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Dir: Destin Daniel Cretton. Starring: Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen, Florian Munteanu, Benedict Wong, Michelle Yeoh, Tony Leung. 12A, 132 mins.
For decades, Hollywood has cribbed from East Asian cinema – greedily adopting its aesthetics, with no care for its history or legacy. Its blockbuster factory line has churned out shoddy facsimiles to please audiences who, like director Bong Joon-Ho once warned, refuse to “overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles”. But while there’ll never be any substitute for the artistic output of an entire corner of the globe, Marvel’s latest, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, at least functions as one of the better distillations of its essence. It draws from China’s wuxia genre – martial arts epics that gained worldwide recognition thanks to the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – and Jackie Chan’s expansive oeuvre, but does so with rare sincerity.
Obviously, there’s the importance here of who is being represented in front of and behind the screen – Shang-Chi is the first Asian lead in Marvel’s cinematic universe, played by Chinese-Canadian actor Simu Liu. At his side are two legendary figures of Hong Kong cinema, Tony Leung and Michelle Yeoh. And behind the lens (serving also as co-writer) is Destin Daniel Cretton, who brings with him the thoughtful, detailed character work of Short Term 12 and Just Mercy.
But the success of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings also has much to do with how Cretton and his team are able to negotiate themselves around the strict, and often suffocating, demands of the Marvel framework. Our hero will still, eventually, have to battle some gargantuan, world-threatening entity, but not only does it take a less visually bland form than we’re used to, the path to reach it feels refreshingly unconventional. Shang-Chi is, primarily, a story about family, and how grieving parents can all too easily push their trauma onto their children.
The parent, in this case, is Leung, a movie star of such dazzling magnificence that it takes a moment to even process the fact that he’s been added to Marvel’s grand slate. His presence alone seems to transform Shang-Chi’s drama into something worthy of attention. His eyes still carry the collective soulfulness of every role he’s played, from Infernal Affairs to In the Mood for Love, coupled with a languid confidence that plays beautifully in his character’s array of tailored suit jackets. Leung plays Wenwu, the man whose identity Ben Kingsley’s The Mandarin appropriated in Iron Man 3, and whose hand has been quietly guiding history for thousands of years – all thanks to the power and immortality granted to him by ten magical rings of unknown provenance.
Those megalomaniac tendencies were softened at some point in the Nineties, when he met Jiang Li (Fala Chen), fell in love, and had two children: Shang-Chi and Xialing (Meng'er Zhang). That bliss proved to be short-lived. When we first meet Shang-Chi, he’s entirely estranged from his family and living in San Francisco, happy to pursue a quiet and aimless existence with his childhood best friend Katy (Awkwafina). Soon, as can be expected, the past comes calling. There’s nothing particularly revolutionary in that story, but Liu makes for an extremely likeable (and thanks to the actor’s extensive martial arts training, capable) hero who confronts his chosen destiny with the vague befuddlement of a guy who lives in a converted garage. He also makes for a great double act with Awkwafina, who helps ground the film’s more outlandish, fantastical concepts by refocusing much of the film’s energy back to its core theme of identity – in a cultural sense, or in the way family defines a person.
Even the film’s fight sequences bristle with emotion – as acts of flirtation, rage, or even love. Overseen by Andy Cheng and the late Brad Allan, two of Jackie Chan’s close collaborators and part of his world-famous stunt team, they’re simply mesmerising to watch – and, for once, haven’t been completely obscured by choppy camerawork and the heavy hand of an editor. And while, yes, the film does inevitably fall prey to CGI overload, its relative faithfulness to the wuxia tradition at least spares us another battle in a concrete car park or exploding aircraft carrier.
Production designer Sue Chan’s gorgeous, detailed interiors, and the occasional appearance by a creature from Chinese myth (including the equally awe-inspiring and adorable jiuweihu, the nine-tailed fox), adds a much-welcome dose of colour to the mix. These smaller details may not feel like enough to break the Marvel mould in themselves, but they do add up – and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings feels all the better for it.