Here’s the extraordinary thing about Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings: The Chinese have been trying to make this movie for the past decade or so. Or rather, a movie like this rather than an adaptation of the Marvel comic series that it’s based on. You see, unlike the Harry Potter and Star Wars movies, the Marvel films have been wildly popular with Chinese audiences. Why is a subject for another time, but Chinese culture is filled with stories of heroes possessing superhuman powers, and their audiences are not averse to treating these myths with irreverent humor the way Marvel does, so they’ve been making Marvel-like big-budget films based on their own superhero stories, with varying degrees of success. Yet for all the vast resources and ambition behind those films, Shang-Chi improves on all of them. There are many reasons for this, but you’ll note that it was made in an environment where artists have creative freedom.
Simu Liu stars as Shaun, a parking valet in San Francisco who keeps a low profile until the day he and his childhood friend Katy (Awkwafina) are assaulted on a crowded bus by a group of thugs armed with swords who are after the jade pendant that his mother gave him. When she sees him fighting them off with kung fu skills she didn’t know he had, he’s forced to come clean: He’s Xu Shang-Chi, the son of a murderous Chinese mob boss (Tony Leung) who derives his power and longevity from 10 mysterious bracelets that he uses as weapons. He trained Shang-Chi as a killer since childhood, but the boy ran away to America to escape that life. Now his dad has plucked both him and his estranged sister Xialing (Zhang Meng’er) out of their respective adult lives, thinking that their deceased mother is alive and being kept prisoner in a secret Chinese village called Ta Lo. He’s sending an army there, and Shaun, Katy, and Xialing decide to reach Ta Lo first and warn the people about what’s coming.
Director/co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton is an American of Filipino extraction whose debut feature was the dazzling Short Term 12, although his subsequent dramas The Glass Castle and Just Mercy repaid diminishing returns. (All those films had Brie Larson in them. That streak continues here.) Maybe he just needed to film a car chase to rediscover his groove. He gracefully integrates the flashbacks recounting Shang-Chi’s unhappy childhood, and he brings innovation and fluidity to the action sequences, particularly one where the hero and Katy face bad guys on the scaffolding outside a skyscraper, swinging on the bars and continuing the fight on different levels. As you’d expect, Awkwafina brings much comic relief here, but the filmmakers inject their own with a random Twitch streamer livestreaming Shang-Chi’s bus fight, as well as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) hilariously reappearing as a house pet for the mob boss, who says disgustedly, “He had America terrified of an orange.”
This comes with visual beauty that the Marvel films seldom give us. Cinematographer Bill Pope’s saturated colors recall King Hu’s verdant 1960s swordfighting epics, though Hu could only have dreamed of making water droplets freeze in midair and fall to the ground to form a map, as happens here. Ta Lo’s wildlife of nine-tailed foxes and longma (dragon horses) have never been rendered so well in Chinese films, and when Shang-Chi’s long-lost aunt (Michelle Yeoh) makes blades of grass sway with her kung fu movements, the film’s lyricism approaches ballet.
The Chinese-Canadian star Liu displays a clever sense of humor in English to go with his martial-arts skills — his fight against a mute henchman wearing a Peking opera mask (Andy Le) moves at blinding speed. Where he’s lacking is a sense of the psychic damage Shang-Chi has taken as a result of witnessing his mother murdered as a 7-year-old and then being forced to witness his father taking brutal revenge on the gangsters responsible. The only actor who does justice to this family drama is Leung, the great Hong Kong star whose mournful, haunted face alone keeps this villain from becoming one-dimensional.
If Shang-Chi isn’t as all-encompassing an achievement as Black Panther, it is up to the standard of quality set by the other Marvel films, and its ties to Asian folklore and traditions of filmmaking set it apart from the rest of that canon. Another reason the Chinese couldn’t make this film is that they wouldn’t think to set one of their martial-arts sagas outside their country’s borders. Hollywood has no such qualms, so they’ve come out with the better movie.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Starring Simu Liu and Awkwafina. Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton. Written by Dave Callaham, Destin Daniel Cretton, and Andrew Lanham. Rated PG-13.