As a lover of Asian cinema, particularly Hong Kong martial arts flicks, I was excited to see what new cinematic flair would be brought to the Marvel line-up with their latest film: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (dir. Destin Daniel Cretton). The first of the Marvel superhero films to feature an Asian protagonist and mostly Asian cast, this new cultural influence was felt throughout all aspects of the film, which impressed me with its captivating performances, visual flair and feeling of freshness.
Credit must be given to Simu Liu, who plays the titular character in an incredible breakout role. Liu, who was previously known for his stunt work, gives a truly engaging performance, balancing genuine heart and comedy with truly impressive action sequences. As a martial artist and stunt performer, Liu was able to do his own stunts during the film’s many hand-to-hand action sequences. This can be felt full-force as he is given the space and screen-time to really shine, and his martial arts prowess becomes the focus of the scene.
A valid criticism of many modern action movies, particularly Marvel’s, is that the actors are rarely action performers, mainly selected for their dramatic performances or sculpted physique. This means that the action sequences become over-edited, with the cuts obscuring the stunt performers and lack of experienced, authentic choreography. This can give fight scenes a jumpy, inconsistent feeling that removes a lot of the satisfaction from seeing two skilled fighters go at it.
Something that makes Hong Kong action films stand out in particular is the performers. Almost always martial artists themselves, they are able to fully embody the character and give both dramatic and action performances. One of the big advantages of this is it gives the cinematographer and editor a lot more freedom when it comes to these scenes, as the focus can become the action, rather than passing off a stunt performer as your credited actor.
Bob Pope, cinematographer on The Matrix (another western film that took lessons from Asian cinema), clearly knows what he’s doing when it comes to this kind of action, and so was able to fully make the most of these performances, creating a dynamic, rhythmic feel with his camera work. This goes on to influence the feeling of the whole film. When the action set-pieces your spectacle is hinging on are shot with such flair, then it elevates every other aspect. The music, performances and narrative enhance and are enhanced by Pope’s long, detailed shots and at times cheeky movement throughout the fight scenes, all creating an exhilarating experience.
A true blend of East and West, Shang-Chi is a step in the right direction for effective representation in mainstream film. The opening monologue of the film is in Mandarin, truly setting up what is to come. Both the English and Mandarin performances are excellent and the score provides a mix of the swelling, classical scores we are used to with instrumentation and styles from Eastern influences. As a white Briton it is hard for me to fully understand the importance of a film like this, but I’m sure for many Asian and Asian-American viewers, Shang-Chi will provide a much welcome and long-overdue remedy to the white-washed line-up of superheroes.
Shang-Chi is currently in cinemas and I highly recommend it to any fans of the genre (although I imagine you’ve already seen it) and those who have become bored by the repetitive sameness that has pervaded many of the earlier superhero flicks. While it won’t blow you away narratively, it is an incredibly fresh view on the format and is hopefully a sign of more good things to come.