What a delightful film! Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is not only a great addition to the MCU, it’s another soon to be classic in the exclusive Kung-Fu fighting genre. The movie was directed and the script partially written by indie writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton. It’s hard to know where to begin reviewing this piece because the material is so rich and the visuals so gorgeously shot and rendered.
Without giving away the plot, I CAN categorize this film as an origin story and a coming-of-age set in the uniquely Asian-American culture. This year has seen an unprecedented number of movies showcasing ethnic aspects of the American experience but that will be a subject to elaborate on in the upcoming awards season.
Shang-Chi officially went into development in 2001 but when it finally got the green light to shoot in 2020, production was delayed for five months due to the Covid pandemic. Sadly, in spite of the movie’s almost exclusive American-Asian cast and settings, Shang-Chi has been banned in China for vague reasons including effeminate men and insults to the Chinese culture. What a travesty! Nevertheless this movie is a triumph.
The movie conjured up $432 million at the box office, in spite of missing its mark for a summer blockbuster film (due to Covid) and being excluded from the biggest movie going audience on earth (the Chinese ban). It’s hard to imagine the box office this movie might have achieved were circumstances different. The movie is currently streaming and I urge you to see it. I realize this review borders on fawning but I’m just calling it the way I see it.
The style of the film is unique in the MCU. While it features an Everyman who is a superhero in disguise (or at least undercover) and takes us into otherworldly realms that are identifiably metaphorical, Shang-Chi’s emotionally driven storyline takes precedence over special effects and CGI. This movie uses the genre’s signature ironically self-aware dialogue but these are decidedly low key, especially compared Marvel’s other offering this year, SpiderMan: No Way Home.
Also, like Oscar-winning director Ang Lee’s (2000) Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Shang-Chi is more poetic and balletic in its approach to the many fight sequences than traditional martial arts films. I love the influence of Chinese mythology in Act 3. Even if you aren’t steeped in the symbols and meanings of world mythology, the deep psychological metaphors still play. Some of the climactic scenes are worthy of tears.
The acting is noteworthy as well. Simu Liu as Shang-Chi is disarmingly relatable and authentic. His girlfriend Katy (Awkwafina) plays his comic foil and the villain, Shang-Chi’s father WenWu (revealed to be The Mandarin) is played by the famous Japanese actor and singer Tony Leung). The screenwriters wrote Leung’s bad guy part as an especially deep characterization, perhaps in tribute to his stature as an actor. Michelle Yeoh (who has been a fixture in Chinese, Japanese and American movies since the 1990s), plays Shang-Chi’s powerful aunt and mentor Jiang Nan.
Last but not least, the music, and by that I mean not just the songs written by a handful of pop artists but the score by Joel T. West. It turns out West and Cretton have been collaborating on indie movies for 10 years. West dove into ancient Chinese instruments and folkloric material and layered the the recordings of primitive drums with orchestral strings and percussion to stunning affect. We recognize the pentatonic scale and embrace it as contemporary in this context.
Cretton and West play a huge role in the artistic harmony of this movie. Their partnership is a winning combination that was developed over a decade of friendship and open-ended collaboration. And yes, Marvel has confirmed there will be a sequel with Cretton and West as part of the above-the-line creative team. Yes!