I really, really wanted ‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ to be great. More than just being a fan of Awkwafina and Tony Leung and Michelle Yeoh, I wanted the MCU to really put an Asian superhero in a big way. I love kung-fu movies and I wanted to see it in the hands of the commercial movie-making juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The short of it, though, is that I was very much disappointed. With its 132-minute run time, ‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ was more focused on giving us a good time than truly introducing an interesting character that may be a member in the Avengers in the future. The narrative is more concerned with the plot than it is about really getting deep into the fabric of the titular character’s story.
A short opening introduces us to the ten rings that Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung) used a thousand years ago to give himself an incredibly long life and to organize a powerful organization that conquered kingdoms and toppled governments. But a chance meeting with Ying Li steers his path in a different direction. They have two children, one of them being Shang-Chi, and when his mother is killed and his father returns to his old ways by taking up the ten rings again, he leaves to escape the legacy his father had left for him.
The story then jumps to an older Shang-Chi (played by Simu Liu) now living in San Francisco as Shaun, a carefree valet and enjoying life with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina). But when the two are attacked in the bus by some well-trained assassins, Shaun must return to his roots and reveal his exceptional fighting skills to protect Katy and the people around him from the apparent return of his father.
It’s an interesting narrative choice, to start directly from the middle — with Shang-Chi already the abled warrior with a hidden past and Katy becomes the foil that reveals to the audience all the secrets of Shang-Chi’s past — but as the duo goes from San Francisco to Macau, in search of Shang-Chi’s sister to protect her, the film is more focused on some very exciting action sequences, some funny gags, and a whole lot of plot.
What the film is lacking, and a lot of, is exploring the inner world of Shang-Chi as a character. So he’s running from his father and as he is reunited with his sister and he discovers what it is his father is after, his character doesn’t actually grow or undergo and serious change.
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It’s almost three-fourths into the movie before we discover, through one short exchange between Shang-Chi and his best friend Katy, a secret that lies at the heart of the character. For 75% of the film, we are fighting bad guys, meeting new characters, trying to get into a mystical world that has every East Asian creature present from the Ki-Rin to the Gumiho, to the Chinese firebird but we are left completely in the dark about the inner struggle that is eating away at Shang-Chi. In fact, we didn’t know his character had an internal conflict until that bit of dialogue, and, in one simple statement from Katy, this puzzle piece is quickly solved.
The writing is quite lazy, actually. There’s a narrative mechanism that makes our characters have to enter a particular gateway at a very particular time because it only opens once a year — it’s a classic fantasy trope that really makes no sense because why would the gate be opened only once a year? There is no real explanation for it. It’s only there to create a sense of urgency and only to find there’s another way in!
Sure, Simu Liu is charming and a wonderful physical specimen of a human being, but without a character that was written for the audience to really empathize with, I felt more inclined to follow the story of Xu Wenwu, the villain. With Tony Leung’s incredible charisma and a heavy amount of flashbacks, we see a more apparent character arc formed by the main antagonist. In fact, Xu Wenwu has a clearer and more impactful climactic choice than Shang-Chi in the film. Who’s movie is it really?
I really wanted to like this movie. Awkwafina and Simu Liu have wonderful chemistry together and their portrayal of the carefree youths with “wasted potential” as they are always told (though it is never actually shown in the film, just implied) and the film can boasts of very thrilling action sequences in the first half of the film (because in the second half, the direction goes awry and the fight scenes look clunky). But the writing just made ‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ feel so thin and bare. It’s an urban fantasy action-adventure looking for some emotional depth.
But I heard it did well in the global box office and I’m just hoping that the follow-up will do the characters — and the actors — more justice.