"Shang-Chi" also illustrates the diaspora by taking place in multiple settings relevant to this community of color. We travel with Shaun/Shangi-Chi (Simu Liu) and Katy (Awkwafina) from Northern California to Macau (in economy seating, no less), and to urban and rural landscapes.
In treating San Francisco as Shang-Chi’s and Katy’s home base, we’re tapped into the history of Chinese (and Asian) immigration through California, if not through Angel Island. Asian communities in America today run the gamut of first to fifth generation. While America is in love with using a variety of our martial arts styles in its film and TV productions, we deserve to see ourselves and our diverse experiences a lot more in American pop culture. This film is another step towards that goal.
Does "Shang-Chi" rely on tired tropes? Yes. I'm ready to welcome American-produced big-budget films that star an Asian American cast and don’t include:
That said, I like how "Shang-Chi" reflects relatable slice-of-life nuances, from meeting friends for drinks, to late-night basement karaoke, to Katy’s entire arc as a second generation Chinese American (living in a multi-generational home, being a motorhead, not being fluent enough in her family’s first language, having a Masters degree but struggling to determine a path forward that doesn’t feel directed by her parents’ expectations). Also, we are all Katy when she drops her mouth at the sight of a shirtless Shang-Chi (five points for incorporating a "Kim's Convenience" in-joke).
Another plus is that Wenwu (played by Tony Leung Chiu-wai) and Shang-Chi aren't Asian caricatures. In fact, the foil of the film is Ben Kingsley’s Trevor Slattery.
Shang-Chi has layers! We learn he's been treading water in San Francisco for 10 years because of trauma inflicted by his father, Wenwu. In Katy, Shang-Chi has a partner in limbo. They temper each other: He's more regimented and responsible and she's more carefree and fun. His routine of meeting her at her home for breakfast fills his need for familial connection. He even seems to enjoy the nagging that Katy is eager to avoid from her mother (played by "All-American Girl" actress Jodi Chen) and grandmother (played by "Joy Luck Club" actress Tsai Chin).
After accepting the death of his mother Li (Fala Chan), Shang-Chi rightfully expected guidance and comfort from his father. But instead of learning that it's okay and normal to mourn, Shang-Chi is trained by Wenwu to disconnect from emotion. Wenwu goes so far as to intentionally kill a henchman in front of Shang-Chi shortly after Li's death! As present-day Shang-Chi begins his journey to find his sister and his mother's village, he starts tapping back into the love and compassion he felt from his mother and Wenwu. While he resents Wenwu for teaching him to detach from those feelings, it's his reconnection to them that not only compels him to pull back from killing Wenwu, but to plea with Wenwu to see past loss and find healing with family.
What I'm not okay with is that Shang-Chi murdered someone in his misguided past and still gets to be a hero. That kind of redemption is afforded to Black Widow, Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, Bucky, Zemo, and Loki whereas Karli Morgenthau, Killmonger, and Prince N'Jobu faced untimely deaths for the paths they chose. Fifty points from Marvel for inadvertently setting up Shang-Chi as a racial wedge. If becoming a hero to all is possible for flawed White MCU characters, and now an Asian MCU character, then let it be possible for Black MCU characters, too.
I also have issue with Wenwu’s development because it's drawn from fridging Li. His obsession to avenge her death is combined with his resentment towards 6-year-old Shang-Chi for not saving her, and results in him training Shang-Chi to murder her killer. When he's no longer tortured by the memory of her death, Wenwu is literally tortured by Li’s voice. Without Li's death, Wenwu is a dimensionless conqueror. This was a downer.
While Li is done all kinds of wrong, the film does a good job of navigating Katy and Xialing (played by Meng'er Zhang) around Asian women stereotypes. Neither are lotus flowers, sacrificial, or daughters who feel obligated to serve their families. Xialing isn't so much a dragon lady as she is a revolutionary–perhaps like Ge Jianhao, whom I learned about in Qi Haiyan's article "China’s Missing Women Revolutionaries" for the web publication "Sixth Tone". When Jiang Nan (played by the incomparable Michelle Yeoh) tells Xialing to step out of the shadows, I felt like all AAPI women who identified with Xialing’s arc latched onto that call to action.