This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
RebelCommander’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
I decided to return to the theatre to see Shang-Chi twice in one weekend. It is something I rarely do. As I mentioned in my last review, I hope this film does well for its opening weekend. While I know I am feeding more money to the mouse; my supports goes to the actors, filmmakers, and crew that constructed this film.
Shang-Chi is a story about identity. The screenwriters had to deal with a racist past built from the comics. They also had to deal with the Iron Man franchise's handling of the Ten Rings. Finally, they introduced new characters within the MCU while inviting audiences to engage with Asian culture. I think their story fantastically navigated all areas.
Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) is a young man running away from his identity and his past sins. Assuming a new name, Shawn and his friend Katy (Awkwafina) are the type of slackers most parents fear their children will become. They have the ability and skill to do more with their lives but are content to do just enough not to face real challenges or potential failure.
The film gives us a small glimpse of Asian culture within the States without over-emphasis. We see Katy's mother's (Jodi Long) desire for her daughter to do more with her life with Katy's family. We also learn about the importance of family as the family lives above their business with their matriarch Katy's grandmother (Tsai Chin). Therefore we see our first aspect of identity, family & culture.
It may seem insignificant at first, but as Shawn enters the breakfast area, he mistakenly takes a seat reserved for Katy's departed grandfather. Waipo, as everyone refers to her using the Mandarin name for grandmother, celebrates the day of the dead. She leaves items for her husband's brief return. All members of Shawn's generation and younger members don't believe in it, yet they still show honor and respect to Waipo. This moment foreshadows a significant plot point to come.
Our next opportunity to see identity inform Shawn's journey occurs on the bus. His past finally catches up with him as he reveals to Katy that he is not what he seems. Shawn's father sent members of the Ten Rings to reclaim a pendent Shawn wears. To protect himself and the other bus riders, Shawn reveals his martial arts and, proves he's a master of the fighting styles utilized, to Katy's surprise. It's not until Shawn and Katy fly to his sister in Macao that he reveals parts of his true identity. A young man trained to be an assassin but hid from his father while leaving his sister behind. He is a man with a flawed past forced to return to his identity as Shang-Chi, the young man destined as the future leader of the Ten Rings.
After their capture, Xu Xialing (Meng'er Zhang) shares with Katy her identity. She is Shang-Chi's estranged sister. Enemies of the Ten Rings assassinate their mother, and their father refused to even look at Xialing after his wife's death. Once Shang-Chi left home, she waited for his return. So at age 16, Xialing goes to Macau to build her own empire. She taught herself to fight and took care of herself after that. So identity for her meant self-empowerment in an environment that limited her due to her gender. Yet, Xialing holds on to her family identity, especially her mother, who is a fierce warrior in her own right.
Upon capturing both pendants from his children, Xu Wenwu (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung) reveals to Katy his identity. He has lived for over four thousand years, conquering much with the ten rings. Yet it's upon meeting Ying Li (Fala Chen), he meets his greatest challenge and unexpected defeat; love for his future wife. As they marry, they both retire their powers. Li gives hers back to her village's guardian, a dragon. Wenwu encloses the ten rings in a box; until Li dies. From there, Wenwu goes on a murderous rampage to avenge his wife's death while recruiting Shang-Chi into the fight while still an adolescent.
Wenwu and the Ten Rings were at rest during Iron Man 3. So Adrian Kilian was able to adapt the organization for his purposes without challenge. Now Wenwu hears his wife's voice calling from the dead. Of course, Shang-Chi and his sister don't believe their mother will return. Unlike Katy's grandmother, there are severe consequences for Wenwu's desire to reunite with his wife. Honoring elders and deceased members of the family is part of Chinses culture. So it's not too farfetched for Wenwu to believe in his wife's return—especially since she comes from a unique village at the edge of two worlds.
While Wenwu is an antagonist, his identity is far more profound than just being the bad guy. He is a man who laid his weapon at rest for love. Now in grief, he picks it up again, bringing terror in the world. He loves his children, yet doesn't understand how his actions hurt them. He is a prisoner to grief; he just doesn't recognize it.
Wenwu is an intriguing character and a much better version of his comic books counterparts. His name change from Fu Manchu, the comic book father of Shang-Chi, strips the racist stereotypes associated with the character. Wenwu tosses away any association with The Mandarin by pointing out the cultural problems with the identity. Tony Leung is also an incredible actor.
Ben Kingsley returns as Trevor Slattery. In Iron Man 3, he portrayed the leader of the Ten Rings. In the end, Iron Man and War Machine expose Slattery as an actor who believed his actions were fake despite reigning terror against the U.S. Then, in a Marvel One-Shot while in prison, Slattery is approached by a member of the actual Ten Rings and broken out to meet the true leader. Though destined for execution, Slattery saves himself with a Shakespearean performance. Thus instead of Shang-Chi's father being a comedic character Slattery embodies that. Slattery represents problematic representation. Especially of cultures represented by people who don't know about them. Yet Slattery becomes integral to introducing Shang-Chi and Xialing to their ancestral home Ta Lo.
The importance of identity comes to fruition in Ta Lo. Thanks to Shang-Chi and Xialing's aunt Ying Nan (Michelle Yeoh). Nan helps each character, Katy, Shang-Chi, and Xialing, step into their purpose to prepare for the final battle. Michelle Yeoh is one of the best martial artists around and an incredible actor. She's superb in this role and a welcome presence in the MCU. Unfortunately, we miss a proper fight between Wenwu and Nan. It's likely that as her sister defeated him, Nan would too.
Xialing, Shang-Chi, and Katy understand their identities thanks to the help from the community of Ta Lo. It's this rich exploration of identity that I enjoyed from the film. There is a lot of action, but the story does a great job of compelling you to care about the drama unfolding. Because much of the world-building occurred outside of the film, the filmmakers do a great job adjusting character motivations without being dragged down by negative stereotypes. As I have said before, Shang-Chi is a beautifully told story, and I look forward to seeing more from our new fighter holding the ten rings and our new leader of the Ten Rings organization.