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Growing up, I loved Hong Kong martial arts movies. I’m of the generation that grew up when VHS first hit the market and video rental stores like Blockbuster was part of the cultural zeitgeist. On any given weekend, my mother, brother, and I would go down to the local Blockbuster Video and grab five or six movies for the weekend. For my brother and I, it was a chance to indulge in our passion for Wuxia films, Jackie Chan movies, and Shaw Brothers/Golden Harvest movies. The beauty and artistry of those films is front and center in Marvel’s Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings, one of the best Marvel films to date.
Spoilers ahead, so don’t read if you haven’t watched the film.
The visual presentation of the film is outstanding from start to finish, particularly the cinematography during the prominent fight scenes. I was reminded of the Bamboo Forest fight scene in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon while watching the first fight between Tony Leung’s Xu Wenwu and Fala Chen’s Ying Li in the forest. It’s a credit to both performers that although there’s zero dialogue between them in that scene, the choreography coupled with their body language and facial expressions provide every nuance needed for what is essentially a courtship via battle. I’ve been a fan of Tony Leung since I first saw him in Hard-Boiled and Infernal Affairs (which was the precursor to The Departed). Leung exemplifies the quiet ferocity of Xu Wenwu, creating one of the more compelling villains the MCU has produced over the last several years. Wenwu is a broken man, driven by his failure to protect his family and clinging to the idea that he can restore that family through violence and bloodshed. Wenwu strongly believes he’s the hero of the story, which is how the best villains are generally written (with a few exceptions). Although we don’t get to see much of Fala Chen in the film, what scenes we do get show a fierce warrior who is able to bring out the best in her husband and her children before having to pay for Wenwu’s past sins.
The main pairing of Simu Liu and Awkwafina as Shang-Chi and Katy is a wonderful double-act that I enjoyed right from the start. Liu brings a quiet, forlorn intensity to Shang-Chi, a man raised from an early age to be a living weapon, and Awkwafina plays Katy as the bubbly, irresponsible friend who is always pulling Shang-Chi into some kind of fun trouble. The fact that the two of them are written and shown to not be a couple but rather in a deep friendship is also a refreshing change from the traditional Marvel movie pairings. The two of them don’t need to be a couple, as far as I’m concerned, because I think it would lose something of what makes their dynamic work so well. Meng’er Zhang entering the fray about a third of the way into the movie as Shang-Chi’s sister Xu Xialing adds an extra layer to the story, particularly given Xialing’s bitterness toward her brother abandoning her.
In the tradition of Wuxia films, the fight scenes aren’t just pressed into the movie for the sake of having them but to enhance the story and move it forward. There’s a moment in Enter The Dragon where Bruce Lee speaks to a young student about adding emotional content to their fighting style. When Michelle Yeoh (who is one of the all-time best martial arts actors to have ever come out of the Hong Kong film industry) engages with Simu Liu in a training fight toward the end, the balance of the fight shifts when Shang-Chi abandons aggression for emotional content, feeling his way through the technique he’s being taught. Each of the fight scenes have this emotional content, particularly the final fight between Wenwu and Shang-Chi. No longer bound by being the killer his father trained him to be, Shang-Chi is able to embrace both of his parents’ influences, becoming capable of finally reaching his father through the haze of Wenwu’s guilt and grief.
The visual effects of the film are stunning to say the least, particularly once the group reaches Ta Lo. Marvel really focused a great deal of time and energy into bringing to life some of the more fantastical creatures from Chinese mythology, particularly the Great Protector (which looked amazing). On the flip side was the Dweller-in-Darkness, the closest thing to a Cthonic monstrosity the MCU has produced up to this point. Terrifying doesn’t even begin to cover it when the final sequence of the film begins. Many critics have criticized the Marvel movies for relying too heavily on quips and sarcasm but that is definitely not the case here.
Overall, I think this is one of the best films produced by Marvel in the last five years. As an origin story, it has a grand vision that introduces the public to one of the more obscure comic book heroes (that admittedly has a ton of racial insensitive baggage attached to it). While some may watch Shang-Chisimply for the fight scenes, what they will find is at the core of the film is a family drama, a story about a family broken apart by tragedy and how that tragedy defines those left behind. This is one Marvel movie I would definitely recommend watching.
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