Wuxia movies are a dime a dozen. To stand out requires a proper vision. Somehow Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (SCLotR) lack the sense of feeling like an Asian film. It’s produced by Chinese-Americans, who are probably two generations removed from their heritage. Instead of earning their wings on some feudal period piece for television in Shanghai (or Hong Kong), they only have the approval of Disney to produce this piece.
This film begins nicely enough, with bits from Jackie’s Chan’s The Myth and Forbidden Kingdom mixed in, but somehow in the tale’s progression, it turns into something like a Black Widow type of film.
The hero Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) doesn’t feel like China’s champion at all. He’s a satellite kid who’s required to come home. Soon, he sees what has become of the family business. For a short time, they weren’t a league of assassins but now they’re back in business. His estranged father Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung) welcomes his son and daughter back, but his agenda to reunite the family is a bit of a lie.
The Ten Rings is a terrorist organization no different from Cobra in G.I. Joe. Wenwu reminds me of this maligned leader, but he’s much more competent. He desires to fully gain control of the ten bracelets which grants the user superhuman abilities. If that was director Daniel Cretton‘s inspiration, then I’ll have to say this film is a hit and miss affair. He’s better known for The Glass Castle, and wrote this screenplay with Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham. I suspect they didn’t dive deep enough into their research to make a movie that’d appeal to everyone. It felt too generalized with its cultural notes than specific to those who love Chinese/Hong Kong style cinema.
Plus, I could hear Mandarin and Cantonese in the same line of dialogue. It made for some Spock eye-raising moments, as it’s rare to offer both dialects in a film unless somewhere it’s stated the heroes are globetrotting. Not even many regionally localized Chinese films will do this.
Usually, we hear some philosophy being waxed in this genre, and it often follows the hero’s journey. As for how martial arts films should be best made, there’s no denying Bruce Lee’s works have intense moments, and when today’s films rely more on fancy stunts over hard core bruising, I’m rarely feeling invested. In what defines those fights are how some moments are filmed in one long continuous take. This movie fits into the category of having a lot of changes in camera perspective to convey the battle. I read some interviews with Cretton saying he wanted to emulate the feel from those Jackie Chan films and somehow, he forgets why the cinematography in those early works matters.
In the grand tradition of many Chinese made CGI animated films, the big fight is just that and I was hardly wowed. There was nothing in this film that even reached the poetic quality that Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon made famous. When compared to recent animated works, I’d default to Ne Zha as the film which perfectly borrowed off the Marvel Cinematic experience and left me feeling wowed.
This film feels more like an obligatory product that had to be made because of Black Panther’s success. How this movie was embraced by the African-American community made Kevin Feige and Marvel Entertainment aware that it’s important to diversify the MCU. It has to speak of today’s times. It’s unlikely the studios had test screenings with Chinese people and Chinese-Americans prior to release to see if they liked it. So far, the consensus amongst us first generation types is that Shang-Chi has issues which need to be fixed. I can only hope Disney/Marvel are able to bring Tsui Hark or Stephen Chow on board to fine-tune this world so it can shine rather than be a sequel dud.
3 Stars out of 5