If you have ever believed that characters go a long way to making a movie, and they are integral to a considerable degree however much importance you place them, then you’ll find Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings to be vindication of that approach.
For though this recent entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) ticks many of the same boxes, and quite ably so, as it now multitudinous stablemates – think grand action scenes, prevailing mythos and anguished backstory of the protagonist – it excels in delivering up some brilliantly memorable characters.
Chief among them of course, is the eponymous hero played with aching vulnerability by Simi Liu, a seemingly ordinary Chinese-American man who works as a valet in San Francisco with his high school bestie Katy (Awkwafina in sparklingly flippant, oneliner-savvy form) and who delights in doing little more than doing karaoke into the wee small hours on weekday nights and spending time with Katy’s warmly inclusive family where he is like a second son.
His appears for all intents and purposes to be an ordinary guy, nothing to see here, thank you, who has so slipped under the radar of grand life ambitions that he is gently, and to be fair, not-so-gently, and frequently chided (along with Katy) by mutual high school friend Soo (Stephanie Hsu) and Katy’s mother Ruihua (Dallas Liu) for not wanting more from his three score and ten.
We soon discover why Shang-Chi aka Shaun – he admits later his choice of a blending into American society could’ve been a little better thought but hey, he was 15 at the time so cut him some slack – is so eager to not stand out when a bunch of black clad thugs (one day perhaps bad guys will dress in yellow or something but not today), led by a man with a machete for a hand and lower arm (Razor Fist played by Florian Munteanu) attack him and Katy on their way to work on a bus.
The scene is gloriously, bonkers full-on, and while in some ways not that much of a departure to bread and butter MCU storytelling, it gives us the firm indication of how different the action scenes are going to be in this film.
Drawing from the classic Chinese martial arts style – in the comics which ran from 1973 to 1983, Shang-Chi is skilled in “numerous unarmed and weaponry-based wushu styles, including the use of the gùn, nunchaku, and jian” (Wikipedia) – which will familiar to many Western audiences via films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings turns violence into ballet, brutalist movements in graceful poetry that seem almost too beautiful to do any real harm.
But do harm they do, and while Shang-Chi and Katy escape relatively unharmed, though the same cannot be said for the bus which finishes rather the worse for wear on San Francisco’s crowded streets, their lives are forever upended as a whole graveyard of skeletons come tumbling out of a closet the doors to which Shang-Chi has gone to great trouble to keep firmly closed.
Identifying said skeletons would be a spoiler bridge too far but suffice to say that mild, meek Shaun, all-American guy and karaoke specialist has some big parenting issues, some big hometown reveals (pssst it’s in another dimension which is suitably wild) and a complicated life story that beggars all kind of belief from Katy who is astonished that her friend has kept so much hidden for so long.
What can be said is that everything from the bus scene on in the film lends itself to magnificently over-the-top spectacle, the kind that involves dragons, freed demonic soul-suckers and a fight for the future of the world (so pretty much MCU BAU then).
The scenes are gorgeously enthralling for all their violence and intensity, choreographed to within an inch of their exquisitely-rendered soul, part of an overall desire by the filmmakers to be faithful to Shang-Chi’s Chinese heritage which is given front and centre influence on a film which prioritises Mandarin over English, pays due deference to millennia-old belief system and turns the Anglo-centric focus of most Hollywood, and indeed MCU, royally on its much-battered head.
What gives these scenes, which don’t overstay their welcome and which are as playful as they emotionally evocative – a fight above the far-off streets of Macau on bamboo scaffolding; you have it, with all the artistry and danger than entails – extra oomph is the time the film takes to establish strong bonds between its main characters.
It may have some big ticket marquee action scenes, but these are linked by moments of quip-heavy mischief and fun, but also some real gravitas as we come to understand the deep well of hurt that exists behind Shang-Chi’s expressively mournful eyes.
One of the key relationships, besides the one between Shang-Chi and Katy which anchors the film in the ordinary and the sublime, is that between the protagonist and his father Wenwu (Tony Leung) who, without giving too much away, is a great deal older than he looks and who is still trapped in the vice-like grip of grief stemming from the death of his wife Ying Li (Fala Chen) some ten years earlier.
A man who has long wielded the ten rings of the title, which grant their wearer god-like strength and immortality – you can see where both could come in handy but be warned, they have a Gollum-like corruptive effect on the holder – Wenwu is estranged from his son and daughter (Shang-Chi’s similarly martial arts-equipped and all-around badass sister Xu Xialing, plyayed by Meng’er Zhang) and lost ever since he lost the love of his life to a gangster attack.
Part of what helps Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings land such a heavy emotional punch is the primacy the film gives to exploring the impact of the estrangement between Shang-Chi and his sister and his dad, how fulfilling and liberating it is to connect with his long-lost aunt Ying Nan (Michelle Yoeh) and his mystical maternal home village, and what it means to finally confront and own up to who you are, both good and bad.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings has a lot of highly impactful emotional weight at its heart, which added together with first-rate characterisation, a plot which nicely balances exposition and forward momentum (and which links in, it won’t surprise to you to future MCU releases) and a sincere desire to honour the film’s Chinese cultural heritage in a way that is far from tokenistic, makes it a real contender for one of the most original of the MCU films yet which like Black Panther before it, will go a long way to representing the world as it richly, vibrantly, actually is.