By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Simu Liu, who stars as Shang-Chi, was born in China, immigrated to Canada as a child, got a business degree, and worked as an accountant before getting laid off. He then set his sights on acting.
Awkwafina, who plays Katy, Shang-Chi’s best friend (and possibly more), grew up half-Chinese and half-Korean in Queens, New York, studied classical music and jazz, then leapt to fame by rapping about various intimate body parts.
The two actors might seem like a strange pairing. But that’s okay, since their two characters seem a strange pairing, and the entire film, the latest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, staggers along on mismatched segments. Currently playing local theaters, the final result could’ve played stronger with its comedy better blended with its action, and the deeply plaintive motivations driving the plot. It succeeds well enough, on the durability of its characters, and its themes.
The Shang-Chi character dates to late 1973, created for Marvel by writer Steve Englehart and artist Jim Starlin, both white. The movie, much to the credit of its studio honchos, puts Asian faces both in front of and behind the camera. Half-Japanese director Destin Daniel Creston helms the project, and he co-wrote the script with Chinese American Daniel Callaham, and Andrew Lanham.
The movie begins with some backstory, a trip through the backstory of Xu Wenwu (played by Tony Leung), who fell so deeply in love with an enchanted lady fighter, Ying Li (Fala Chen), that they both agreed to give up magic, to raise children. The story may or may not be just a fable told by Ying Li to her children, though.
The present-day narrative finds Shang-Chi and Katy parking cars for a living. Katy endures her nagging family, who insists she should make something better of herself. Shang-Chi, who goes by the Americanized moniker “Shaun,” prefers not to discuss his family.
And they might have kept on their merry way, making just enough money for rent, food, booze, and their beloved karaoke, if not for the supernatural world, filled with fighters, monsters, mythical creatures, and even a fast-talking Wenwu imposter (Sir Ben Kingsley, in one of the film’s better comic turns). Soon Shaun is Shang-Chi once more, off to find his estranged sister Xu Xialing (newcomer Meng’er Zhang, in a dynamic turn that should make her a star in her own right). Michelle Yeoh also shows up, lending her own quiet power, dignity, and fighting chops to the soup.
Considered as its component parts, the whole works well enough. I laughed when I was supposed to laugh, pondered when I was supposed to ponder, and misted up at a few plaintive points. Liu and Awkwafina share a chemistry which propels them through the action but leaves them vulnerable, and believable, in the quieter and funnier moments.
Leung, tasked with playing tough, confident, and ruthless, then totally undone by weaknesses he never saw coming, manages those changes with the ease, and the depth, of the old pro he is.
Another trip through the word processor might have helped the overall structure, though. Large globs of the funny stuff pile up, then an abrupt change to action. After 20 minutes or so of all-in, it’s time to get serious. No deal breakers in this swirl, but more smoothing out and mixing could have helped.
The Ten Rings themselves made their debut in the very first Marvel Cinematic Universe film, 2008’s “Iron Man.” “Iron Man 3,” released in 2013, found Kingsley cast as the fake version of Wenwu (although Kingsley, oddly enough, is half-Indian). Those diversions worked tolerably well, but how satisfying to see a whole narrative displayed with confidence, authority, and the authenticity of Asian faces.
Andrew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.