Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)

Marvel has now given us its first east Asian lead, in the form of the young martial arts master Shang-Chi, engagingly played by Chinese-Canadian actor Simu Liu, who graciously puts up with a gallery of scene-stealing supporting turns who are variously iconic, charismatic and better at comedy.

This is an action-adventure fantasy in which the stylised, anti-gravity qinggong fighting styles of wuxia fiction are effectively brought into alignment with Avenger-type superpowers. It’s an entertaining, if generically pretty familiar MCU movie with incidental funny roles and ironic quirks to provide approachability and relatability and leaven the seriousness. There’s a final, drawn-out spectacular battle which is 15% too long in the traditional manner, featuring an evil giant dragon which, like the Death Star, has a strategically vulnerable spot.

Shang-Chi is a young man who is in denial about his vocation and his magnificent warrior destiny; he lives in San Francisco, calls himself “Shaun” and works as a humble valet-parking guy at a swanky hotel along with his best friend, who may yet be more than a friend (the movie is itself undecided on this score). This is Katy, amusingly played by Awkwafina, who is incredulous when she realises that there is more to her friend than he has been telling her, and is especially derisive about his fake name being so unimaginatively close to the real one.

A scary and mysterious crew of tough guys corners Shaun and Katy on a city bus, demanding the pendant that Shaun always wears around his neck; this leads to an enjoyable, rip-roaring close-quarter punch-up, as the vehicle careers downhill out of control. It also leads to a revelation: Shang-Chi’s father is in fact a legendary immortal in possession of 10 occult rings of huge power.

In the original comic book series, Shang-Chi’s dad was in fact Dr Fu Manchu, the now justly discredited racist yellowface figure famously (or infamously) portrayed on screen by Peter Sellers at a low career point. In this retconned universe, Shang-Chi is the son of someone called Mandarin, played with steely coolness and charisma by Tony Leung, and it is Mandarin who has his eyes on the pendant. In fact, the word “Mandarin” could itself be regarded as problematic and orientalist, but the movie itself has a witty and spirited rejoinder to these points, dredging up a surprise character of the same name from a previous MCU movie, who has something to say about racist typecasting in the acting world.

And so Shang-Chi and Katy are to encounter Shang-Chi’s long estranged sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) who runs a cage-fighting syndicate in Macau, and also Shang-Chi’s aunt Jiang Nan, played by Michelle Yeoh, who is the effective matriarch of the family’s home village in China. She is also the sister of Shang-Chi’s late mother, whose tragic death is the source of all this drama, and whose memory fatefully haunts Mandarin’s every waking thought.

Inevitably, there is a mid-credits sting that folds Shang-Chi back into the larger MCU picture, and establishes the essentially genial and good-natured comic strand which is an important part of the film: it is different from the theatrical seriousness of, say, Black Panther. The mythical component of Shang-Chi is closer tonally to Thor. It’s an entertaining romp, although the formulaic quality is becoming a little obvious. Another Shang-Chi might well have to say something more about what action the young hero took with regard to his mother’s death (a flashback on this point seemed to be withheld from us), and it will have to give Awkwafina the starring role she deserves.

 Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is released on 2 September in Australia, and 3 September in the US and UK.
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