Movie Review

 

[Karen]

Welcome to Chasing Dramas! This is the podcast that discusses Chinese history and culture through historical Chinese dramas. We are your hosts, Karen + Cathy. 

 

Today we have a very special episode as we are going to discuss the recent Marvel Superhero movie, Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings! 

 

For this podcast episode, we will go in depth to discuss the Chinese and Chinese American culture and history we saw in the film and give some color on it. We won’t spend too much time on Marvel related easter eggs because I’m sure there’s plenty of content online that will do a much better job. 

 

We will do a movie recap and along the way, explain the Chinese history and cultural nuances portrayed in the film. We’ll talk about the actors and actresses, historical setting, costumes, anachronisms etc. A lot of what we say is based on our interpretation of Chinese history and culture so feel free to reach out and discuss with us if you have additional thoughts at Chasingdramas on instagram or twitter or email us at karenandcathy@chasingdramas.com. Also check out our website www.chasingdramas.com if you’re new to the podcast and want to get a feel for what we normally discuss. This podcast will be in English with proper nouns and certain phrases spoken in Mandarin Chinese. Since there’s quite a bit to cover, we will do the first 45 min or so of the film in this episode and then wrap up with at least one more episode!

 

The film first premiered in September of 2021 and is a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A little deviation from our normal course of the podcast but we have some time over the holidays to put together this episode so here we are! Now I am a huge Marvel fan as well, having seen pretty much all their available movies and shows but I’m not going to lie, when I saw the trailer for Shang Chi, I was a little hesitant. So many western movies about Chinese history left me rather disappointed – case and point – Disney’s Mulan which we skewered in 2 podcast episodes so feel free to listen to those on our thoughts. But, the theater going experience for Shang Chi left me almost in tears for how well they portrayed Chinese culture and history through this Marvel lens. It was a highly entertaining film and overall I was extremely impressed with how they portrayed Chinese history and culture.

 

That is to say, there will be MASSIVE SPOILERS ahead so if you don’t want the film spoiled, please turn back!

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[Cathy]

Let’s start off with the cast! It has a blend of newcomers and prominent actors from China and Hong Kong. It was certainly a pleasure to watch them make the jump over to Marvel!

 

Our main character Shaun or Shang Qi – is portrayed by SiMu Liu or 刘思慕. He was born in Harbin China and immigrated to Canada. He had roles in TV shows such as Kim’s Convenience but this movie is his breakout role.

 

The legendary Tony Leung is Wen Wu, the father of Shang Qi and the main antagonist of the film. I was very impressed to see Tony Leung’s name attached to this project. I cannot stress enough how big of a name Tony Leung is to the Asian Entertainment industry. He is and has been the A-list celebrity spanning over decades. Think Tom Hanks or Brad Pitt in the US. Everyone knows who he is. He is THAT popular. He started acting in the 1980s and his career has continued to skyrocket throughout the decades. I grew up watching many of his films and I highly recommend those of you who are unfamiliar with his work to take a look at his filmography. He has worked with many of the most famous directors hailing from China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan including Wang-Kar Wai, Zhang Yi Mo, and Ang Lee. I recommend watching In the Mood for Love, Infernal Affairs, Hero, Red Cliff and The Grandmaster. Infernal Affairs is the movie that the Departed is based off of starring Leonardo Dicaprio and Matt Damon. If I must say – the original or Infernal Affairs is better. If you enjoyed the Departed, please watch Infernal Affairs. What I do like about Tony Leung is that he is rather picky with his projects and doesn’t have too many duds. Just pick something from his filmography and you’ll more likely than not enjoy it. He’s the standout actor for me in this movie.

 

We have Awkwafina as Katy, Shang Qi’s best friend – she’s an American comedian, rapper, writer, and actress. She stars in the comedy series Awkwafina is Nora from Queens and has been in several high profile movies such as Ocean’s 8, Crazy Rich Asians, and The Farewell. She won a golden globe for her role as Billi in that movie.

 

Zhang Meng Er plays Xu Xia Ling – this is Zhang’s first film role. She’s from nanjing china but studied in the UK and Russia. I think she does a decent job here in the movie.

 

Next we have Fala Chen or Chen Fala who portrays Ying Li 映丽, the wife of Wen Wu and mother to Shang Qi and Xu Xia Ling. I was surprised to find out that Fala actually hails from Chengdu china because i’ve mainly seen her in TVB dramas over the years, which is the predominant network in Hong Kong. Her cantonese is very good although she speaks mandarin in this movie. She’s been in dramas such as Triumph in the Skies II, Steps, and Heart of Greed. 

 

Moving on, we also have the formidable Michelle Yeoh as Ying Nan 映南 – the sister to Ying Li and aunt to Shang Qi and Xia Ling. She is a Malaysian actress who rose to fame in Hong Kong action films in the 1990s but has had her fair share of international blockbusters including Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, the bond film Tomorrow Never Dies, and more recently Crazy Rich Asians. She also was on the TV show Star Trek: Discovery. Michelle Yeoh has also been a staple household name in the chinese, hong kong, and taiwan entertainment industry for the past 4 decades. Over her career, she has done many action films and does many of her own stunts. I highly recommend watching Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon to see her in all of her glory.

 

We have some fun appearances from Ben Kingsley as Trevor Slattery, as a continuation of his fallout and portrayal of the Mandarin all the way back in Iron Man 3. There’s benedict Wong as Wong from the Doctor Strange movies. There’s also some other asian cast highlights that we’ll spotlight throughout our discussion.

 

Overall – I am happy and very pleased that Marvel was able to assemble the cast that they did because it actually felt inclusive. Sure, they got some of the biggest names from East Asia but I am happy to see Tony Leung on my screen any day.

 

Now that we geeked out about the cast. Let’s get to the movie itself!

 

[Karen]

Ok! Starting off with the introduction, the film opens to a monologue of the history of the Ten Rings in Mandarin! I cannot express how surprised I was to hear that the mandarin being spoken was actually proper Chinese mandarin and how ubiquitous it was throughout the movie.. Oftentimes, people speak mandarin in films but with a cantonese accent or just don’t know how to speak mandarin which is always a cringe for someone who speaks mandarin to hear. A lot of times I’m like, are they speaking Mandarin? Lol so for the movie to start out like it did, I was quite touched. I read a headline saying that this was a risk Kevin Feige, executive producer of these Marvel films, had to take and I’m very glad he kept this in. It paid off at least to me. Fala Chen narrates the mandarin and as I said – I was surprised to find out that she’s a native speaker.

 

We are immediately shown a flag of the 10 rings and then the backstory of the organization. We will again reiterate that there’s plenty of Marvel lore in this organization but we are going to analyze this from a Chinese history perspective. There are some present day political challenges underneath some of these representations which we are also not going to talk about. 

 

In any case, let’s begin. 

 

On the flag are the words:

权, 力, 壮, 伟, 杰, 势, 宏, 雄, 强, 威

 

All of the above words pretty much mean the same thing – power and strength. Wow, There are plenty of words in Chinese that mean the same thing.

 

The style the words were written in is traditional Chinese not the simplified Chinese we see today. The specific calligraphy style is I would say a mix of Zhuan Shu and Li Shu 篆书 and 隶书 which are older styles of Chinese calligraphy writing dating back over 2000 years vs what’s been more popular in the last millennia which would be the 楷书. But from looking at the written language, someone from Marvel may need to explain why the characters look the way they do because it certainly looks like a westerner tried to write these chinese characters. Chinese historians would not write the words in this way. The wiki page has better versions and you’ll see the characters are much more structured. 

 

Now in between the words are hu tou gou or tiger headed hooks. This is an anachronism as baidu tells us it was first developed in the Ming dynasty which ruled china from the 14th century to the mid 17th century by a guy named 武殿章 and not time immemorial as the legend of the ten rings would have us believe.

 

[Cathy]

We are introduced to the main leader, the man who obtained the 10 rings. Xu Wen Wu aka Tony Leung. 文武 is an interesting name because it literally means scholar and fighting. We talk about this constantly in our current drama The Story of Ming Lan that at court, people are generally either Wen, the scholar, or Wu the fighter. Someone is highly skilled to be both. This may have just been a Marvel choice when creating this character back in the day because it’s not a particularly artsy Chinese name and it is a little ironic because for most of the film, we see more of the Wu, not the Wen. This is a new character created for the movie to remove many of the racist undertones of the original Mandarin and Fu Manchu.

 

After lots of pillaging and killing, Wen Wu and his organization of the legend of the ten rings, in the 20th century sets out to find another powerful treasure, namely Ta Lo and ends up in a mystical bamboo forest. There, he meets Li, played by Chen Fa La. The pair square off against each other and he is actually subdued with her superior martial arts skills.

 

A couple of things – though we do not know exactly the type of martial arts she practices, it certainly has many elements of taichi, especially with some of the moves employing a 借力打力 tactic which simply means leverage another’s strength to fight as your own strength. Western audiences also are probably not familiar or perhaps find it odd for the characters to be flying around while fighting and also to be able to use their hands to deploy forcefield like fights. This comes straight from the Wu Xia genre where heroes are often flying around in such fights. It’s very commonplace in Chinese movies and dramas with the actors and actresses using wires to help them fly. Pretty much every historical chinese drama that has any ounce of fighting will use wires to allow people to fly. As for the forcefields, that’s the Zhen Qi or Qi gong that people have practiced. It’s not real but certainly a part of CHinese wuxia or martial arts lore. So many books talk about Zhen Qi as an important skill to learn. The most powerful fighters have strong Qi. 

 

I haven’t talked about the costumes yet but I think they’re a great artistic choice. WenWu in particular is wearing a modernized version of clothing  in the han style. It’s the style that’s been passed down for thousands of years and changed after the Manchus overthrew the Ming Dynasty and established the Qing dynasty which ruled china from the 1644 all the way to 1912. The key difference is the collar. Historical Han chinese clothing were more like wraps whereas Manchu had the mandarin collars. 

 

[Karen]

In present day, we now see grown up Shang Chi or as he’s currently known as Shaun played by Simu Liu in SF. There’s lots of Chinese immigrants in SF so it makes a lot of sense he would end up there but if it was set in NY I’d also say the same thing. Anyways, he and his friend Katy aka Akwafina are now valets at a hotel. The film spends the next few scenes showing us how close they are. One of my favorite scenes is when they end the night going to karaoke and are singing A Whole New World from Aladdin which is LITERALLY me and my friends when we go Karaoke so I died laughing. I felt personally seen. Haha.

 

He visits Katy’s family who lives in Chinatown and this whole interaction just reminds me of my family as a Chinese immigrant family so it again hits close to him. What do I mean? When he rings the doorbell, there’s a pointed shot of him taking his shoes off outside before going into the apartment which is extremely traditionally Chinese. I would get yelled at if I wore shoes inside my house. You always put your outside shoes away and inside you wear slippers. 

 

When Shaun takes a seat at the table where Katy’s grandmother and brother are already sitting, Katy’s grandmother tells him to move because that’s grandpa’s seat. This is something that can be easily missed as just her being senile but in Chinese culture, where one sits at the dining table is quite important. When you go to meals, the most important people in the party sit at the head of the table which is considered Shang Zuo. At home, family members also do have designated spots for each meal. I’m not allowed to sit where grandma and grandpa (who are both alive) sit. 

 

Shoutout to the actress for Katy’s grandmother. She is 周采芹 – a chinese actress, sing, and director who has also had an illustrious career. She is perhaps most well known as Auntie Lindo from the Joy Luck Club, but she’s been seen over the years on Grey’s Anatomy and Memoirs of a Geisha.

 

Katy’s mom is laddling Zhou or congee for Shaun which is another staple Chinese breakfast for chinese people. It’s like porridge and has many different styles. When Katy’s mom says that “moving on” is an American idea and Katy comes in to say “you’re american Mom” I again almost died. I literally just told my mom that the other day when we were having a conversation. Hahahaha. And of course, pushing Katy to get a better job is another staple of immigrant family expectations. Always wanting their children to have a job that’s “worthy” and will “make money” and often ignoring what makes them happy. The practical parents, you know?

 

And of course, when Grandma asks when SHaun and Katy are going to get married, personal flashbacks to all my relatives, blood related or not wondering when I’ll get married. Grandchildren are the number one priority after all!

 

[Cathy]

Before we move on, let’s talk about 清明节。 The grandma tells SHaun that it’s almost 清明节 and she’s preparing all of her deceased husband’s favorite things to give to him on this holiday. We’ve talked about 清明节 extensively in our regular podcast series but for those that are unfamiliar, this is what it is. 清明节 is known as the tomb-sweeping day and is a traditional festival in which the family members sweep the tombs of their ancestors, make offerings, and pray to the ancestors. It is also a day for people to be closer to nature and go on hikes or 踏青. This festival has been observed for over 2500 years with some variations of course. Royalty and common people would all spend this time to honor their ancestors. This festival occurs during the spring – around April 5th but it can change based on the lunisolar calendar. 

 

As the pair head off to work on a bus, the first major fight scene happens where thugs are trying to take Shaun’s necklace. Shaun is a certified badass and fights off the attackers and you can tell the fighting style is different than say Black Widow’s fighting style. From what I’ve read, it takes elements of Yong Chun which is the fighting style the Bruce Lee trained in. I thoroughly appreciate the Simu Liu looks like he knows what he’s doing and is not faking the fight.

 

After their harrowing escape where Shaun found out that his necklace has been taken, he and Katy return back to his apartment where he explains that the men were probably sent by his father. They need to head to Macau to try to find his sister and protect her. Before we move on, I love that there’s a Kung Fu Hustle poster over his bed. Kung Fu Hustle is one of THE classic HK movies starring Stephen Chow that came out in 2004.. 

 

We get a montage of young Shang Chi training under his father after his mom died. The setting is rather traditionally Chinese and the training style as well. We see groups of people training with various weapons including barehand, staffs, rope darts etc. A pair of men are practicing their horse stance while holding heavy logs. This is another rather traditional basic martial arts technique. Pretty much the foundation of kung fu starts from a good horse stance, aka Ma Bu. I feel like the live streaming dude who is like “i took martial arts when I was younger so I ‘ll try to explain what’s going on.” Yes, I did take martial arts when I was younger so I’ll try to explain what’s going on. 

 

The wooden pole where Shang Chi trains reminds me of the scene from the new karate kid film with Jackie Chan. It’s more or less the same principle. Practice the same steps over and over again so that it becomes second nature. It’s also a staple wooden dummy for Wing Chun – a form of martial arts popularized by bruce lee and his teacher Ip Man. Please go over to watch Ip Man with Donnie Yen or The Grandmaster with Tony Leung on more of this style of 武术

 

[Karen]

And then Shaun explains to Katy who clearly doesn’t speak mandarin that well how to say his Chinese name, Shang Qi. 尚气 which was also hilarious. Teaching the audience how to speak mandarin for once! How nice! 

 

The pair travel to Macau! For those of you who havent been, Macau is like the Vegas of the East. Lots of casinos are located there. I don’t know how many of you know but Macau was actually a Portuguese colony up until the late 1990s! You can get really yummy portuguese egg tarts there and there’s lots of architecture built under portuguese rule that still exists. But the brightest displays there are now, as I mentioned, the casinos. 

 

When the two reach a building that’s heavily under construction and head up the elevator, they are greeted by a guy named Jon Jon who tries to speak to Katy in Chinese but when she says her Chinese sucks, he says he speaks ABC. That means American Born Chinese. A little note for people who don’t get it. 

 

Shaun gets dragged onto the main fight stage after we see Wong from the Dr Strange properties in the Marvel universe fight the Abomination which helps remind us that we are firmly in the Marvel universe still. After their fight, Shaun is forced on stage to fight without his shirt and lets just say dang Si Mu Liu. Look at that form. Before he really registers what’s going on, his opponent appears and it’s none other than his younger sister, Xu Xia Ling who is also a certified badass and fights just as well if not better than her brother. Well we don’t know for sure because he’s holding back a bit and she totally just whoops his butt. 夏灵’s name translates to Summer Spirit [ ].

 

[Cathy]

The fight ends with Xia Ling defeating her brother winning Katy quite a nice sum of money it seems like. Soon after they head to her office where it is revealed that this entire fight club operation is hers. Quite impressive I would say. Shang Chi tells his sister that their father is after them and he’s here because of a postcard she sent. When she looks puzzled and says she didn’t send the postcard, we find out it was a trap. Fighters appear at the behest of their father in order to take Xia Ling’s necklace as well. 

 

Another impressive fight sequence ensues, this time outside on the construction of the building. While already a great fight scene, this to me is elevated by the fact that the exterior scaffolding is all made-up of bamboo. In contrast to American construction where scaffolding is created using metal or steel rods, Chinese scaffolding is largely held together by bamboo. It was something I noticed as starkly different in my first visits to China as a child because it was so different to what I’m used to. To use this bamboo scaffolding as a set piece is another important display of the mix of the west with the skyscraper towers and the east with the bamboo. You’ll see quite a few fights featuring bamboo scaffolding, I belie 

 

The last thing I want to talk about in this episode before we wrap up is the character the Death Dealer or in Chinese, 李清麟。 He is the ruthless fighter that also trained Shang Chi as a child. His mask is one that is inspired by masks worn in Chinese opera. There isn’t a singular source for when these masks first originated but it is generally accepted to have over a millenia of history. The art itself is called 脸谱 and in certain instances are painted on the Chinese opera singer’s face itself and in other instances are painted no masks that the singers wear. They are to automatically give the viewer a sense of who the portrayed person’s personality is, particularly based on the color of the paint or mask. For example, the color white is often associated with someone who is manipulative, suspicious and untrustworthy. It has a more derogatory meaning for someone to have a white base on their mask. And guess what, the Death Dealer has a white mask. A white mask generally signifies someone who is loyal and just. A black mask represents someone who is unwavering, stern but powerful. 

 

We will leave the episode there. In the next podcast episode we will see more of Tony Leung as Wen Wu and learn about his plans. Like I said earlier, if you have any comments or questions on what we discussed, please let us know and we’d be happy to chat. 

 

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