Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was compelling enough to get me into a theater, which is good because Disney insisted on releasing it in theaters only, while we’re still in the midst of learning about the impact of the Delta variant. Good job, Disney! (Kudos to the Alamo Drafthouse in SF for requiring proof of vaccination on entrance, and of course having lots of space in between the seats).
Still, the movie was worth the effort and the trip, stuffed full — overstuffed, even — of different movie genres they wanted to absorb into the MCU. Why not combine 30 years of Hong Kong and Chinese cinema into one movie, and throw another Ant Man in, while they’re at it?
I thought it was excellent, and a little more focus, plus some more breathing room between sequences, would’ve made it perfect. As it is, you just have to settle for several fantastic action sequences, tons of CGI spectacle that somehow managed to be genuinely thrilling, and several of the most preternaturally charismatic performers the world’s biggest movie franchise can attract and afford.
Ever since I first saw her donkey-kicking fools on top of a speeding train in Supercop, Michelle Yeoh has been my favorite part of anything she’s in. Simu Liu is so handsome, ripped, adept at both action sequences and light comedy, and so effortlessly charming, that he might as well have been genetically engineered to lead an American mega-corporation’s attempt at creating a new kung fu franchise. In fact, there’s not a bad performance in the movie, which is remarkable considering that everyone has to shift constantly between action and comedy with little warning.
So it’s saying something that even with all of that going on, the performance that stood out to me as exceptional was Tony Leung’s as Shang-Chi’s father Wenwu.1Also I just saw on IMDB that he and I have the same birthday, which is rad.
It took the movie into a direction I hadn’t expected at all, making it feel more substantial than a super-hero blockbuster take on a kung fu movie. Explaining why would require spoiling some of the surprises of the movie, which would be a shame, since I was surprised that it even had the capacity to surprise me.
I’ve only seen a few of Tony Leung’s movies, and to be honest the only ones that have stood out in my memory have been his work with Wong Kar Wai.2In the Mood for Love and Happy Together are both on HBO Max at the moment, if you’re a subscriber. So I’m almost definitely unfairly typecasting him in my mind as a romantic lead instead of an action star. That was why I thought it was a little odd that they were casting him as a centuries-old, supernaturally-powerful crime boss. It seemed like they were casting based on star power instead of what the part required.
Turns out I didn’t need to be second-guessing the company that’s been making an uninterrupted string of blockbusters, since they know what they were doing. It didn’t take long for Shang-Chi to launch into its own take on wuxia romance of the type I first saw in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And I thought it was wonderful. I’m sure at least partly due to the fact that I hadn’t seen it coming. I’d assumed that if there’s a romance in the movie, of course it’d be with Shang-Chi.
Leung does have multiple action sequences, but they feel secondary to the gravity and sadness he brings to the part. Wenwu’s story resonates more than you’d expect from a movie like this, because he demonstrates what makes Shang-Chi the hero of the story. He genuinely wanted peace, but he only knew how to use power to get what he wanted.
It would be such a cliche to reduce the theme of a Chinese-inspired story to just “balance.” I kept feeling like Shang-Chi was muddling its messages, but in retrospect, I think it was doing a good job of delivering its messages in overlapping layers, each layer being almost but not quite too on-the-nose. Frankly, it’s a bunch of stereotypically “Chinese philosophy” ideas translated for western audiences, but it works. In addition to the familiar ideas of raw strength vs flexibility, arrogance vs cooperation, action vs reaction, masculine vs feminine, they add the idea of finding a balance between responsibility and enjoying life. Which makes the last, wonderful gag in the mid-credits sequence also work thematically.
Tony Leung’s sympathetic portrayal of the antagonist is what really drives it home. His understated expressiveness makes it apparent that he’s not driven by pure evil; his flaw is that he only knows how to get what he wants by overpowering the people in his way. I’ve heard people claim that Thanos and Killmonger were sympathetic villains, and I’m not buying it: their motivations are more complex than you might expect from a superhero movie, but they’re still villains. Tony Leung made me appreciate this not as a superhero story but a tragic love story.