Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings


A new hero rises.

(2021) Superhero (Disney) Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Tony Leung, Michelle Yeoh, Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen, Florian Munteanu, Yuen Wah, Andy Le, Paul He, Jayden Zhang, Elodie Fong, Arnold Sun, Stephanie Hsu, Kunal Dudheker, Tsai Chin, Jodi Long, Dallas Liu, Ronny Chieng, Stella Ye, Ben Kingsley, Michael-Anthony Taylor, Zach Cherry, Raymond Ma, Benedict Wong, Harmonie He. Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton

 

There are a number of firsts going on in the latest entry into the MCU. The first Asian-American superhero. The first Marvel feature to introduce a new hero into the mix since Captain Marvel. The first MCU film with a director of Asian descent. The first villainous role for Chinese action legend Tony Leung (and also his first English-language film). The first to debut on Labor Day weekend. The first Disney film to resume production after the initial pandemic shutdown.

But is that all there is to a movie? Ground-breaking alone doesn’t make for a great, entertaining film. Thankfully, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings fits the bill and then some.

A prologue tells us of Wenwu (Leung), a villain who found (or stole) ten magic arm rings that rendered him invincible as well as virtually immortal. Over a thousand years, he conquered everything there was to conquer, but he wanted more. The “more” was a village called Ta Lo, a hidden village that sits in a neighboring dimension where dwell legendary magical creatures and contains magical power of immense proportions. Wenwu – who would later be used as the blueprint to create the fictional terrorist known as the Mandarin – already led a criminal enterprise and commanded an army of ninjas, including killers Death Dealer (Le) and Razor Fist (Munteanu), but comes by a map that helps him arrive at the village, although the bamboo forest it is located in seemed to be a living guardian of the peaceful village. There is also a human guardian – the beautiful Li (Chen) who bests Wenwu in a fight. The criminal overlord promptly falls in love and, improbably, ends up marrying her.

Because of Wenwu’s criminal past, the couple is denied residence in Ta Lo so Macau is where they end up living. Li gives birth to a son and daughter before she dies, and Wenwu, who had softened into a family man, hardens right back up, training his young son, Shang-Chi, to be a killer while mostly ignoring his daughter, Xiang.

Shang-Chi (Liu) eventually runs away from his father, choosing not to become like him, and ends up in San Francisco, using the name Shaun. He has a bestie named Katy (Awkwafina) who, like him, parks cars at a swanky SF hotel. While Katy’s mom (Long) and grandma (Chin) wonder when the two are going to get married, but they’re just friends (without benefits – this is a PG-13 film after all). However, on a bus ride to work, Shaun is attacked by a group of thugs including Razor Fist and turns out that he has extraordinary martial arts abilities, much to the shock of Katy who is unaware of his past. He manages to beat the thugs, but they steal a pendant that his mother had given him, but let slip that they are going after his sister next. So Shang-Chi boards a plane for Macau, having received a cryptic postcard from his sister which apparently reveals her address and Katy insists on going with.

There they find a bitter Xiang (Zhang) who had resented her brother for leaving her behind with their father. She, too, had eventually run away from home and began an empire of her own with a high-tech fight club on top of a skyscraper. That’s when the goons arrive and so does dear old dad. You see, it seems he needs the pendants to reveal a map that will navigate a safe passage through the bamboo forest to Ta Lo. Wenwu has been hearing his wife’s voice, begging him to set her free from imprisonment in her former home. But he also intends to destroy that home, much to Shang-Chi’s horror. They must find a way to get there first if they are going to stop their dad, who is unwittingly going to release a horrible, Apocalypse-bringing monster onto the earth if he succeeds.

First of all, the good news: this is one of the best Marvel movies yet, right up there with Black Panther and Guardians of the Galaxy. It is beautifully shot, the fight sequences are phenomenal (particularly the first one on the bus) and the CGI without peer. Simu Liu, who was previously best known for the Canadian TV series Kim’s Convenience, is going to be a huge star, following the example of Chris Hemsworth who was a little-known actor before being cast as Thor. Add to that the lustrous Michelle Yeoh as Auntie Nan, Leung who gets to show American filmgoers what Asian audiences have known for decades, and Awkwafina who continues to become a major A-list star with her performance here.

weaves all the elements together pretty well. I will admit that during the middle the movie becomes necessarily exposition-heavy and drags somewhat, but other than that, he shows a sure hand on the big stage even though he comes from an indie background (Short Term 12) and this is really his first big budget major tentpole release. Undoubtedly he’ll get a lot more like this, in all likelihood including Shang-Chi 2 which is almost a certainty to make it onto Marvel’s schedule eventually.

There are two post-credit sequences, incidentally, and the first one is maybe the best one in the franchise with a couple of cameos by Marvel superheroes and hints at what Shang-Chi’s place in the larger MCU is going to be. Given what I’ve seen here, he’s not going to fade into the woodwork any time soon. This is the must-see movie of the season and by all means go out and see it in a theater if you can.

REASONS TO SEE: Wonderfully weaves Chinese culture, myths and legends into the MCU. Simu Liu is going to be a star and Awkwafina further cements her own reputation. Incredible action sequences and effects. One of the best Marvel movies ever.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit long, dragging a bit in the middle third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of fantasy/superhero action and violence, as well as some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stunt coordinator Bradley James Allen, who was the first (and only) non-Asian member of Jackie Chan’s stunt team, passed away on August 7 from an undisclosed illness. The film is dedicated to him.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/4/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews; Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hero
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
Triaphilia

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Wo hu cang long)


Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Defying gravity is all in a day's work in China.

(2000) Martial Arts (Sony Classics) Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Ziyi Yang, Chen Chang, Sihung Lung, Cheng Pei-Pei, Fa Zeng Li, Xian Gao, Yan Hai, De MIng Wang, Li Li, Su Ying Huang, Jin Ting Zhang, Rei Yang, Kai Le, Jian Hua Feng. Directed by Ang Lee

Every so often a movie comes along that changes all the rules. People’s perceptions, not only of a certain genre of movies, but sometimes of themselves, of their culture, of other cultures are given a forced re-examination because of work so thought-provoking, so emotionally stimulating, that it can’t be ignored.

For a very long time, martial arts movies had been ghettoized as “chop sockey,” ridiculed as “B” movies or worse, and dismissed except for loyal cultists who knew better. Those of us who had seen such classics as The Killers, Once Upon a Time in China and Chinese Ghost Story can appreciate the ballet of the fight scenes while often overlooking horrible, dubbed dialogue, bargain basement plots and other low-budget thrills.

Hollywood discovered these movies as well and before long directors (John Woo) and actors (Jackie Chan, Jet Li) crossed over to American mainstream awareness. Their successes, however, pale in comparison with this magnificent film.

Director Ang Lee (Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm) uses as his source the fourth novel in a five-novel cycle by Wang Dulu. Set during the 19th-Century Qing Dynasty, we are introduced to a legendary swordsman named Li Mu Bai (Fat, perhaps the best pure actor ever to come from Asia). He has tired of his violent profession and wishes to retire to a more contemplative lifestyle. To facilitate this, he intends to give his sword — the Green Destiny — to someone more worthy. Because he’s not sure who will wind up with it, he asks his good friend Shu Lien (Yeoh) who it should go to. She recommends an honest civil servant named Sir Te (Lung). Lien, a warrior who has made a reputation of her own, delivers the sword, only to see it stolen.

Eventually, suspicion points to the house of the governor, whose precocious daughter Jen (Ziyi) has bonded with Shu. The evidence points to Jade Fox; a ruthless bandit who murdered Li’s master in order to steal the manual of his order’s fighting style. This brings Li back into the fray, not only to recover his sword but to avenge his master’s death.

This may sound like a rather pedestrian action movie, but the weak description above merely scratches the surface of what the movie is really about. It is a love story, driven by two couples (one of whom is not revealed until nearly halfway through the movie). It is also a study of the Chinese culture and renders less inscrutable the face of China.

The twists and turns here are so intricate that to go into them would be confusing and moreover, would ruin several pleasant surprises that dot the film. Suffice to say that while Li and Shu appear to be the leads, they are not. The cinematography is breathtaking, filmed in mainland China. It is easy to see why many consider it the most beautiful country on the planet. The characters move about stunning vistas of forest, mountain, and desert. As a sheer travelogue, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon would be worth seeing.

 The action sequences are fabulous. The intricacy of the swordplay, the graceful leaps (some find the wire-aided flying about unbelievable — these people should probably stick to The Dukes of Hazzard), the fists moving at warp speed, make for a dazzling display. The thing to remember here is that martial arts, in China, are arts the same way ballet is in the west. They are never more of an art than in this movie.

The characterizations are superb. Each of the characters move through this story with their own motivations. The characters who are the “good guys” have weaknesses of character that make it easy for us to relate to them. Similarly, the “bad guys” have motivations that render them sympathetic. Director Lee has always been uncanny at capturing the female viewpoint; hence it is no surprise that the female characters (Jen, Shu and Jade Fox) are better drawn and more interesting than the male characters – Li, Sir Te, the outlaw Dark Cloud (Chang).

The acting is awesome. Chow Yun Fat can hold his own against anybody, including guys like De Niro, Hanks, Washington and Pacino. His troubled warrior could easily have netted him an Oscar nomination, although it was one of the few awards for which Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon wasn’t nominated. Michelle Yeoh, who first appeared on American screens in Tomorrow Never Dies and has been a staple here ever since, is lustrous and holds her own, action-wise, with the men.

There is a scene between her and Chow Yun Fat, near the end of the movie, in which the two are drinking tea in an exquisite mountain setting, where much of the truth about their past relationship is revealed, and the regrets that come through in both actors makes it one of the most magical movie moments ever. Zhang Ziyi is a name that may become familiar to a lot of us; her performance here is one of the most evocative in the film. I hope and pray Western casting directors take note of it.

This was, by far, the best movie of 2000 and in my opinion, one of the top ten best ever. All the positive press you’ve heard about it? It’s an understatement. This is a movie you owe it to yourself to see. Forget the teen drivel, the patently silly romantic weepies, the cliche action flicks and the recycled comedies and dramas and put this at or near the top of your must-see list. You’ll thank me for it.

WHY RENT THIS: Simply put, one of the best movies ever made. Gorgeous scenery, impeccable acting, impressive martial arts action.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The wire work may put some off.

FAMILY MATTERS: Lots of martial arts violence and a little bit of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PUSUITS: Not only was it the first foreign language film to earn over $100M in box office in the United States, it still holds the record for the most Oscar nominations for a non-English language film to this day with ten.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is an interview with Michelle Yeoh well after the fact in which she discusses her role in the film and how it’s affected her career.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $213.5M on a $17M production budget; the movie was an enormous worldwide blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: The Way