Seduced and Abandoned: “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”
Some thoughts on Marvel’s newest film and, ugh, representation
There is one savvy, striking shot early in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, a brief zap of personality and style. It’s sandwiched between a bland, bordering on incoherent sequence of shots of kicks, punches, dodges, and the like, their choreography impactless, like it was still in a rehearsal space where the message is “no one gets hurt during practice”. These moves hit neither like bricks nor extol the poetry of the body. But this one shot offers a brief glimpse into something more real and exciting, a real set of stakes and the announcement of, if not a star, then at least a formidable foe.
It’s so simple and short: after taking down a few of his first set of enemies, Shaun/Shang-Chi (Simu Lu) reels back in a close fisted stance, ready for the offense. Director Destin Daniel Cretton (or whatever studied second unit director) push in at a wide angle into Shaun, but at fist level. It’s assertive without being aggressive, and it tilts up at the last second, the smoothness of its tracks still indicating a bewitching man-made quality to the shot.
And yet, it is really only striking within the context of its presence in a Marvel movie. It’s like using an esoteric word or phrase from Mandarin in English conversation. Its neatness, but short distance from truly inventive form, is a gesture towards a more compelling film, but also appears to be part of the design of it all, of all these entries into what amounts to theatrically exhibited TV show, its house style so firmly locked into place that to be really aesthetically innovative would be to ask it to be entirely disconnected from the franchise. There are hints, blips at specificity, both formal and cultural, but it is ultimately little different than the Quentin Tarantino-directed episode of CSI:.
Yet there is a curious, bewildering friction between the humdrum, pedestrian soullessness of the endeavor and the laurels that have been granted to this movie, one that has birthed any number of essays and op-eds stressing how important, how historic it is to have an Asian (American) superhero movie. Sure, yeah, that’s great I guess. But couldn’t it have been in a movie that was actually good? Or at least passable?
Marvel Studios’ more recent efforts to do “inclusive” storytelling reek of brand management, that such a behemoth must now pay the Piper and be more reflective of the world it wants to extend, which isn’t necessarily an unworthy task. But with few exceptions, that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has a house style — which sometimes adjusts based on the genre that the film in question attempts to ape (Watergate-era paranoia thrillers for Captain America and the Winter Soldier, John Hughesian teeny bops for Spider-Man: Homecoming, etc.) — is arguably its claim to fame.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is an origin story attempting to root itself in a kind of ethnic (or cultural, if we’re being especially generous) specificity that is supposed to land in its very title. And while its opening ten minutes or so function basically as exposition in the drag of a “new, worldly approach”, the rest of the film is simple in a mildly gratifying way. Rather than shackle itself to the MCU’s labyrinthine canon universe (which is not to say elements of that are not present), Shang-Chi occasionally indulges in a kind of directness that frequently appears to argue for the film to, honestly, just be a good genre movie. It aspires to be Marvel’s kung fu movie, but ends up as a Marvel movie with kung fu in it.
A decade or so after leaving his immortal father (Tony Leung’s Xu Wenwu, an assassin and keeper of the Ten Rings), Shaun (Simu Liu) resides in a state of arrested development in San Francisco, working as a valet with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina). When he thinks that the sister whom he left behind is in danger following an attack to grab his jade necklace, Shaun heads to Macau to figure out what’s going on.
Everything fits neatly within an established aesthetic, rarely so much as pushing up against that MCU aesthetic, its persistence an attempt to reify its hold as a form of a ubiquitous cinematic language. It would be a stretch to call it an auteurist grasp on that grammar, but it’s recognizable for a paradoxical simplicity and overstuffed quality. Cameras that acrobatically whip around characters and zip through spaces, shots that plow through planes of space without exactly defining those planes, slow-motion shots that impart sub-Spielbergian wide eyed wonder. All of this world and language heavily built with or by CGI. The MCU aesthetic takes less into account how that CGI might bring audiences closer to these bodies in motion, and instead posits it as an increasing, though not shrewd, distancing from reality and fantasy. More specifically, this extreme fixation on a CGI-established language ignores how audiences relate themselves to those temporal and physical spaces, robbing them of the texture to be engaging. It is designed to be predictable — each frame, each camera movement, each shot sequencing — in a way; that within a particular cinematic context that spectacle itself can be winnowed down to the expected.
Something uncomfortable emerges from that tension. Can you really make a significantly interesting film that’s enmeshed in both cultural and aesthetic detail while also adhering to an established format? These things, to me, are ultimately diametrically opposed goals.
To Shang-Chi’s credit, it is one of Marvel’s more human films, insofar as it is concerned much more specifically with familial relationships, in a rather theatrical way, than necessarily glued to some inside baseball or MacGuffin. But the film’s directness has less to do with the exact plot machinations (always a little convoluted) than it does the core of the story. It’s about a father whose grief for his late wife (Fala Chen) is so overpowering that relinquishing his soul is a gateway to bliss and reconciliation; it’s about a son who has to kills his father and negotiate his own relationship to power; and it’s about that son coming into himself as a man specifically in terms of both his Asianness and his Americanness. There’s death, tragedy, and melodrama, all ingredients of interest, all basic enough that, together, they can be alchemical and magical by themselves.
Why’s it feel and look so shitty then? Shang-Chi clearly has a rudimentary understanding that what makes these stories compelling is not only those fundamental elements but also the ways in which they are built upon, extrapolated, expanded, and, in the case of film, visualized. The film is so frequently torn between its impulses to be a solid genre movie and a Marvel movie with good optics, seemingly taking a page from a past, real and imagined, that it can’t be both.
It isn’t that director Dustin Daniel Cretton hasn’t done his homework: Shang-Chi’s fight choreography (some of which was handled by Supervising Stunt Coordinator Bradley James Allen) and some of its filmography clearly borrows from wuxia, Jackie Chan films, and the likes of Dragon Inn and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. From the canted angle of a sweeping foot here, to the breathless aerobatics of a flip there, Shang-Chi wants to sell you on its bonafides. But it’s hard to take that seriously when those films, from Police Story to King Boxer, had a real sense of stakes that were grounded and tactile. In those films, you can feel those punches and kicks, the weight behind them bursting beyond the screen into the chest of the viewer through a combination of direction, choreography, performance, and sound. Cameras only switch angles for the most impact, to cover battles of body, mind, and spirit. They’re dances of life and death, and every so often, Shang-Chi makes apparent its supposed awareness of this, but none of the fights felt more than Marvel taking humans as action figures and mashing them together without any kind of danger or commitment. The film knows enough to make Leung and Chen’s fight sequence itself a seduction, despite Marvel’s typical sexlessness; or it’s supposed to read as a seduction, but without the bodily eroticism that’s required to make it truly sweltering in its allure. (Leung and Chen at least have chemistry.) That these scenes, often slowed down not for the sake of magnifying what these human bodies are doing but rather for the sake of its coolness, are so crafted with a sense of artificiality makes it both feel like the MCU’s house style is crushing the potential to grant an audience a propulsive experience of physicality as well as solidifying an aspect of its optics feels somewhat craven to me.
There are platitudes and throwaway details of Asian Americanness in Shang-Chi, like Awkwafina struggling with her tones and the choice to melt various fight styles to convey a melding of identities. But rather than an Asian American film (or a film captivated by unpacking Asian Americanness) that is also a Marvel movie, it reads more like an Asian American film conforming to Marvel formula, its cultural specificities grafted onto an existing industrialized product.
And given its adherence to its plasticine DNA, its most potentially compelling elements feel more like affectations. The final battle between father and son lacks surprise because of its displacement from any kind of palpable world. Even up in the air and flying from tree to tree, A Touch of Zen makes its bodies in space have weight to them, or their weightlessness in the air speaks exactly to their physicality. And in The Grandmaster, drops of water are explosive. But there’s little connection between Leung and Liu they make faces, and before long, the hand to hand is blasted into a separation between the actors that’s intended to make their showdown magical, supernatural, and not of the physical realm. More literally, what begins as a physical fight scene devolves into the two men apart, controlling their energy and fighting over the Ten Rings, but far away from one another, or in separate frames. It’s rendered, as all the fight sequences are, with a flatness that makes one unsure of where the palpable, practical effects end and the CGI begins. It’s all colorful lights and the like, even the ground battle against soul-sucking demons being lent a texturlessness that’s predicated on a nonspecific sensory overload.
And it’s not like good filmmaking and fun filmmaking are mutually exclusive: the James Bond movies, the films of the Wachowski Sisters, and even Christopher Nolan (why not?) deliver satisfying, exciting spectacle because they have a vision of excitement and spectacle, as opposed to spectacle being the lens itself.
In Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers, there’s spectacle and beauty, the filmmaking entranced with how the body can be a messenger of both love and pain. Its painterly CGI does not overcrowd sequences or frames, but rather elaborates upon Zhang’s study of body as an apparatus for beauty and death: Mei (Zhang Ziyi) is at once blind dancer and dangerous assassin, the two informing one another. Zhang’s choices to augment the physical world he’s cultivated with CGI are canny, a decision to articulate the relationship between the real and the artificial within the context of wuxia cinema, and an extension of the grandness innovated by his predecessors like King Hu and Chang Cheh.
If these scenes in Shang-Chi are supposed to be emotionally charged, the artificiality of their creation undercuts them; this is Marvel’s bloodless remix of Oedipus Rex, the spark and harrowing torment of its daddy issues still not strong enough to break through its pat screenwriting and even more generic filmmaking. Compare that to Ang Lee’s Gemini Man, which makes striking use of technology by accentuating physicality and by making “uncanniness” part of its text, as it relates to masculinity, even race. Though Leung’s simmering gaze is hot enough to warp the harddrive everything else was made on, it’s still not enough to distract from the film’s depthless craft, which betrays the shallowness of its appeal to the marginalized community it hopes to “represent.” It is wall-to-wall fakery, a masquerade of ostensibly good politics and mediocre to bad storytelling: the latter is to be by design and the former to lend the latter a kind of credibility. Its world and aesthetic voice are waxen and vacant, transforming what might be a pleasant enough cartoonishness to an uncanny simulacrum. Whatever artistry Cretton learned on his previous films, like Short Term 12, gets suffocated here. And despite the infrequent suggestions at the beauty of language and its place in storytelling, there’s not a note of poetry in the film, nor a touch of zen.
There’s one other pretty good scene in Shang-Chi that, like the push-in, is kind of emblematic of what’s frustrating about the film and its apparent role in the culture. Leung extols the virtues of knowing one’s Chinese name, that one’s name is part of a lineage and a history whose value is part of the fabric of the culture itself. And then he plows into this monologue about a villain featured in Iron Man 3 called “The Mandarin”, a shitty appropriation and a wink at the audience regarding Marvel’s racist history. Leung sells most of these lines with pathos and thoughtfulness, giving something without a novel insight (well, for anyone who’s not white, at least) a gravitas and a seriousness that’s written across his face, a whole vista of emotions and ideas. Of course, it all goes back to branding, doesn’t it? But for a second, I almost welled up, seeing Tony Leung convince me to like my given name.
It is difficult to admit out loud to an audience of more than a couple of friends that I care more about good filmmaking and good art than I do about “Representation”, especially as a discursive enterprise. I understand its function and purpose and the way it satiates, but a skepticism still hovers in my mind. Will this movie really change the systematic inequality within the industry? Will it make material change in the world, beyond the (kind of solipsistic) satisfaction of seeing oneself (in the least specific of ways) reflected on screen? Will it encourage more artists to tell interesting stories with their unique points of view? I don’t think any of these questions is an unblemished yes or no answer, and it’s foolhardy to approach them as such, as opposed to ever expanding and extrapolating goals. But frankly, I do care more about good filmmaking than the pride of postured politics from people and institutions who have takens decades, if not longer, to, if not secure or ensure rights and safety to marginalized communities, then the bare bones of a wider array of stories told on screen. But, as we’ve seen with other communities, visibility is not something that exists as a zero-sum winning game.
Hating this film as much as I did has caused me a little bit of mental and emotional anguish. There was something uniquely depressing, following Crazy Rich Asians (which I liked, for the record, and has a bit more personality than Shang-Chi), about resting one’s quasi-political energy on a franchise movie that is crafted to basically blend in with the rest of them. That this was supposed to be super meaningful in a life changing way. I recognize that this kind of reaction or sentiment is not made for just me or me in mind, that others can benefit from this kind of recognition in mainstream media. That a history of erasure has done significant damage to communities, even when “Asian” itself is a politically loaded term with sketchy, unsatisfying histories of attempts at solidarity. Nor would I ever argue for less representation. But it’s hard for me not to question what the goal of “mainstream representation” exactly is, especially when people seem so hesitant to build other, fringe, smaller examples of representation or art made by marginalized communities into that same conversation, as if a franchise film is the be all, end all for a particular group of people.
And frankly, I recognize I also have the privilege of not really ever having cared about seeing myself on screen, especially not a carbon copy of myself or my experiences. (Truly, who’s going to want to write about some neurotic queer Chinese-adoptee film critic? Riveting entertainment, as he stares at a blank Google Doc for two hours.) And I know I sound kind of whiny, yet another person decrying a perceived antiintellectualism or, at least, perceived bad taste. Film was another world full of new experiences, ideas, and people, and on the latter point, the continued broadening of the kinds of stories told and who they’re told by is certainly a good thing. But those stories can be told both outside of the framework of corporations that drain personal style from their work.
It’s a little lonely at times to have both a relatively fragmented relationship to my identity and to prioritize my taste in lieu of a thirst for representation, my desire for representation based on a point of view aesthetically, narratively, and/or ideologically. That someone has something to say or knows how to say it well. Film certainly has been a way I’ve come to understand myself and the world around me, it’s definitely been of aid to help me conceptualize my queerness, and in a way where I could understand queerness in relation to aesthetics and storytelling, not necessarily queerness as mirror. This gets me into trouble; the night I saw Shang-Chi, I got into an argument with someone in a group chat because I didn’t like it (I called it “garbage” and “empty filmmaking”), to which he sent me a picture of Anton Ego from Ratatouille and a screenshot from Adam Ellis’ well worn comic of one character telling another, whilst closing that character’s lips, “Let people enjoy things.”
It’s interesting that an implicit political impetus is built into the DNA of Shang-Chi, the promise and presentation of a piece of history as the first Asian-American superhero movie. Yet, all around us, the cultural memory for texts that are somehow representationally innovative, or sold to us as such, appears to be shrinking. Not that Shang-Chi isn’t that, and not that that is not significant in some way, but its presence and buying power acts like a bizarre bristle, scrubbing the past of films that deal with Asian-Americanness into a weird “obscurity”, like Chan is Missing, Spa Night, and Mississippi Masala. That these movies are somehow less interesting to viewers because they’re not adorned with the same kind of billion dollar mythos and firecrackers. I didn’t feel represented in the exciting way (which is fine), but I felt invested in watching these stories and experiences unfold, in questions about identity being posed as an ongoing discussion rather than a mirror.
It’s kind of lonely being skeptical, or being aware that such infrequent visions of Asian Americanness of this scale insists on a kind of assumed allegiance for a cause. That criticism of the thing, even of its goals, is unwelcome in certain spaces. And I’m not saying people aren’t allowed to enjoy these things, or that they’re stupider for doing so.
But that’s why I fell in love with film and film criticism in the first place, particularly in relation to engaging with what representation is and what it means. To be able to tease out those nuances and intricacies both within the text of the film as well as its cultural implications.
I guess I’m arguing for a distasteful exceptionalism if the thing in question is going to be presented as if it is supposed to be exceptional, even as an action movie, as a superhero movie, as an MCU movie. I don’t want lip service, I want greatness from cinema, which is not the same thing as the kind of high falutin art house stuff that people assume “greatness” is attached to. I want the stakes to entice me, the worlds to consume me, the action to drag me by the collar. I want there to be a point of view about that world and that action and those bodies, not only in the lip service “we’re telling a diasporic story” way, but in a way that accentuates the actual electricity between people as they move between life and death at a moment’s notice.
Or, and I say this as a connoisseur of this genre of cuisine, that people admit that these movies are just Panda Express — not Mission Chinese — but to continue to demand great food instead of settling for fast food. I demand beauty and craftsmanship, yes, even in “these kinds of movies”, which aren’t so unwelcoming to such concepts as many make that out to be. I love the cinema in all its iterations because I want to be seduced. And when you have Tony Leung there, gazing into the depths of your soul and allowing his own bereavement to nearly drown the frame, your job is almost done.
Yet, if we’re thirsting for meaningful representation, doesn’t that also include a more thorough investigation and consideration of that representation, of what representation and visibility mean in less comforting ways? Shouldn’t we encourage and be encouraged to challenge these artifacts, express doubt, and take them seriously enough to question them, rather than end with uncritical embracement?
You have to build that beauty with those tools to give them life. Shang-Chi didn’t leave me seduced, it left me abandoned.