The Plot: Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) comes from a distinguished Chinese line, but familial conflict forced him to flee to San Francisco. He hangs out with best friend Katy (Awkwafina) and is content with his low-profile life. Not for long. Much to Katy’s surprise, he’s quite the kung-fu expert and quickly dispatches some goons on a bus. Destiny is calling and he must return to Macau to face his estranged father Wenwu (Tony Leung) and sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang). Wenwu is in possession of the ten rings, mystical symbols that give him immense power. Shang-Chi must decide if he is take his place at his father’s side – for good or for evil…
The Verdict: Never one to rest on their laurels, Marvel have been rooting around their treasure box once again. That’s the other, more dusty one that sits in the corner which contains their lesser-known superhero properties like Guardians Of The Galaxy. They’ve unearthed and dusted off their Chinese superhero Shang-Chi, who first appeared in a December 1973 comic book at the height of Bruce Lee fame. Times have moved on since Lee howled and whirled his nunchuck in Enter The Dragon. Representation has become a keyword in Hollywood, as open-minded audiences crave superhero stories beyond the standard Caucasian fare. Black Panther was initially a gamble but it proved to be wildly successful in world-building and pushing forward a more ethnic flavour. With that comes all the colour and exoticism of a different culture, enriching the proceedings even more.
Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings sets out to do something similar in its approach, adjusting the story to a Chinese wavelength and finding that sweet spot between East and West. The story kicks off in San Francisco, establishing Shang-Chi as a kung-fu master who only uses his skills for defence. He’s buried his past and hasn’t looked back. It comes back for him in the shape of his father who controls a mystical power – the ten rings strategically placed on his arms. Yes, like so many Marvel superheroes before him Shang-Chi has daddy issues. It makes for basic plotting and familial conflict, but it needs to be something more than that to mean something significant. Fortunately, director and co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton has moved beyond that to focus on Shang-Chi’s inner conflict about what the nature of power is and how to use it – properly. As a wise uncle once said, with great power comes great responsibility.
That theme resonates throughout the film as Shang-Chi is caught between duty and honour to his family and pursuing his own unique destiny. That’s a very Chinese concept which Cretton grasps with both hands and explores what it means for his character and those he loves. It would perhaps be easy to paint Wenwu as the antagonist in the film, but you don’t cast Tony Leung to be a cookie-cutter villain. A well-respected veteran actor familiar to audiences of Hong Kong cinema, he makes his Hollywood debut here and thereby raises the game of everyone else around him. Neither a villain nor a hero, Wenwu is somewhere in-between and that makes the film more narratively involving. It’s intriguing watching Leung’s nuanced scenes with Simi Liu (a solid screen presence), as they dance around each other verbally before breaking out in a flourish of kinetic kung-fu ballet like in a Zhang Yimou epic. Awkwafina brings some heart to her sidekick role too.
Moving quite a step up from his breakthrough indie Short Term 12, Cretton infuses every frame of the film with a distinct Chinese aura that is accessible to a wider audience. This particularly comes into play in the third act, a riot of fantastical ethnic colour and eye-popping special effects which complement rather than overwhelm the story. Amidst the stirring drama and balletic action, there’s a welcome dose of throwaway humour which includes the return of a certain self-obsessed character (hilarious). Even though it pushes past the two-hour mark, the pacing is focused enough to weave the past, present and future together for this superhero-in-the-making. While it’s consciously a step forward for representation in superhero films, Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings doesn’t forget to have fun along the way too. A sure-footed, dazzling late summer treat from Marvel, it’s a jade treasure of its own kind that is far from dusty.
Rating: 4 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
SHANG CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS
Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings (USA / Australia / 12A / 133 mins)
In short: Dazzling
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton.
Starring Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Tony Leung, Meng'er Zhang, Michelle Yeoh.