I watched Shang-Chi last night in a theater of a small Flemish town in Belgium. We had just spent a full day sightseeing in Bruges, it was a long weekend, and I knew I wanted to end the long weekend watching Shang-Chi.hi. It had just been released in the theaters worldwide a few days ago and I was reading raving reviews all over about it…which honestly, surprised me. I did not want to get my hopes up for a Marvel movie with a fully Asian / Asian-American cast. Sure, there have some popular Asian American media in recent years with non-racist and non-stereotypical representation, but oftentimes the stories fall flat and are just not great. Most recently, I think of live-action Mulan and how that was a disappointment, mainly because the acting and storyline was not good. So of course, I didn’t want to get my hopes up for Shang-Chi.
By the way, I would call myself maybe a below average Marvel fan. I’ve watched most of the movies that have hit the big screens, especially recent years, and have consistently thoroughly enjoyed them. I get genuinely excited to watch a Marvel movie, and that’s not something I feel that frequently. Might honestly only be comparable to watching a Disney Animation or Pixar movie, which is unsurprising because they’re all Disney at the end of the day and know the formula to mass appeal and capturing our hearts. There were some Marvel movies I just could not get through though, and that likely has to do with my personal lack of investment in the world building and not caring enough to know how each movie and plot bleeds contributes to this larger Marvel world. So you could say I really just enjoy it while the movie is playing, feel great about it for a few hours after watching, then it’s out of my mind and I am okay with waiting for the next Marvel movie in a few months or in a year. I never watched any of the Netflix or TV show series about other characters in the same universe. As for the movies themselves, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Spiderman (because Tom Holland), Black Panther, Avengers, Ant-man, and in the earlier days Thor. I watched Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk here and there but did not watch entire series and also easily lost track of their storylines. Anyways, point is, I thoroughly enjoy Marvel but I’m likely a typical below-average fan. I watched Captain Marvel, enjoyed it, and like the character but wasn’t blown away by the movie (though I AM excited for the sequel purely because of Park Seo Joon). And I have been incapable of finishing Doctor Strange despite trying to watch it a couple of times because I couldn’t handle the white characters looking reminiscent of yellow face.
So when Shang-Chi was being produced, of course I was hyped, but what got me more hyped than usual was that it was an Asian immigrant superman. Okay, I had no idea what the original comics are about and didn’t want to look into it much because I hear it is quite racist. So, I just didn’t look into it more. I was also more up to date with the production of Shang-Chi because the actor Simu Liu is active in one of the Facebook groups I’m in (centered on Asian identity) and he’s been pretty great about keeping us looped in about his progress while making the movie and sharing his personal thoughts. Having seen him as a character in Kim’s Convenience plus getting to be in the same Facebook group as him has been pretty cool. He comes across as very down to earth and humble. I’m curious to see how things change and evolve for him as he gets more famous.
Alright, now let me jump into general thoughts about Shang-Chi. First section will be without spoilers, and second section will be with spoilers so if you have not watched Shang-Chi, please feel free to stop right before the second section (it will be clearly marked).
General thoughts on Shang-Chi (no spoiler version)
I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. It was just a blast in every way. It had what made a typical Marvel movie enjoyable — amazing action scenes, great soundtrack, mind blowing visuals, just the right amount of comedic relief, and a well-told story with a predictable climax (the hero gets very weak and is on the brink of losing) and end (happy ending but with caveats), but definitely unpredictable storyline, as in I could not predict where the story was going the whole time and the element of surprise was constantly there. Then again, no major plot twists or anything like that. On the action front, I do want to point out that I was quite impressed with the action scenes from Shang-Chi specifically, because there were cool slow motion scenes and sound effects plus the martial arts fighting all together made it more refreshing and different from other Marvel movies.
Identity & Language
Now, what made the movie extra stellar, in my opinion? I think they handled Asian and Asian American identity with nuance and it was done excellently. This was the part I was most worried about and bracing myself for before watching. I was worried they would be reinforcing stereotypes because come on…it’s an Asian man superhero who does martial arts. It would be hard not to reinforce stereotypes. But hey, they did it. They managed to create characters that make sense for 2021, immigrants and people with global identities, which is more in sync with reality. You know, instead of essentializing people to being from “one” place and their behaviors and interests are all very stereotypical to being from that place and making a big deal out of the “culture”. Instead, in Shang-Chi, “culture” was not emphasized as much but rather it was a natural backdrop to the story.
There was a great mix of Mandarin and English speaking and it made sense when or why people were speaking in Mandarin or in English. As a Mandarin speaker myself, I felt touched by this detail. It was just one of those things where it just made sense. You had characters who are first generation immigrant, second generation immigrant, and folks who never set foot in the U.S. and could still speak English but it never felt unnatural. Like the movie is still predominantly in English, but the way they incorporated Mandarin felt intentional, so I thought that was cool. Also, English on average is spoken very well which made me happy because it shows that a lot of the cast are diasporic Asians or globalized Asians. In Tony Leung’s case, it was because of his Hong Kong background (just life from being from a post-British colony, eh?).
Along the lines of identity and representation, what made this movie so characteristically “Asian” had nothing to do with Shang-Chi being a literal Asian superhero was actually the plot of the movie. Specifically, it was the motivations of Shang-Chi’s dad and his relationship with his children that made it a characteristically “Asian” story for me and was what, for me, made this film so significant in terms of “Asian representation”. I’ll elaborate later on in the spoilers section.
Tony Leung. Period.
I am ashamed to say that I was not very familiar with the superstar and amazing actor that is Tony Leung, making Shang-Chi the first movie I watched really conscious of the fact that wow, this is Tony Leung. (I am so sorry to my dad, my Cantonese ancestors, and my film buff friends….). Anyways! Wow, just wow. He is one hell of an amazing actor with the most expressive face and eyes I have EVER seen. He is without a doubt the superstar of the movie and one of the most amazing and nuanced villains I’ve ever seen. Honestly, he made the movie what it is and I am just so impressed. Shang-Chi alone is worth watching as a movie just to get to take in and enjoy Tony’s facial emotions because it MAKES the movie. I am so going on a binge-watch of Tony’s films because, wow, he is a beautiful man and an incredible actor.
Wow, because Shang-Chi did well what you expect from a good Marvel movie. And additionally, also handled an Asian, immigrant, transnational plot and storyline well. I loved that it is centered on individuals living in the in between, in the diaspora, and not just people living in Asia or in China. Instead, it is a very classic story that has aspects that resonates with not just the immigrant narrative, but a person who is living in between multiple countries and has “home” in different places. Anyways, as someone who is a Taiwanese and Chinese person living in diaspora, I did feel very seen by this movie. I couldn’t help but wonder what it feels like to be white and the norm in society, would it be normal to feel seen like this by movies and shows on a regular basis? I can only imagine. In Shang-Chi though, it was feeling seen by the smallest details and it helped that a section was filmed in San Francisco, one of the places I am very familiar with. Anyways, just wow, what a fun ride!
Okay, if you have not watched Shang-Chi yet, please stop HERE. And go watch it! So you can come back and read the rest of this.
Also, wanted to share some graphics I made condensing this blog post into a few graphics (no spoilers).
Thoughts on Shang-Chi: Story specific (*spoiler* version)
*Stop here if you have not watched Shang-Chi, and come back to read it later!*
Plot about Family as relatable for immigrant parent/child relationships
Okay, this is the part I got the most excited about! And is my absolutely favorite part of this film and the story. It was the story behind Shang-Chi and his sister and their relationship with their dad and his mom. It was just so… reminiscent of what I understand and categorize as many immigrant relationships and is a theme I relate to in my own family dynamics and have seen in many of my friend’s (also often Chinese or Asian people in diaspora) family lives. And I know it’s not just Chinese immigrants who can relate, but a theme that many who have experienced parent/child conflict or experienced abusive behavior inflicted by them but all of it is also mixed up in love and the parent “wanting the best” for their kid that makes it all so…relatable and relevant.
The essence here is that Shang-Chi’s dad (Wenwu) was an immortal warlord and was in charge of the Ten Rings organization and the ten rings (device? weapon?) as his own. He had infiltrated all corners of the world but was missing Ta Lo, the mysterious untouched town from another dimension. When he tried to enter, instead he came across a woman from Ta Lo. They fought and had a beautiful fight scene, then fell in love and then gave birth to Shang-Chi and his sister Xialing. Fast forward, we learn that Shang-Chi and Xialing’s mother had died fighting with men who were trying to find Wenwu for pay back (Wenwu was not home). We learn that Wenwu had given up using the ten rings the whole time he was with his wife and raising the family, but after she left, he was in so much pain and sorrow that he started wearing the ten rings again and in turn trained Shang-Chi to become a killer and assassin, ultimately an assassin to kill the man who killed his mom (Wenwu’s wife). Shang-Chi lost his mom at 7 years old, and from 7 to 14 Wenwu trained Shang Chi to learn martial arts and fight to the point that he would get bloody and bruised. He didn’t let Xialing learn but Xialing learned on the side and became as powerful of a fighter.
Anyways, the point here is Wenwu deprived his children of supportive love, and essentially forced them to learn to fight and kill. Which from the looks of it…was abusive. It was clear the children were unhappy and did not want to pursue this route or live this life, but he wouldn’t stop. He was an 100% warlord. Reminiscent of how the Fire Lord in “Avatar: The Last Airbender” treated his children. It got so bad to the point that Shang-Chi ran away and started a new life in San Francisco and eventually Xialing ran away too. They did not want to be under their dad anymore, but he managed to send his men to bring them back eventually.
The crux of the plot is when Wenwu shares that he wants to and has to invade Ta Lo because he needs to open the gates that his wife is trapped behind. We learn quickly that behind the gates is where “all evil” lives and these evil beings were somehow able to communicate with the holder of the ten rings and speak to him sounding like his wife claiming that she is trapped behind the door and has to be freed. Wenwu is 100% convinced that his wife is behind that door and that he has to do anything he can to get his wife back so he gets his love back and his family can return to the way they used to be. Even after his children tell him that it makes no sense to destroy his wife’s hometown which was SO important her, just to bring back someone who very clearly is not here anymore, he did not believe them and was stuck in his ways of course. Makes a classic villain story. But beyond that, it makes a very classic and tragic parent story that reflected what I’ve seen in many Asian immigrant family narratives.
Abusive father figure
First off, Wenwu was so focused on his goals to train Shang-Chi to be strong enough to protect himself and someday potentially bear the ten rings, that he deprived Shang-Chi of the fatherly love and support his child (or any child) needed. Wenwu was fixated on his vision and dreams for what “should” be and wanted to train him to be powerful that he completely lost track of what it means to be a father to a son. This is reminiscent of immigrant narratives where often fathers are the ones who become fixated on preparing their children for the future, sometimes in an aggressive or cold way, that they completely lose the very bond with their children that was what the child most needed and would have actually prepared them to be strong in the world.
Denial & delusions
Next, Wenwu becomes overly fixated and obsessed with the idea of freeing his wife from this trapped door so that the family can go back to what it once was. I found this to be the most sad, and also highly resonant. You can tell that Wenwu loved his wife a lot and would do anything to get her back. He loved her for her but it was also clear she brought out a part of him that he just does not know how to access or be when she’s not there (made me think of masculinity issues and how often men end up over-depending on their wives for emotional connection and vulnerability). So in a sense, what was driving Wenwu’s villainous moves was….love and the craving for this softness that was no longer in his life and he had lost after she passed. And that just shows how twisted love can be when it is tunnel vision love and there is no acknowledgment for the bigger picture. It was painful and emotional (probably because of Tony’s acting too) to see how he pursued to crack open that door with the hopes that his wife is behind that door. His love was so strong and yet so…toxic. He was clearly deluded, but also it’s not uncommon for real life people to feel this. To lose something and want to get it back so badly, because maybe if it came back, things can be good again. Wenwu was not focused on his present-day relationship with his children or how they can be a family now. His only understanding of family was with the presence of his wife, the gentle and loving wise being and without her, he is utterly lost. So I found his story to be quite tragic, and in some sense, typical of an Asian father. It was grief that he was experiencing and he never gave himself a chance to mourn or process it, and instead that grief manifested into denial and denial turned into colonizing violent villainous behavior.
Trauma & love/hate relationships
Lastly, I wanted to point out the complex love/hate relationship among Shang-Chi’s family that also felt very…relatable in many ways. His dad was abusive, his mom was wholesome and loving but died prematurely. Shang-Chi’s trauma from witnessing his mother’s death and experiencing his father’s cruel and cold behavior bled into his relationship with his sister and abandoning her when she was still very young which created trauma for her too. Despite there being so much trauma, at the end of the day, everyone is still a family. I appreciated how the movie played these dynamics out. Shang-Chi and Xialing had to fight it out and she was evidently angry at him for what he did, and he was trying to make it up to her, ultimately they were able to be on agreeable terms and support each other as siblings for the rest of the film.
As for their relationship with their father, it was clear that they hated him for what he has done and yet they also loved him as a father and wanted him to back off from his delusional visions and just be present as their dad. They cared deeply for him but also knew that he was dangerous and that they may have to resort to killing him if need be for the sake of the greater good. This dynamic made me quite emotional because it is evident that there is a dynamic of hate, but also of love, and from the father to the children it is toxic love, and from the children to parent it is recognizing he is their abuser but also their father who had the goal of “reuniting the family” in the end. The huge irony here is how all along his father’s goal HAS been family oriented because he wanted the family reunited all along, but of course was missing the point of what his children actually needed. I see this kind of tragic father story in a lot of immigrant narratives where the father has the ultimate dream or goal that is focused on family, but in the process of pursuing it, he is neglecting his children and their true desires that breeds this hate/love relationship stemming from the children who also want a full and reunited family. The disconnect is strong among intergenerational relationships and in the end it makes for a tragic story…
I appreciated that Shang-Chi was more than a story about an Asian superhero but rather it also told a story that felt very relatable to potentially many Asian audiences from around the world. It speaks to things that’s not just about representation of a physical body, but also a story that is entrenched with themes of family and love that is not your conventional normative story about love. Recognize that not one time any of these characters said they loved each other or hugged it out with their family members, but instead showed love in other ways, such as being there for each other or helping them accomplish a common goal (like Shang-Chi and Xialing’s team work to conquer the monster). I thought the scene where Wenwu transitioned the ten rings to Shang-Chi was incredibly powerful. The moment was quick but you could see it in his eyes (Tony Leung!!) as he realized his big mistake and the grave thing he unleashed into the world. He passes the rings on to Shang-Chi and in that moment you could tell he loved his son a lot, then quickly he was taken by the monster and he died. You see Shang-Chi and Xialing’s love for their father in subsequent scenes as they looked at his corpse with emotions of sorrow but also acceptance that what happened had to happen.
The themes around family, love, and trauma and the fact that they were executed so well made me love and appreciate this film so much. It was the dynamic between Wenwu and his children, the disconnect in what family meant to parent versus child, and the way love was displayed or rather the lack of display of love that really resonated and what made it “Asian” representation, just something that I’ve just rarely seen in English speaking media (but I get plenty from the K-dramas I like to watch). To me at least, representation is more than just the visible race of an actor/actress, it is more than them not resorting to stereotypical characteristics, but rather representation is about the entire story or narrative being one that is relatable to different audiences. And so I think Shang-Chi as a Marvel movie was able to achieve that to reach an audience like me (heh).
Identity & Language details
To continue the conversation from what I wrote about in the non-spoiler section, there were some specific scenes that I appreciated around the nuances of different Asian and immigrant experiences.
- The scenes highlighting Katy and Shang-Chi’s different experiences as Asian American. Katy was born and raised in the U.S. based on the brief scenes where her mother and grandmother are also all living in San Francisco. While Shang-Chi moved there on his own at 14 years old making him a first generation immigrant (Katy is second generation). You can tell just by the way they speak Mandarin that Shang-Chi is fluent and comfortable, while Katy can understand someone speaking Mandarin to her but she will speak English back (happened with her grandmother) and with other characters when she went with Shang-Chi to Macau.
- With Katy being 2nd generation, Shang-Chi being first, Xialing as someone who was based in Asia but may have traveled a decent amount, and Wenwu being the immortal being he is and cared about his kids learning English, it just made sense how everyone could also speak English so it wasn’t the most out of the blue the many Mandarin and English transitions. (Though occasionally it was confusing, like how Ta Lo residents could speak English, but maybe that’s an “another dimension” thing).
- It was nice to notice the moments when Mandarin was spoken versus when English was spoken. Like some intimate moments between Shang-Chi and his dad or with his sister, you’ll hear Mandarin being spoken and then the comfortable switch to English. I don’t remember specific scenes, but I do remember feeling impressed that the creators of this movie knew how to bring in Chinglish pretty comfortably.
*Side note: because I was watching this movie in Belgium, the subtitles were only in French and Dutch. Meaning that when Mandarin was spoken, it was not translated to English, but instead to French and Dutch. I can understand Mandarin fluently but I miss details easily and missed a lot of the idioms used so I may have missed some meanings. I was also watching it with someone who did not understand Mandarin, French, or Dutch so that meant I explained what I could when I could and that we may have missed some important context along the way…
General favorite moments
Besides everything I already mentioned…
- I loved Morris, the faceless fuzzy creature from Ta Lo! But seriously the moment I saw Morris I. knew it was a marketing opportunity because how can you not want a stuffed animal of Morris. Morris and Trevor Slattery made excellent comedic relief and I loved the scenes they were in. Though, it definitely contributed to the unpredictability of the story because I did not expect a faceless mystical creature who had slipped outside of the Ta Lo dimension was what was going to bring Shang-Chi and the crew to find Ta Lo. The drive to Ta Lo with Katy driving was a golden entertaining scene.
- Ta Lo and the depiction of the town was very cool and beautiful. The beautiful scenery, music, landscape, and mystical creatures reminded me of Pandora (from the Avatar with blue people) mixed with some of the grand landscapes seen in live-action Mulan. I loved the mystical furry creatures that showed up in Ta Lo, oh and the dragon of course. I would have loved to see more of them.
- The beginning scenes based in San Francisco were amazing. They managed to feature all the famous spots of San Francisco, everyday scenes from Chinatown, and also show the dynamics of riding a MUNI bus. The fight scene done on the MUNI was very well done especially the scenes where MUNI crashed downhill in classic San Franciscan hilly streets. And the smart move to make use of the fact that the MUNI is a long bus with two sections and it was beneficial to this fight scene!
- I enjoyed the last credit scene featuring Xialing taking over the ten ring organization space and the cool music and dancing as well as graffiti art on the walls. That was a very dope scene and I’m glad they put it there. Couldn’t help but made me wonder if Xialing had villain vibes too though…
- Loved all the 2 person fight scene where a Ta Lo fighter was involved. The choreography and music together all just made it so beautiful.
Where there is room for improvement
I’ve written plenty about my thoughts around the movie. If you’ve made it this far, thank you so much for reading! I was blown away and really pleasantly surprised with the movie and am so glad that I am alive for a moment where film has gotten to a point where you just see all around excellence in one film. I mean, there’s just too much mediocre content out in the world today so when there is something that is genuinely good, it’s so worth it to just recognize it and be excited for it, which is what I’m doing right now!
I wanted to briefly write about some other thoughts I had with the movie which are not 100% “this is amazing” thoughts, but rather my nuanced opinions about random aspects of the film…
- There were little to no black and brown people in the movie which I was disappointed about. It is understandable why that it is a mostly Asian cast, however, they could have at least tried to make the Ten Rings organization more diverse since that was one area where there were white people in it. Otherwise, there was a black bus driver and a brown friend of Shang-Chi and Katy, but that was it.
- Shang-Chi had great character growth into someone who accepts both his father and mother’s ancestry and legacies within him, but I can’t say it was the most convincing how it all came together. There was a scene where he admitted to Katy that he did kill his mother’s killer and he felt remorseful and like a bad human being from it. But it was unclear how that played into his character growth and his final acceptance of himself that he was able to transition into waking up underwater, riding the dragon, and then later take some rings from his father and harnessed his own energy with it. His growth was a bit confusing for me, but hey, at least it didn’t take away from the story.
- I wish Xialing had more lines and scenes. We saw childhood versions of Shang-Chi interacting with his parents a lot more than we saw Xialing. It makes sense why…because obviously Shang-Chi is the main character. I just felt like Xialing was in the shadows a bit and would have liked to see her in the spotlight more.
- Katy was well done by Nora (aka Awkwafina). I was never the biggest fan of her but that’s mostly because she started her career appropriating Black language and culture. It was not until she acted in “The Farewell” and then as Katy that I like her more and think she does better in roles where she’s a regular, ordinary, awkward and cool Asian American girl who is down to earth and also quirky. She is genuinely funny as her awkward self, so I hope that she’s done with the cultural appropriation and will continue as what she does best, being herself.
- Ta Lo had a lot of similarities to Wakanda in Black Panther. It falls to the same tropey narrative of indigenous folks indigenous to a land that is “untouched” and living in harmony and some outside force wants to colonize or destroy it. I thought of Frozen 2 and how it had a lot of similarities to the indigenous community in the magical forest and the plot line there. I wish they did more world building around Ta Lo and pushed the story to be more than this mystical realm that protected “evil” from their realm and our realm. Ah, so much potential there. I did really love the scene though where they explained the history of Ta Lo blocking out the evils and how it was told in wooden sculpture. That was pure beauty.
Okay, wow I just spent 3ish hours dedicated to writing this and am so glad I got all my initial reactions out. If you made it all the way here then, thank you for reading! I had a lot of fun watching the movie and writing this post. I’m thoroughly excited to see the future of this series and what Marvel is bringing next (am very excited for Eternals!).