Racist Shang-Chi Review
Updated: Oct 8, 2021
First and foremost, I want to say my title is strictly clickbait and apologize for any offense. But if Variety can click-bait, why shouldn't I?
I am writing this review of Shang-Chi through the lens of my race and culture, but it isn’t about racism or racists or addressing racism towards Asians. What had happened was, I read a lot of reviews from my melanin lacking contemporaries that heavily focus on race and representation and it rubbed me the wrong way. It was like saying, “Look how not racist I am.” It was basically trying too hard to politely address the very uncomfortable topic of American films historically screwing over Asians. I do not knock them for it, it is a natural reaction, though usually, it’s along the lines of, “Have you tried [insert Asian Food]?” I respect the effort most of the time. But then there’s stuff like Variety’s review title for Shang-Chi:
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ Review: Marvel Gives Lesser-Known Asian Hero the A-List Treatment
You really needed THREE prefixes before the word hero? Is it such a big deal that an Asian cast and produced movie gets the same treatment as a talking tree that you included it in the title of your review? And what the hell does any of that have to do with the review of a movie? That headline should have been used when the movie was announced. Like, bruh… This is the first real Marvel Movie of Phase 4, is it good? That’s what people care about. Race matters, but always pointing at it greatly diminishes the achievement of the film, especially when you lead with race in the title before any mention of quality. Now it comes off as it’s good for an Asian movie. Prefixes generally fuck things up, I’ve gone on a rant about that on my tumblr a long time ago. Long story short, prefixes tend to otherize things, especially Asians. So when Peter Debruge prefixed his review of the movie with this bunk-ass title, regardless of the praise, he otherized the movie. It’s basically the Asian Marvel Movie that he liked.
So that’s the inspiration for this review. I wanted to review it with a very direct perspective of being an American Asian. Born and raised in Stockton, CA to an immigrant mother and a white stepdad. I went to schools with less than 10 white kids and competed with many schools with only white kids in academics and sports. No stranger to going from 0 penalties against inner-city schools to record-setting penalties when playing the private school because our team was all shades of brown and black or having my state math championship diminished and disregarded because I'm Asian. I mean I lost the contest the year before so I had to learn to correct any mistakes I made while kneeling on salt. Anyway, being American Asian and having white people denigrate my work because of my race is a subject I am familiar with.
Now onto my quote-unquote racist Shang-Chi review. The movie is great, a top 10 Marvel film. The action is next level with one of the best close-quarters fight scenes in cinematic history. The homage to all the different cinematic martial arts style films is absolutely beautiful. The performances are great, Tony Leung in particular truly elevates the film and is a special type of villain that has you question if he truly is one. Then there’s Meng’er Zhang who had no martial arts training prior to the film, and she absolutely kills it. Plus Simu Liu and Awkwafina’s chemistry creates new goals for friendship and fun. And of course Benedict Wong and his scene-stealing cameo. It’s a truly great Marvel Movie. My only critique is that its flow does not feel unique. It feels like it shares a baseline similar to Black Panther and doesn’t ride it out as well. The movie sometimes piles on a lot of exposition through dialogue and feels rushed. On the other side of that, the film goes big on the visuals at the end that overshadows the impact of the final conflict. I cover all that in detail that in my other review.
This review is more focused on what I believe many are wondering about, does the movie do a good job of representing American Asians, is this film for the culture? I will resoundingly say yes, Shang-Chi is a win for the culture. So there will be minor spoilers from here on out, so if you don’t want that stop reading.
I think in terms of representation, the part where this movie fails is Shang-Chi’s want. Aside from leaving his father, he is pretty much aimless. He works as a valet driver and shows no signs of wanting more, he does not seem to care or want romance, does not want to change or save the world, or want anything other than to do what he's doing. He is essentially aimless and the events all just kind of happen to him. Personally, I found the slacker approach refreshing and zen-like. Having no wants is a great way to have a peaceful life, but in comparison to just about every other Marvel hero, he comes off as aimless and maybe even pointless. He has no real want and that contrast to all other heroes will maybe put off a lot of people. In comparison to most Marvel heroes, Shang-Chi is kind of lazy, which is off-set because he is naturally gifted. Without giving too much away, he’s too good with the rings too fast. Yeah he goes through rigorous training, but does that training make him just be good at anything? There’s a lot of things you can argue about that, but I think it is a valid point to critique. (*Edit: But open a second viewing, there it is actually very organically set up and is based on the character's lore.) While I enjoyed it, and tend to enjoy anti-overachieving Asians in film and television, but I see why people may think this is not the place for that.
The big reserve for most is Marvel making a kung fu flick. This deservedly had a lot of people apprehensive. It definitely feels like the laziest way to represent Asians, and American Asians are especially over it being the one way we are represented. This same sentiment is why I was in no rush to watch Kung Fu on the CW. There’s a lot more to us than just martial arts, and that shouldn’t be the only way we can be represented without being insulted. Thankfully, Shang-Chi is far more than just martial arts. After watching the film, I see the martial arts as a Trojan Horse to the family drama within.
Another apprehension many had is if it followed the theme of rejecting traditional Asian values to embrace Western/American values. If anything, I would say it does the opposite. One example being when Shang-Chi speaks about moving on from death, an elder character informs him that it is a Western way to see things. The film extrapolates on it in grand form through him, Xialing, and Wenwu. It fully embraces and honors the Chinese philosophy of death. The film is not about being more of one culture or another, it is about being yourself and embracing everything you are. Something I feel many American Asians struggle with and will appreciate the transcending philosophical approach the film takes on it. Shang-Chi, in that sense, is a masterwork of navigating competing cultures and understanding the importance of cultures in one’s identity.
Then there’s representation, or capturing the authentic lived lives of American Asians. This is a very subjective subject. But the best way for me to preface it is, I related to no characters in Crazy Rich Asians but related to almost every character in Always Be My Maybe. Crazy Rich Asians is a good movie and all, and I am thankful for its existence and what it did for the culture. But I love Always Be My Maybe and think it’s the best Rom-Com since Hitch. It also accurately represented American Asians to me. We have values of both cultures, but that’s not what dictates or determines our lives. We got relationships to deal with, and our actions and relationships are what determine our characters, not our cultures.
Shang-Chi takes a similar approach to Always Be My Maybe, and focuses on the conflicts of the individuals, and doesn’t put everyone under a cultural umbrella. I believe viewers who watch for the story and content of the film first, rather than the race of the performers, will see a hero first; a hero who happens to be Asian and does martial arts, versus an Asian/Kung Fu Hero.
On top of the more grounded and individual approach of the film, it does a great job of capturing the tropes of Asian culture without being insulting. First off, there is a shot of characters taking off their shoes before entering a home. I don’t know about anyone else, but that meant a lot to me. I have lost count of how many times I have been watching a show/movie and I have been taken out of the moment because those fools are wearing shoes on a couch or in a bed… I mean I get the actors are at work, but even in the most method of shows, it happens… Do them people really put their shoes on couches and beds like that? Like, why do you want to wear shoes in the house? It is so freeing to not be wearing shoes at home… Anyway, this topic tends to send me in a spiral so to see it emphasized was extremely gratifying. It is like the opposite of an itching brain. Then there are older family members asking when you’re getting married. I believe that’s a universal thing in America, so I felt it really grounds the American-ness of the characters for everyone, except the reviewer at Variety. There’s also a scene where Shang-Chi and Katy, who are valet drivers in their later 20’s, catching up with their like-aged friend who is a lawyer and traditionally considered successful. She comes down on them and tells them to grow up and get a real job, which is an especially common occurrence for Americans anyone not in “traditional jobs” and grounds for abandonment in many Asian households.
But on top of moments like that, and an Asian student writing a research paper on the bus, or Katy’s mom having trouble understanding her goals, and karaoke, I believe where the film truly represents Asians, is the love our parents have for us and the extreme lengths they will go to for what they believe is best for us. This is fully embodied in Tony Leung’s Wenwu and his relationship with his kids. He literally beat his son to instill what he believes is the best for him. Personally speaking, if you list out the acts/lessons I was “taught” it would also come off as beatings. I have personally shared some stories with people and my therapist, and a number of them are traumatizing beatings. But there is a lot I have gained as well and despite the trauma, I have come to know and understand the love and intention of my mother’s “teachings.” I feel this is something many American Asians, especially first/second generation struggle and come to terms with. This is not to say we forget or even forgive, but we do get to understand and accept. As do our parents, who, hopefully, come to terms with us being who we want to be instead of who they intended us to be. The family relationship of an overbearing “tiger parent” and children who want to live their own lives is the true power of the film and the most accurate representation of a part of my life as an American Asian to hit the screen. My mom used a chair instead of 10 mystical rings, but it wasn’t a hard stretch to make. So as far as representation, I can’t say a blockbuster film has ever represented me as much as Shang-Chi has. Tony Leung’s performance as Wenwu embodies the conflicting love/abuse of my mother’s parenting, and Simu Liu’s journey as Shang-Chi is a much cooler version of my own.
Now that I’ve talked about the drama in the family relationship, I feel like I should have expanded on it a lot more in my other review. The conflict with an “abusive” parent is what makes Shang-Chi resonate and, in my opinion, is the best on-screen representation in a big-budget movie I have experienced outside of Ricky Bobby waking up every morning and pissing excellence. The film lets it play out physically and emotionally in a beautifully choreographed fashion. This love/hate relationship is brought to life by the performances of Tony Leung and Simu Liu and I hope will continue to develop and resonate with the character of Shang-Chi.
Lastly, THANK GOD they don't focus on honor! This alone is a win for American Asian representation. I mean the way it was used in Snake Eyes... BLEH. This alone makes it a positive portrayal of American Asians.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a great representation for American Asians on top of being one of the better Marvel movies. It isn’t flawless but in comparison to a lot of other standalone origin films, I would say it ranks pretty high on the list. It also brings the entirety of the MCU full circle and prepares, and teases, what’s coming in Phase 4. It is an extraordinary new beginning for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I stand by saying it is a top 10 Marvel movie. As for representation, I think the film does a great job of hitting the superficial big notes, like shoes off, studying, and karaoke, but capturing the conflicted relationship I believe a lot of American Asians have with our “strict” parents is where it shines and becomes a real vehicle of representation and not some affirmative action movie like how Mulan felt. It is specific enough to recognize within the American Asian community, but still relatable to any culture. It highlights the differences that make us the same. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings truly represents, for the culture, for Marvel, and hopefully for consumerism so that we get more opportunities. My “racist” review scores the same as my other review does, 4.5/5. It has its problems, but overall it does everything really well and far better than most.
And lastly, the whole Kung Fu Superhero angle is understandable and I get the apprehension. What helped me get over that is asking myself, “Who would I prefer to be the master of martial arts and the best fighter in the biggest superhero franchise on the planet?”