At The Movies

Spectacular success smashing barriers

SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS (PG)

132 minutes, now showing

Rating: 4/5

Was it only four years ago that American producers without so much as a second thought released Iron Fist (2017 to 2018) - a Marvel superhero series inspired by Asian martial arts - with a total of one Asian, actress Jessica Henwick, in a key role? She supported the white main character.

And does anyone remember the fantasy adventure The Last Airbender (2010), which featured white actors portraying characters drawn from Tibetan Buddhist culture?

The racist tendency to monetise Asian culture but erase its people is something of a Hollywood speciality, so it is exhilarating to see this movie break several barriers in one go. A sizeable chunk of the dialogue is subtitled because it is in Mandarin; characters range from assimilated ABCs (American-born Chinese) to unassimilated immigrant parents to Chinese in China (albeit a fantasy version of the country).

There is also the glorious absence of the relatable white sidekick, the "ni hao!" nerd who draws death stares around the dinner table because he is so adorably, dorkily uncultured; nor is there a scene in which a Caucasian actor, after delivering a line of butchered Mandarin, is applauded for his fluency by a crowd of awestruck Chinese.

Representation, however, does not mean this movie will be any good, so a massive round of applause is owed to director and co-writer Destin Daniel Cretton and the Disney creative team behind this project for believing that authenticity and fun can go together. The love of, and respect for, Asian martial arts cinema is baked into this work and the results are spectacular.

The film opens in San Francisco around the present day. The world might be getting back on its feet following the climactic event of Avengers: Endgame (2019), but "Shaun" (sitcom veteran Simu Liu in full nice-guy mode) is leading a somewhat apathetic life parking cars with pal Katy (Awkwafina, fast becoming a specialist in playing the goofily relatable Westernised Asian).

His real name of Shang-Chi and how he spent his youth in China is revealed when assassins come for him. They have been sent by his father Wenwu, head of the Ten Rings terror organisation and the villain linked to the events of Iron Man 3 (2013).

As Wenwu, Tony Leung Chiu Wai is sensitively framed by director Cretton in a way that emphasises the Hong Kong veteran's most evocative weapon: his eyes.

Just as film-maker Quentin Tarantino jammed 1970s' Hong Kong and samurai cinema into a blender to make Kill Bill (two volumes, 2003 and 2004), Cretton digests 1980s' Jackie Chan, Shaolin and wuxia classics to create a breathtaking visual statement.

But unlike Tarantino's fantasy about a white American laying waste to locals in Japan and China, Cretton's film can be enjoyed without the nasty racism-induced hangover.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 02, 2021, with the headline 'Spectacular success smashing barriers'. Subscribe