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‘Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings’ Review: A Marvel Origin Story That Looks Stunning, Is True To Its Asian Heart, And Has Action That Kicks Ass

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The last time I walked into a theatre to watch a film, it was a superhero movie. Half a year later, I walked into one again, to watch another superhero movie. The excitement was palpable, my emotions were welling up. I was this close to pulling up the K3G title track on my phone, to play as I stepped into the auditorium. Oh how I missed this! With all of these feelings, the only acceptable way they’d reach a crescendo was if the movie kicked ass. And boy, am I glad that I broke my fast with Marvel’s Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings! Because it blew my mind with its masterful balance of Wuxia with the American superhero genre, while looking stunning, sounding amazing and staying true to the Asian representation at its heart. The newest origin story in the MCU, of its first Asian American superhero, stars Simu Liu as Shang-Chi, with Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen, Florian Munteanu, Ronnie Chieng, Benedict Wong, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Yeoh and Tony Leung. It is based on the Marvel Comics character created by Steve Englehart Jim Starlin. The film is directed by Destin Daniel Cretton.

Cretton has also written it for screen with Dave Callaham, and the screenplay is by Cretton, Callaham and Andrew Lanham. Bill Pope (credited here as William Pope; known for The Matrix films, Baby Driver, Alita: Battle Angel) is the director of photography. The film is edited by Nat Sanders, Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir, and Harry Yoon. The music is by Joel P. West. And the stunts were supervised by the late Brad Allan.

 

 

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Clearly, Shang-Chi has all the ingredients to tell a remarkable superhero origin story. What I also considered to be one of its biggest advantages, is that unlike the Avengers, the non-comicbook reading, movie-watching audience is not as aware of Shang-Chi’s story, which gives the makers enough liberty to add their own touches. And by doing that, do for Shang-Chi what Ryan Coogler did with Black Panther. What’s more, from the early interviews I read of the cast and crew, I could sense just how invested they were, particularly Simu Liu himself, to tell a story that wasn’t just a superhero x martial arts movie, but one that was rooted in its hero’s culture, his family history and his identity crisis.

The early reviews assured promise. But nothing prepared me for just how mind-blowing this experience was going to be! Can I just say, Shang-Chi is easily one of my favourite superhero origin stories from the MCU! Why so? Let me tell you!

Shang-Chi is written as a family drama at heart, and the emotional connect is its biggest strength

It would be criminal to give you a ‘plot synopsis’ of a Marvel movie, especially one with a story that is relatively not known. But Shang-Chi does have the familiar trope we’ve seen in MCU movies. A potential hero hides in plain sight, struggling with issues of coming to terms with his identity. He denies that part of  himself, or it is kept locked away, until something happens that makes him deal with those issues. And finally, after going up against a worthy villain, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, a superhero is born.

So what does Shang-Chi do differently? Director Destin Daniel Cretton, and his fellow writers are able to root this story of identity in the very Asian theme of children constantly trying to live up to their parental expectations. Both Shang-Chi’s parents are forces to reckon with. And after an abusive childhood, he finds himself unable to reconcile with either of his parents’ expectations of him. His father is The Mandarin (no not the Ben Kingsley playing Trevor Slattery one, the real one), who established the indomitable Ten Rings army and conquered the world. His mother, Li, is a warrior from another dimension, a village called Ta Lo, a mythical land. But Shang-Chi afraid of disappointing both, runs away to America and becomes Shaun, because he cannot be the legacy he is expected to be.

Then there’s Katy, Shaun’s friend, a true blue Asian American who’s identity crisis, unknowingly, runs parallel to Shang-Chi’s. Her family wants her to get a better job, and be someone else, the usual pressures of being raised as a child of Asian immigrants in America, who must prove that all the sacrifices and struggles of those that came before her are worth something.

Xialing, Shang-Chi’s younger sister, who like most daughters in Asian families, longs to be recognised and appreciated for who she is, while her brother gets all the attention, training and legacy from her father. When she doesn’t get it, she sets out to build an empire of her own.

And finally, there’s Wenwu, aka The Mandarin himself, who is surely every bit ruthless, abusive and bad guy that you think he is. But there are very real, valid reasons that make him this flawed grey character that you try to see as a villain but really cannot. I mean, we’re all products of our dysfunctional childhoods, and as Michelle Yeoh’s Ying Nan (Shang-Chi’s aunty) says, we are the product of all those who’ve come before us, the good and—whether we like it or not—the bad too. So does that really make anyone a pure villain?

The filial drama and emotional connect it evokes, definitely more in us, its Asian audience, is the heart of this film and what sets it apart from other superhero movies.

It tackles humour, gender equality and the Asian American experience without trying too hard

Shang-Chi is funny, okay! I mean, how could it not be with the likes of Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Benedict Wong and Ronnie Cheing (who plays Jon Jon, the announcer at the underground fighting club run by Xialing) in it? Actually, it could have not been if it were trying too hard to be funny. Fortunately, that’s not the case. The chemistry between Liu and Awkwafina, who play best friends who could either go to bed on time to make it to their early morning work shift, OR… just do best friend things, that are bound to crack you up. I think I laughed the most when a certain creature called Morris (that you’re going to be delighted to meet) and his BFF, and a certain MCU alum, show up and bring hilarious interludes between intense drama.

There are also little elements of Asian culture deftly embedded, such as Shaun’s affinity with his bestie’s family, the sibling rivalry and banter, or when Ying Nan becomes ‘Auntie’ to Shang-Chi and Xialing. In a particularly charged family dinner conversation scene, Leung’s Wenwu makes a snide remark about the meaning of ‘Mandarin’. As an Indian who has to see names like ‘chai-tea’, or the gross misuse of ’curry’, I found that super relatable!

But I think my favourite sub-theme explored, and for which you’ve gotta stay put in your seats until the credits end, is the points it makes for depicting how one can often be underestimated because of gender. Something that is particularly rampant within Asian families. There’s a scene between Katy and Xialing where the latter recounts all the ways her father denied her his empire, so she went and built one on her own. It’s such a powerful moment, mostly because Katy manages to, without making it too obvious, acknowledge just how amazing it is for Xialing to have accomplished it at the age of 16. Similarly, Wenwu underestimates Li when he first meets her, perhaps because she is a woman? But in multiple parallels throughout the film, you see that the woman is a tinge more powerful than the man.

And if you go by symbolism of the final act, which to me seems like it unites yin and yang, light and dark, man and woman, they’re always powerful when they’re together and perfectly balanced.

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The film’s action is masterfully choreographed and shot!

OMG, I think this one deserves a separate review of its own! I had my fingers crossed, after the disappointing reviews of Snake Eyes’ action. And Shang-Chi blew my mind with its action choreography, the stunt work, and how the scenes were filmed, edited and the sound design that makes you feel that punch completely. The film boasts of multiple kickass action sequences, reminiscent of the Hong Kong martial arts cinema that we’ve all grown up watching. The fight scenes also feature multiple martial art forms, since we see Shang-Chi being trained as a child in more than one, by his parents, the Ten Rings and his mother. So think Jackie Chan movies that give you several moves at break-neck speed and have you holding your breath until its over  (the fight scene set on a Macau high-rise gave me Rush Hour 2 flashbacks!) to the fluid and sublime action that feels like a graceful dance in the wushu masterpiece that is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

The stunt supervisor, the late Brad Allan (he was on Jackie Chan’s stunt team), has done a phenomenal job. Each action sequence is exciting, adrenaline pumping, and stand outs because the fighting style of each character has been kept so distinct. If you look carefully, the way they fight tells a lot about where they come from, and as they evolve, so does their style. But kudos also to the actors who made it looks so good and real. Simu Liu trained for months to be this flexible because they couldn’t use a double. And I hear that the badass Meng’er Zhang was not even trained in martial arts before she took on this role. To watch her kick ass like that made me and others in the auditorium whistle and cheer for her every time!

I see the long takes and the way the camera moves to keep you engrossed in all the action, and I want give a shoutout to Bill Pope for that impressive camera work, and the editors for their astute cutting choices.

The stunning visual effects, ambitious world building and score truly elevate the experience

 

 

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Shang-Chi is a visually stunning film, whether it is the action sequences, the top shots of the Ten Rings HQ, or the charming world that has been built for Ta Lo, replete with those magnificent Pokémon-like creatures (Was that a Vulpix?!) The final act is where the true flexing of the visual effects happens and it is a sight to behold! I sat there looking at the screen in wonder, partially because I missed the big screen experience, but mostly because it looked spectacular with all the vibrant colours! I know it is a privilege to be able to say that, but this movie deserves to be experienced in the theatres and nowhere else to truly enjoy the visually dynamic experience it has to offer.

Joel P. West does a fantastic job to elevate the film’s action sequences with his music. NGL, during the action scenes in Ta Lo scenes, I was reminded of Kung Fu Hustle, and the harp that plays during the fight scenes! And isn’t evoking good, happy memories one of the purest goals of music; it was all super effective! Since we’re talking of the whole Asian American experience, the film’s soundtrack also includes songs by Savage, Rich Brian, Swae Lee, Jhené Aiko, Anderson .Paak, DJ Snake and more. And once again, just as the Black Panther track list was, the Shang-Chi track list also is pure fire and might get you moving to them beats in your seat!

Simu Liu is incredible as Shang-Chi, but Tony Leung is the scene-stealer. And I am officially a Meng’er Zhang fan!

Simu Liu has my heart. Scratch that, he has everyone’s heart! He plays the conflicted, empathetic, humble hero convincingly, without ever losing his fun, affable demeanour. You can see that he is fired up to make history in every scene. Awkwafina channels her trademark ‘funny BFF / sidekick who is your ride-or-die’ persona we got a glimpse of in Crazy Rich Asians, albeit in a more measured way. Her chemistry is super, not just with Liu but also with Meng’er Zhang.

Speaking of Zhang, I am a fan! No truly, her Xialing is such a badass character, that when you watch her on screen, you’re gonna wanna be her, fight next to her, or be her friend. I am so excited to see what more is in store for her character, along with Shang-Chi and Katy’s of course. We really need more such strong, no-nonsense women who still know how to have fun in the MCU, please!

The Shang-Chi cast has a few MCU alums that I won’t spoil, and of course two legends. I mean watching Michelle Yeoh fight is instantly a flashback to Crouching Tiger! Similarly, Fala Chen’s presence on screen has such a soothing effect, and her introductory scene took my breath away.

But for me, the real scene-stealer has to be Tony Leung. His Mandarin / Wenwu is *chef’s kiss* because he is bad, but he is bad with a purpose and the reasons are just a little too emotional and justified for you to hate him. While this movie is Shang-Chi’s origin story, it is also Wenwu’s closure, his swan song. Leung has an indomitable presence on screen, that man, and when he fights, there is no looking away. I mean, and I say this with utmost reverence, Tony Leung could get it!

Also, I want to add, all the younger and baby versions of the characters are just so adorable, I want to pull their cheeks. There, I said it.

Verdict

What more can I say that I haven’t elaborated on already? Director Destin Daniel Cretton brings forth a fantastic film with Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings, which to me felt unlike any other MCU origin story. There are plenty of callbacks, surprises and Easter Eggs you’ll spot, that make it an MCU Phase 4 outing. But it’s incredibly rich with appropriate Asian cultural representation, and rooted in familiar heartfelt themes of family, identity, gender, friendship. From action, adventure, and conflict, to stunning visual effects, world building and a euphoria-rousing finale, Shang-Chi exceeds every expectation you’d have from a superhero film that wants to be something more. Simu Liu called it.

If you can, watch it the way it deserves to be watched. I know I am going for seconds when I can!

PS: There is a mid-credits and an end-credits scene. You’re going to love them. So sit yo a** down. You’re welcome.

Marvel’s Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings releases on September 3, 2021.

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