Phase Four of the MCU started off with Black Widow, which ends up being of my favorites of the entire MCU. While that one is a long-overdue female representation, Shang-Chi is even more so in terms of Asian representation, both in front and behind the camera, so naturally there’s a lot riding on this film. I had been on vacation when the movie came out, so as soon as I came back, my hubby and I immediately booked tickets to see it at a local cinema. We managed to find a theater with an UltraScreen DLX and I’m so glad we did, the visuals is as stunning as one would expect from Marvel.
Director Destin Daniel Cretton didn’t waste much time to immerse us into the world of Shang-Chi, and having the legendary Hong Kong star Tony Leung as Wenwu didn’t hurt as he absolutely commands your attention as soon as you see him on screen. I’m glad the film skipped the opening credits and went straight into the origin story… chronicling Wenwu’s journey after he obtained the magical ten rings and his unquenchable thirst for power. We’re treated to some stunning fight choreography right from the start, and Mr. Leung is no stranger to martial art movies so it’s so great to see him perform those moves and the 59 year old actor is still as sprightly as ever.
I’m especially glad that they didn’t strip him off his romantic charm as well. Having just seen In The Mood For Love recently, Mr. Leung is just as charismatic in dramas as he is in action flicks, and here we get to see him fall in love with a beautiful woman named Li (a luminous Fala Chen). A voice over narration explains that Wenwu’s conquered pretty much the entire earthly universe, but it was not enough for him he tried to conquer those outside earth and that’s when he met Li who guards the ethereal world of Ta-Lo. The fight sequences amidst a bamboo forest evokes scenes from Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers.
For a while, it seemed love conquered all as Wenwu didn’t use the ten rings and seemingly content living a peaceful life as a family life with his wife and two kids. But all hell break loose when Li dies and Wenwu is now consumed with vengeance, which leads to Shang-Chi running away and starting a new life in San Francisco. Simu Liu has that instant likability about him that works for the role… Shaun (as he now calls himself) works as a valet attendant with his bestie Katy (Awkwafina). They make for quite a dynamic duo who constantly poke fun at each other, their rapport feels natural and effortless.
I love the small touches of Asian-American life when Shaun picks up Katy at her apartment home and her multi-generational family are having breakfast together. It’s common for Asian parents to constantly berate their kids for not applying themselves fully, and the fact that Katy has a degree from a good school and now working as a valet doesn’t exactly spell success for her parents.
There’s a fun mix of humor and action, starting with the first big fight scene inside a moving bus where we see Shaun’s extraordinary ability. Katy’s stunned expression as he witness his best friend tackle a bunch of bad guys is all of us… as it’s the first time we get to see Simu Liu emerges as a formidable action hero. The fight sequences are phenomenal, especially the one between Simu and Razor Fist, the leader of the Ten Rings organization started by Wenwu back in the Middle Ages. Fist is played by Florian Munteanu (who was in Creed II opposite Michael B. Jordan), an enormous guy with a fiery sword for an arm. Some of the bus driving scenes reminds me of Speed, which could be intentional given Keanu Reeves is the most famous actor of mixed Chinese descent.
Though he survives the fight, Shang-Chi realizes his jade pendant got stolen in the process. Realizing his father is going after the other pendant his mom had given to his sister, he decides to track her down in Macau. Another impressive action scene ensues at an underground fight club where we get to see Wong fight Abomination in the ring. It’s always fun to see Benedict Wong on screen, in and out of the MCU.
Shang-Chi’s opponent turns out to be her own sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) who had also ran away from home and had become a force to be reckoned with, not just physically but in terms of business as well as she actually owns the club. I really appreciate the female representation in addition to the racial one as the movie is filled with strong, powerful women who forge their own path to success. “If my father won’t let me into his empire, I will build my own” You go girl! I now count Zhang as one of my favorite MCU heroines and that post-credit scene promises something more with her character. It would be so great to see a MCU spin-off with Xialing.
The night action scenes that follow is quite breathtaking as well .The building fight scene with lit by neon billboards reminds me a bit of the one in Skyfall, but this movie made it their own with some thrilling Kung Fu moves. This long action scene shows not just Shang-Chi’s incredible abilities but Xialing’s as well who is definitely a force to be reckoned with.
Speaking of powerful women, you can’t go wrong with casting another Asian veteran actor Michelle Yeoh as Ying Nan, Shang-Chi’s aunt. After Shang-Chi, Katy and Xialing were captured by the Ten Rings army, they learn that Wenwu is planning to go back to Ta-Lo to destroy it. Somehow he’s haunted by a voice he thought were of his wife asking him to rescue him.
The journey as they escape the Ten Rings compound is actually pretty hilarious, thanks to SPOILER ALERT [highlight to read] the appearance of Trevor Slattery aka The Mandarin, the washed-up actor played by Sir Ben Kingsley. He is so funny in this movie, along with his sidekick pet Morris, a furry dog with sparkly wings, one of the mythical creatures from Ta-Lo. With Trevor/Morris’ help, they were able to reach Ta-Lo without being eaten by the bamboo forest. Once there, they’re trained by Ying Nan as they prepare to fight Wenwu.
I have to say the third act is a bit too bombastic for my taste, which is my quibble with a lot of superhero movies out there. The final battle is a loud, CGI-fest scenario which I suppose is unavoidable when it involves a large dragon and other flying mythical creatures. Thankfully it doesn’t descend to the absurd level of Man of Steel where the last 15-20 minute or so is absolutely aggravating instead of thrilling.
It’s wise that writers Dave Callaham, Andrew Lanham and Destin Daniel Cretton pepper the big action spectacle with smaller, more character-driven scenes such as giving Katy a chance to make her mark amongst those with extraordinary abilities. I love the final scenes between Shang-Chi and Wenwu, displaying a complex, emotional father-son dynamic that humanizes the fantastical narrative. I also commend Cretton that he incorporates the flashback scenes in such a way that move the story forward instead of making it feel tedious or repetitive.
There are a lot to love and appreciate in this movie, and I really can’t say enough about the fantastic casting of Tony Leung. Can’t believe this is his first ever role in an American film and his first English-speaking role, but he brings such dignity and humanity to the role, his emotional performance made Wenwu so much more than just a one-dimensional villain. In fact, he’s more of a tragic character than an all-out evil person hellbent on destroying the world. He and Michelle Yeoh automatically add immense gravitas just by being present in this film.
I’m happy to say I’m impressed with Simu Liu as an action hero and I think he shines in the more dramatic moments as well. I was slightly worried Awkwafina might be too much in the best-friend role but she’s actually delightful to watch here. She works well together with Simu instead of outshining him with her larger-than-life personality.
Overall, I’m so glad I get to see Shang-Chi on the big screen in its opening weekend. It’s massively entertaining with dazzling action sequences + fight choreography, shot beautifully by Bill Pope. The fact that Stan Lee modeled Shang-Chi character after Bruce Lee, of course we expect stunning fight scenes and this movie delivered! There are plenty of outstanding scenes that will stand as one of the most memorable of the MCU, the bus fight is definitely one of them. For me, as a critic of Southeast Asian descent, it’s obviously thrilling to see the success of a movie with mostly Asian cast and an Asian director at the helm. I’m happy to say Shang-Chi is top tier MCU and glad to read the box office numbers looks good, which is a huge win for Asian representation in Hollywood. Hopefully it has longer legs the fact that it’s playing exclusively in theaters. One thing for sure, this one deserves to be seen in as big a screen as possible.