September 8, 2021 • By Christine Pasalo Norland

Why Shang-Chi Matters

Marvel Studios’ "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" had the highest opening of any film ever released on Labor Day weekend and the second-highest opening of any film released during the COVID-19 pandemic. Translated in dollars: The film garnered $127.6 million globally on its opening weekend, of which $71.4 million came from the domestic box office, according to CNBC.


Fans around the world showed up (with masks!) to watch a movie promoting an Asian superhero saving the world alongside other Asians and Asian Americans.


That’s promising because once those fans were on the other side of the movie’s 2-hour-plus-change run time (including two end-credit scenes), they knew it was more than its teased action sequences and stunning visual effects. Yes, the fight scenes were exciting to take in, especially when the choreography brilliantly flowed between combat and dance. But those moments enhanced the narrative; they didn’t carry it.


At its core, "Shang-Chi" is an emotionally-driven story about a family that suffered an avoidable tragedy and how it has coped with that trauma as a unit and as individuals. This is not a uniquely Asian experience, but it is one that Asian families go through because we’re humans. In light of the AAPI global community being targeted as scapegoats for this pandemic, it matters that "Shang-Chi" has heart.


It’s also of note that the film stars a superb cast of performers from the Asian diaspora and embraced being dual language (I'm IN for normalizing subtitles). Ten points to Marvel for reexamining its casting practices in light of "Doctor Strange".

THIS PART OF THE REVIEW INCLUDES SPOILERS. TO READ, TAP THE DOWN ARROW.

"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:

  • martial arts;

  • exoticizing Chinese mysticism;

  • allusions to crime syndicates;

  • bamboo forests; and,

  • dragons.

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.

“Being Asian, I think there’s a level of fear when a movie like this comes out because you know so much rides on it, but I feel like everyone involved did a great job,” said Peter Ngaou, a fellow fan and the owner of Pugnacious Pins, a company that makes enamel pins referencing pop culture. “I feel like you could tell that there was a difference here with emotional beats in the story that brought everything together.”


Taking in this film through the lens of my Asian American experience, as someone hungry for stories that center AAPI people and communities, I agree. It's a big deal to see complex characters who look like you overcoming uncanny odds–individually and with accomplices–to save the day and themselves. In ways, "Shang-Chi" raised a mirror; in others, it issued reminders that our community has dismantling to do.


Overall, "Shang-Chi" works with other AAPI-centered productions released in the last handful of years that disrupt the idea of an Asian monolith, productions like "Crazy Rich Asians", "Parasite", "Yellow Rose", "Lingua Franca", "Never Have I Ever", "Minari", the "To All the Boys" series, "The Chair", "The Half of It", "Always Be My Maybe", "Tigertail", and "Fresh Off the Boat" (to name a bunch).


I look forward to watching it over and over again.


"Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" is now streaming on Disney+.


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UPDATED MARCH 23, 2022 TO NOTE ITS AVAILABILITY ON DISNEY+.

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