be covered in this origin story.
Shang-Chi’s fighting prowess is first highlighted during the bus fight, a kinetic, tightly choreographed, punch up channelling Jackie Chan and not for the only time. This is not a lazy comparison – anyone who has seen most of Chan’s work will be able to see the clear influence on these fights but it kicks off the fight-based action on a high note, which is continued in Macau at the fight club Xialing, also a trained fighter, owns.
Xialing held a grudge against Shang-Chi when he left home aged 14 and never returned, though he had good reason as we learn. But Wenwu wants the siblings back to together and stealing their pendants was a ruse to get their help for an important and personal mission – to rescue their mother from imprisonment in Ta Lo. Except Ying Li is dead.
Wenwu insists he can hear her calling him for help but the siblings know she is dead and refuse to help, ending up imprisoned whilst Wenwu prepares his soldiers. Receiving help from an unexpected source – Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley) aka The Mandarin from Iron Man 3 and a faceless creature named Morris from Ta Lo – the group escape and head to the magical land.
Greeting the group is Ying Li’s sister Ying Nan (Michelle Yeoh), explaining the truth about the voices Wenwu is hearing and training them to face a battle for their lives for when he arrives with the Ten Rings. Even Katy is taught how to use a bow and arrow, elevating her status from wisecracking sidekick to someone of use during the climactic battle, an epic bombastic event complete with giant dragons and the usual CGI excess.
Like most comic book tales, Shang-Chi carries a message of finding one’s true course in life and don’t ignore your potential. It may take awhile but it will come along and failure will happen first, but be the best person you can. Interestingly, Katy seems to be more totemic of this with being the least skilled beyond her driving skills, but be under no illusion who the real hero is.
For Wenwu, he represents someone corrupted by power and tormented by loss, having changed his ways and rescinded the Ten Rings to marry Ying Li, only to reactivate them to get revenge after her death. This makes him an antagonist almost by default in the sense his motives are born out of his wounded heart than any venal desires or wanton thirst for destruction.
Credit where it is due, getting the legendary Tony Leung to play Wenwu adds significant cultural gravitas when they could have cast say Jackie Chan or Donnie Yen. Leung brings subtle humanity to Wenwu’s cold determination, nicely complimented by the earnestness of newcomer Simu Liu. However, and I hate to be so cynical but Michelle Yeoh and Awkwafina feels a little like easy casting since both are recognisable Asian faces. At least we get Fala Chen and Meng’er Zhang too, and plenty of dialogue is in Mandarin.
Aside from this personal gripe, there is a lot to appreciate with the Asian culture adding a distinct fresh flavour to the usual Marvel template, whilst the popcorn action, as ridiculous as it is, will satiate the genre fans. And yes, links to the extant universe are also present and correct, with a couple of familiar cameos, and the obligatory mid/post credits scenes to set up future plots.
Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings might tick a few easy boxes but proves to be a fun, interesting, and action-packed addition to the Marvel universe.