By Ahmed Sharma, AsAmNews Contributor, South Asian American Advisory Board Chair
I’ve always been a fan of Simu Liu’s work in Kim’s Convenience. The family dynamic demonstrated in a show that focuses on generational gaps with humor and drama through the lens of people who just so happen to be Korean is just the tip of the iceberg. And Liu recognized this early on when the show achieved success. Thus, it was more than appropriate that he was cast for the title role in Shang-Chi: Legend of the Ten Rings.
Initially, I had no interest in watching this movie because I had always been a fan of the traditional superheroes who dominated the silver screen, i.e Spider-man, The Hulk, Iron Man, etc. This was because I never knew of any superheroes who were Black or Asian. Until I learned about Black Panther, for example, I thought the only superhero of color was Spawn, and unfortunately, that film was not well received by critics.
After I learned that Simu Liu was going to be in Shang-Chi, my interest was sparked, even though I had no idea who Shang-Chi was and was worried it’d be too esoteric. This is because I never read the comic book but have a strong admiration for the Marvel films that have been released. As a result, I have followed them closely due to the impact they’ve made.
Liu impressed me and several others with his role as Jung Kim in Kim’s Convenience, a show about a Korean-Canadian family and their relationship, which revolves around their store—the eponymous Kim’s Convenience. It’s also an adaptation from a play of the same title where the playwright actually played Liu’s character. The show successfully blends comedy with relatable premises, e.g. generational differences between fathers and sons, which I discussed years ago in another review.
While I watched Liu as Shang-Chi come face to face with his father after years of avoiding the latter, it was like I was taken back to the days of binge-watching Liu again on Kim’s Convenience. Both characters experience tension with their respective fathers due to their seeming overbearingness. For that reason, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to separate the two roles, but my fears were put to rest. This is because the film does a wonderful job of shedding light on the father’s perspective, encouraging the viewer to ponder maybe he’s not the heartless villain we initially thought he was.
In fact, Shang-Chi’s father, Xu Wenwu, who was wonderfully portrayed by Tony Leung, is a multifaceted and elusive character. The film shows Wenwu to initially be a power hungry madman, but he stops his evil ways after meeting the woman he’d give up everything for. And when his heart is broken, Wenwu is forced to fall back into his old ways, and unfortunately, Shang-Chi is brought into the crossfire where, on the one hand, he doesn’t want to disappoint his father, but on the other, he knows it’s not the right thing to do.
The film’s trailer does an excellent job of making the viewer think the film is a cliché father versus son storyline. On the surface, it looks as though the film tells the story of a father wanting his son to follow in his footsteps, and when the former refuses, it doesn’t bode well.
“You’re just a criminal who murders people,” Shang-Chi says, to which Wenwu calmly but firmly replies, “Be careful how you speak to me, boy.”
When you sit and watch the film, however, you learn there’s a lot more to it than just that. As I watched the final showdown between Shang-Chi and his father, I waited anxiously for a specific line that kept echoing throughout the trailer: “Is this what you wanted?”
Once those words were spoken, I felt goosebumps, but nothing prepared me for the in-between back and forth between father and son. At the risk of spoiling the film for any readers, I’ll stop here to avoid sharing too many details.
I will say, though, that there’re actually several themes the film addresses and brings together full circle. For example, Shang-Chi examines how the past is often unavoidable but asks if we are doomed to repeat “the sins of our fathers,” so to speak. The Atlantic does a wonderful job in explaining how Wenwu alone is worth watching, and much to the surprise of this reviewer, the actor, Tony Leung Chiu-wai is a highly successful Chinese movie star. Therefore, it’s just another credit given to Marvel for its superb casting as these performers transport us into a world where reality is an afterthought.
There were some casting choices I initially had some reservations about, like Akwafina, who plays Katy, Shang-Chi’s best friend. She dominated the screen in the 2018 film Crazy Rich Asians, so I was worried her character would be somewhat distracting. Instead, her character is given a balanced amount of screen time, where she is still a necessary part of the movie but the viewer isn’t completely taken away by her as the comic relief. She deserves credit for delivering hilarious quips throughout the movie. However, there are also several moments in the film where Awkwafina shows off her acting chops quite well in dramatic scenes.
Her role in the film, as extensive as it was, did make me a bit surprised because it was just purely unexpected. Early on in the film, it’s quite apparent the relationship Katy shares with Shang-Chi is platonic, but in watching their journey, the viewer begins to ask, “Will they start dating or…?” And rather than take away from the film’s essence and overall message by introducing yet another plot line, this romance simply leaves the viewer with an implicative response that says, “We’ll see (wink).” In the end, I think one of my good friends said it best when he argued in his podcast, “If she does not at least get a nomination for best supporting actor/actress, I will riot.”
This review would not be complete if I didn’t touch on the movie’s spectacular visuals. As I mentioned before, the viewer is taken to another world both literally and figuratively based on how stunning everything is. And I’m not talking about just fight scenes. The scenery that appears in the film may have been put together with wires and CGI, but when the first action sequence began, my inner film critic/reviewer was shut off and I found myself watching the rest of the movie as a simple viewer.
I was enamored by the choreography in the hand-to-hand combat scenes and the graphics used to make leaves move and water defy gravity. The film is only available in theaters, and you’d be doing yourself a disservice to stream it at home even if it were available through any other medium beforehand. Naturally, every seat was filled in the theater when I went to watch it the day it was released, so I wore a mask the entire time. However, I’d be willing to bet money you could see my jaw drop at the spectacular visuals of various scenes.
Shang-Chi was most definitely a Marvel film that viewers deserve, as it was not your typical superhero movie. Instead, it was a cosmic blend of comedy, drama, action, and picturesque scenery that all the while paid homage to Asian culture. As I watched this movie, I couldn’t help but admire the hard work had been placed into making this film. Though it took several years, we finally had an Asian superhero (and a villain) who could capture our hearts without having to resort to trivial stereotypes.
As a reviewer of South Asian descent, I felt proud I could share in that moment but then glumly thought, ‘I wish he looked kind of like me though.’ And of course, we do have Kumail Nanjiani, who we are anxiously waiting to see in Eternals hitting theaters early November. The dedication he has put in that film by transforming his body just scratches the surface of what Nanjian’s portrayal will be. He said in an interview with Indiewire that his role would help chip away at the typecasting of Brown actors and make his character someone cool and strong. And, unless you’re Asian, you probably haven’t noticed why that’s hard to come by.
“I’ve been in this industry for about a decade and I looked at the usual opportunities that the brown dudes get,” Nanjiani told Indiewire. “We get to be nerdy. I wanted him to be the opposite of that — I wanted him to be cool. With nerdy goes ‘weakling,’ and I wanted him to be the opposite of that and to be strong physically.”
The trailer for Eternals, however, doesn’t seem to give Nanjiani’s character as much screen-time as some of the other actors. And that has me worried with respect to all the hard work he has put in the film and all the promotion for it, but as noted earlier, sometimes, the trailers can be misleading. I digress and return to my main point, which is that Shang-Chi illustrates a bigger picture of how representation is incredibly necessary. The success of Black Panther showed the world what can happen if you listen to voices from people of color. And the praise for Crazy Rich Asians demonstrated how a cast without a Caucasian actor can still creaete a Hollywood blockbuster.
Casting an actor like Simu Liu, who was already an advocate for representation and knew the kind of power it had, made it all the more meaningful for a film like Shang-Chi to be met with such critical acclaim. And Liu certainly knew that when he first called out Marvel Studios in 2018.
For this reason, not only does this reviewer highly recommend this movie, but I also encourage you to do as I plan to, which is watch it again and again, because you’ll be witnessing history in the making.