Shang-Chi is a Tribute to Chinese Culture and Filmmaking

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| December 22, 2021

In spite of the fact that many were predicting Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings to be a flop, Marvel fans once again proved that it wouldn’t happen under their watch. 

While my cinema experience was… quiet… to say the least, the few of us who watched it in the theater that day were all clearly Marvel fans. We laughed and cried together, and we got terrified by that one scene on the scaffolding of a high-rise building. My articles about Marvel productions already show how much I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), but I was not expecting Shang-Chi to make me love this studio even more than I did before. They proved that they will always have more to say and show to us, and the possibilities are endless. 

Is Shang-Chi the best origin story since Iron Man started the MCU? For myself, yes it is, but more about that later. First, I have to cover what makes it a great film overall, which is similar to what we experienced in Black Panther (2018): culture.

Marvel has always been and always will be a reflection of the world right outside our window.

Stan Lee, legendary Marvel writer and publisher
Marvel promotional image for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings with Wenwu (Tony Leung) and Shang-Chi (Simu Liu).

To demonstrate the impact I’m talking about, I’ll start with a question: How many foreign-language movies do you watch compared to Hollywood movies produced in English? I look at the movies I consume, and even though I feel like I am open to many many things, the truth is that 85% of what I watch still comes from Hollywood. That’s not a bad thing, but it is a reminder that I’m not as diverse as I want to be in what I’m watching.

In recent years, my hunger for something a bit different has grown tremendously. I mostly turned to Korean cinema, and I also got into African and Chinese filmmaking and a bit of Indian and Spanish. But those experiences weren’t enough to appreciate the cultural references throughout those films. 

Shang-Chi helped me feed that hunger, bringing an amazing amount of Chinese culture to a 2+ hour Marvel movie. The film added a lot of new things to love to the now more than 3000 minutes long Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The courtship scene with Xu Wenwu (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung) and Li (Fala Chen)

From here, I’ll slide into spoiler territory, so if you haven’t seen the film yet and don’t want to know the details, go watch it and come back to finish reading!

The backstory told in the first 10 minutes of this movie are a beautifully written ode to Chinese filmmaking. From every camera angle, the perfectly choreographed fight scenes and the Chinese folklore references sewed into it, and the actual fact that it was all in Chinese… not gonna lie here folks, it made me tear up. I adore Chinese filmmaking, and I think it is incredibly beautiful and gorgeously detailed in every way, but I know so little about it and wish I knew more. I wrote one of my university theses based on their film culture, but even the extensive research I put into that was just scratching the surface of what is actually in there. That’s why this opening scene to Shang-Chi meant so much to me. 

In particular, the courtship between Xu Wenwu (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung) and Li (Fala Chen) was something I’ve waited for ever since Yimou Zhang’s masterpiece Hero. If you like Shang-Chi, I encourage you to watch Hero if you haven’t already. I believe that it had a huge influence on Shang-Chi both in cinematography and color-use, particularly in its opening sequence. The choreography of the fight and courtship of Wenwu and Li is an amazing nod to Chinese films and something I know made a lot of people’s hearts beat a lot faster. 

Trevor (Ben Kingsley) and Morris

Getting into the film, right from the beginning there are many references to Chinese folklore creatures that build up to an absolutely breathtaking scene right before the big endgame. Shang (Simu Liu), Katy (Awkwafina), Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), and Trevor (Ben Kingsley back in his role from Ironman 3) arrive at the ancient village of Ta Lo with the help of a dìjiāng named Morris. A dìjiāng is a creature associated with the Chinese god Hundun and the element of chaos. They are known to cause chaos and confusion wherever they go, and they very much enjoy music and dance. Morris doesn’t have a face, but he quickly became everyone’s favorite new creature.

I have a theory that Trevor was able to understand Morris not only because they spent so much time together but also because Trevor’s own life has become so chaotic.

The lion guardians, who we also saw in the trailers, are called shíshī and are probably familiar around the world. There are always two of them, traditionally a male and a female, symbolizing the Buddhist yin and yang balance. They’ve been found in architecture guarding palaces or tombs dating back to Imperial China.

The nine-tailed fox

Also in Shang-Chi, we see the famous húlijīng, or nine-tailed fox, that has been making its rounds in pop culture lately. One of my favorite shorts from Netflix’s Love Death + Robots is “Good Hunting” in which the character Liang forges a bond with the shape-shifting húlijīng who he helped to survive in a brand new world. When the nine-tailed fox popped up in Shang-Chi, my heart skipped a beat. 

I would need a separate article to cover all the creatures that appeared in Ta Lo, but I can’t go on without mentioning the Chinese dragon. The dragon in Shang-Chi is the Great Protector of Ta Lo who provides their power and protection. The highest point of the movie was when siblings Shang-Chi and Xialing joined forces with this mythical creature to defeat the Dweller-in-Darkness. The visuals were flawless and really jaw-dropping. I was fortunate enough to watch many films this year, but Shang-Chi is my favorite so far on every level. 

Now let’s shift to what makes this film a perfect origin story. First, casting Simu Liu as Shang was an A+ decision as he brings his very best to the MCU. Now that the film is out on Disney+ and available on DVD and Blue Ray, I recommend checking out the behind-the-scenes shorts (and the bloopers) to appreciate all the work that Liu and others put into making a movie like this. 

I also have to praise the rest of the cast. In particular, I am sure that the amazing Tony Leung stole many people’s hearts with his performance as Wenwu. Wenwu has a troubled relationship with both of his children after the death of his wife, but the love he feels for them was balanced perfectly in his performance.

Xialing, Shang-Chi, and Katy

The dynamic between the two siblings and their father showed that each of them has their own failures in the story. Wenwu never paid much attention to his daughter, and he blamed Shang for their mother’s death even though he was only a child when it happened. He chose revenge over his family, and he even used one of his children to achieve his goals. Shang left Xialing behind and stopped all communication with her, never even considering getting her out of there. It was an endless circle of right and wrong to the point they turned against each other. It took until the very last minute for Wenwu to realize that what should have been the most important thing was always right in front of him.

I believe that the theme of grief in MCU Phase 4 became incredibly evident in Shang-Chi, and I honestly believe that it is a smart move for Disney. After all, for 5 years in the MCU continuity, half of the population was gone, and once they came back there were still those who made sacrifices. I do truly love that Kevin Feige won’t shy away from showing hard times in these people’s lives.

If you haven’t guessed already, Shang’s growth throughout his first movie is one of my favorite stories told across this universe. From a boy who ran away from home because of all the regret and pain that lived inside him, he became a man who chose to face those fears and to forgive both himself and his father. 

I LOVE the fact that the diversity in Stan Lee’s vision is becoming more and more a reality in the MCU. I am also so glad that these films focus on cultural accuracy, building both mythology and tradition into their movies. We live in a big world with so many interesting things to see and experience, and I love seeing films showcase that.

Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) in the final battle sequence. (Photo by Jasin Boland)

In short, Shang-Chi has a special place in my heart. It opened the door to completely new possibilities, diving into Chinese culture and giving us great new characters to love. And Shang-Chi himself got the same love from me as Steve Rogers, who I’ve extolled in my art and my ink. I honestly can’t wait for the return of Shang-Chi and Katy (I adore Awkwafina beyond words) to see where their story will go and to get deeper into Chinese mythology. Just as Thor films bring in the Norse mythology and legends, and Black Panther triumphed with its representation of colorful African traditions and culture, Shang-Chi is doing the same with Chinese culture… and I am here for it! 

Have you seen Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings? Did you fall in love with it as I did? Share your experience in the comments!

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6 comments on “Shang-Chi is a Tribute to Chinese Culture and Filmmaking”

  1. I haven’t gotten around to seeing shang-chi yet but am very excited to. I have heard nothing but good things about it!

  2. I thought the best part of Shang-Chi was its ability to utilize or pay homage to lots of different martial arts and Chinese films and designs and blend them into the overall Marvel cinematic look. I was surprised at how silly some parts of the film were…purposely so… it was very self-aware. Even the after-credits scene was like one big joke wrapped in a cliffhanger. A curious choice for the character but didn’t mind it.

  3. I wasn’t sure how I would feel about this movie but I am so glad I watched it. It is absolutely stunning and amazing. Great article Lily. Now I need to go watch again

  4. Thank you for all these amazing comments everyone! I am thrilled to see that so many people enjoyed this movie as much as I did as well. Jake I HIGHLY recommend this movie, I think you will like it!! Thank you Brandy, ngl I just rewatched it recently and once again I absolutely loved it. Drew, have to agree, 100%

  5. Loved this film SO MUCH! I admit Awkwafina is my favorite part of any film she’s in, but I was ready for more the moment the end credits rolled. Looking forward to seeing Shang and Katy getting more involved with Wong and other MCU characters, and there’s so much they’ll be able to do with the Ten Rings organization! \o/

    The film also inspired me to get back into tai chi, and I’m so glad I did!

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