dir: Destin Daniel Cretton
It’s hard to admit when you know how completely you have been programmed as an individual.
Back in the day (he said as he took a drag on his vape pen and started rocking back and forth in his Eames lounge chair) when you wanted to record something from the television, you used to have to program the time into the bloody video machine and manually input the time the program was going to run, if you weren’t going to be there to press ‘record’. Which is why most people had VCRs where the time was always flashing, unwanted, unloved, unable to be used.
What I’m getting at, is that due to my youthful exposure to a strange show called Monkey!, all my life I’ve pretty much been programmed to respond like Pavlov’s Dog to almost anything with Chinese mythology and martial arts in it.
Shang Chi, despite being as Marvel as any of the Marvel products, encompasses enough of the Chinese martial arts epic type stuff and imagery to at least give it a different look from all the other flicks that have been extruded thus far by the factory process. It also, radically, for these people, stars actual people from actual Asian backgrounds in lead roles.
What radical thinking. Were Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Angelina Jolie unavailable yet again?
The two leads here are Simu Liu as the Shang Chi / Shaun of the title, and his best friend Katy played by Awkwafina, who I have thought was wonderful in many things, and is wonderful here too. Her role of being the smartarse sidekick is fine, it’s fine. She can render mundane lines funnier just by saying them with her incredulous, raspy voice.
I think she’s wonderful. And in another, more helpful way, she humanises the main character, or at least keeps him grounded enough for this bullshit to matter.
Scratch that: it doesn’t matter, but at least we might care a little bit about these city slickers who end up in the country and have to get by with country ways?
In no way is that the actual plot of the film. The actual plot has a very stern warlord, played immaculately by legendary Hong Kong actor Tony Leung Chiu Wai, who also happens to be immortal, and has these 10 rings which do vaguely magical things, being tricked into almost destroying the world because he can’t accept that his wife is dead and will stay dead no matter what.
Even though this all happens in the context of a world where people increasingly accept magic and aliens existing, and that half of them could disappear at any moment because of the snap of a jerk’s fingers, most people are still chugging along in their mundane existences. Case in point: Shaun and Katy plugging away at their low-paying jobs as parking valets when they could be doing so much more with their lives, according to all the old people around them.
I even noticed Lucky Grandma star Tsai Chin as Katy’s grandma, complaining about the youth of today and diplomatically asking when the two of them were going to get married.
Sigh. In the course of their mundane day, a bunch of jerks attack Katy and Shaun, on what is said to be a bus, but looked suspiciously like a Melbourne tram. I know much of the film was made in Australia, but, honestly, that tram. The people attacking Shaun are jerks, obviously, but their leader has some kind of hot blade where his arm should be. He acts like enough of a jerk that you kind of guess that the character is nuts enough to have cut off his own arm deliberately in order to accessorise with the funky blade.
It’s important to accessorise. When the fighting starts, and eventually ends, what bugs Katy the most is that Shaun is not the guy she thought she was palling around with, gets drunk with, does karaoke with. On a plane flight to Macau (how the fuck do these minimum wage slobs have passports and money to fly to Macau?), Shaun explains that he’s actually called Shang Chi and he’s the son of an immortal warlord who’s really bad news.
And of course there’s a sister, Xialang (Meng’er Zhang) who runs an underground / above ground fight club where all sorts of lunatics compete for money and probably frequent flyer points. Xialang is angry at Sean, because he abandoned her. She gets to hit him a few times, but then more people attack them, and it’s on to the next part of the story, which involves hanging out with dear old dad again.
I cannot get over the fact that Tony Leung Chiu Wai is in this, and is the villain. It’s almost enough for me to want him to be right and everyone else including the alleged “hero” be wrong, and that it secretly be his film and his franchise. If you know who he is you would know why. He’s a great actor from the school of acting where he who acts least acts the most. His best roles might have been in Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love and 2046, or indeed any of the films he’s done with Wong Kar Wai, but he’s known more for being a great actor rather than as an action star (and definitely not as a martial artist).
Which is doubly funny as to why he’s here. And of course Michelle Yeoh’s in it too, and she’s always a welcome presence, but, I dunno, it seems like almost all the gang’s here. Couldn’t they find Chow Yun Fat and Jet Li and Donnie Yen as well?
What I’m getting at is that there’s something a fair bit cynical about putting together a roster of such legends just to try to make the flick more appealing to the Chinese box office, when they’re pretty inconsequential to the story (as are most actors in any Marvel movie, but that’s by the by). It’s almost like Disney refuses to learn from its mistakes and keeps thinking if they put in enough famous faces people will go in their droves despite what the Chinese government does to dissuade people from watching American movies.
That political stuff aside, the story is fairly generic. Shaun and Katy and Xialang eventually get to a mystical village where everyone still dresses like it’s 500 years ago and lives agrarian / idyllic / martial arts mastering lives, and nothing about it feels unfamiliar.
And there’s a massive battle, and people make good choices, bad choices, and it hardly matters in the end. What matters is that Shang Chi gets the rings, some evil Cthulhu-esque dragon that eats people’s souls is stopped, and Shang Chi is now part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, ready to do karaoke with the Hulk or Captain Marvel or Dr Strange and maybe Howard the Duck now, so all’s right in the world.
Honestly, this is one of those films you enjoy well enough while watching it and while knowing full well it’s not that good, but that’s okay. After everything that’s happened over the last two years, and everything that seems to be happening in a never ending cavalcade of societal fuckups and political madness, complaining about the mechanical nature of big budget movie making seems pointless and churlish.
I enjoyed Simu Liu’s performance well enough, he’s fine in the action scenes, might fine, but his character has little if any arc. He starts and ends pretty much exactly the same, except now he has his daddy’s rings, whose purpose and point still isn’t clear. He and Awkwafina did plenty right to convince me they are drinking buddies in real life.
And give everything in every flick to Awkwafina, not just roles in Asian-American themed blockbusters. She is glorious.
I haven’t even touched on the token Anglo character that pops up, calling back to a previous Marvel flick where someone claimed to be a warlord in charge of the Ten Rings, but his extended buffoonish cameo is glorious, and it was genuinely surprising to see him here having fun.
Like I did. Ten Rings seems like a few too many. Couldn’t have Shang Chi shared half of the rings with his sister already? After all, he does owe her.
7 rings at least were worth my time in watching this out of a potential 10 magical rings
“Be careful how you speak to me, young man. I have lived ten of your lifetimes. I have eaten more salt than you have had rice in your life!” - Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings