REVIEW: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)
“Con hơn cha là nhà có phúc,” a Vietnamese saying goes, which upon translation — and with an eye on retaining some poetic quality — will give you “Blessed is the house where the child outshines the father.” While well-meaning, it’s hyper-patriarchal; besides crediting just one parent in one’s upbringing, the child here is highly likely a son if the local’s upholding of Confucian values is considered. From the earliest look at Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, this saying is the first thing that comes to mind, even when the pater whom the footage centres around doesn’t verbalise it word for word. Then again, from where he stands, harsher expressions are warranted since after ten years without sculpting (read: helicopter-ing) and training (read: abuse) his progeny remains a speck among the crowd. Such a descriptor for the heir apparent of the most powerful and enduring army in existence? On the blessed list, someone’s house is not.
This notion turns out to be a good one to have coming into the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s latest — and Asian-centric! — assembly: the big-screen rollout of one Master of Kung Fu conceived by Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin. Yes, the beats characteristic of a superhero origin story, a piece of an expanding world and a cultural tentpole are here, but Shang-Chi is an inspection of bonds, firstly and mainly. Said bonds can take the form of rings, the ten that have been letting Wenwu (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) rule everything, including aging, or just the one from the heart that unites him and a guardian Jiang Li (Fala Chen) for life. They can also be the entire, and real, Ten Rings organisation Wenwu is expecting his son Shang-Chi (Jayden Zhang as a kid, Arnold Sun as a teen, Simu Liu as an adult) to inherit, up until the latter finds more happiness in valeting and drunken-karaoke-ing with friend Katy Chen (Awkwafina) one ocean, and community, away. They are definitely not too far removed from the tugs-of-war different generations, timelines and destinies can host in many Asian households, particularly those adhering to — here’s another saying — “Cha mẹ đặt đâu con ngồi đấy,” or “Your place is wherever your parents seat you.”
Spotlighting familial dynamics is familiar ground for Shang-Chi’s director-writer Destin Daniel Cretton, whose past works reflecting the point include The Glass Castle and Short Term 12. One could take it up a notch and say he is more interested in people and their interactions, to themselves and to one another, and now one can also include his own Just Mercy and I Am Not a Hipster. Like his filmmaking friend Ryan Coogler did with principal Wakandan characters in Black Panther, Cretton is more enamored with the human behind the label — hero, villain, all that jazz — and he would give it the most visibility in a situation or an interaction. He does it, too, when the ornaments of a cinematic event flood the frame, although as expected he faces more resistance. Wenwu lights an incense to pray before battle. Shang-Chi and his distant, but shadowy and magnetic, sister Xialing (Meng’er Zheng) are let in on Wenwu’s “Big Plan” over a family reunion-slash-homecoming dinner. Fights resemble invitations to be one with the world or dances aim to ruin the opposition’s world, or at times near-mythical displays of deep affection.
Some more words on the latter, for they must be said. At last, here is a director who knows martial arts is the core of the material, so — unlike Simon McQuoid with Mortal Kombat and Robert Schwentke for Snake Eyes — Cretton ensures Shang-Chi’s action department will get full credit. He surrounds himself not only with folks who know how to punch, kick, jump and fall exceptionally well — to name a few, brothers Brian and Andy Le (also playing Wenwu’s masked right-hand man Death Dealer), D.Y. Sao, Joseph Le, Vi-Dan Tran and the late Brad Allan (whom the film is dedicated to) — but also those who understand and concur with his approach. There is Bill Pope in the cinematographer’s role, someone whose clear and fluid lensing in combat-heavy films like Spider-Man 2, The Matrix trilogy, Alita and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World can be a direct line to entertainment. Then there are the three editors, who all thwart fears of “too many cooks” by making their moves, or not, based on whether Pope’s work has gotten the continuity it deserves or the human-driven beat which Cretton is prioritising has been shown, effectively placing Nat Sanders, Elísabeth Ronaldsdóttir and Harry Yoon back on grounds they know so well as seen in, respectively, Moonlight, Atomic Blonde and Minari. The film doesn’t take long to treat us to this, and for some it will be their second treat after learning about Wenwu’s beginnings play out entirely in Mandarin, with the first wuxia tango between Shang-Chi’s parents amid a slice of Penglai that Sue Chan and Clint Wallace have recreated, poetry by way of sounds from the xiao, erhu, dizi and drums composer Joel P. West has gathered, and the pure attractiveness which Li and Leung have harnessed (Side note: This might be Marvel at its steamiest point, so take note.)
But Shang-Chi the film, like Shang-Chi the person, is not without flaws. There are things, many detectable in the final act, that jeopardise the bonds to much of the goodness-to-greatness prior. While it’s easy to forgive the expected trajectory and disruptive world-building episodes in Cretton, Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham’s story since superhero debuts are akin to tunnels, what’s less so is the need to be larger-than-life as if it’s the only option. Where the switch occurs or reoccurs is clear, as Cretton’s pictures encounter a shortage of personality or intimacy, or have our senses find them in segments. It becomes sound to regard certain names are there for purposes way below them — such as Michelle Yeoh, who is uber-sagacious here but seems to have been included to get that extra dose of star power, or even Awkwafina, who has proven to be effortless in a layered role with The Farewell but isn’t allowed to go beyond “funnywoman” here. It becomes normal to want more of the chills from piercing character moments, like Leung’s Wenwu showing a gentle smile after saying “We’ll burn the village to the ground,” or in the trading of blows in closer quarters, like the one-on-one between the father, the son and their own sets of rings.
Still, there is so much to celebrate. The links that stay strong in Shang-Chi stay that way. This is Liu’s moment to shine, and shining is him as the (super)hero in his own story of letting the past or present, or personality or patronage, or partaking or possession, influencing his purpose. What can also be said with certainty, though, is that he and Shang-Chi might not cause as much of a stir in consciences as Leung and Wenwu. Count this as a bruise and add it to the list of them, you sure can, for the son does struggle to outshine his father. Yet, as a “newborn” in the MCU and seeing it (in certain areas) doing laps around many past titles; both feature-length and series-sized? It is valid to feel blessed. And there is more might to your dragon in seeing Shang-Chi as a blockbuster full of grace and values.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings will be in theatres on Sept 3, 2021 and on Disney+ on Oct 18, 2021