Movies

Movie Review: Shang-Chi and the Legend of Ten Rings

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Say what you want about Marvel, their formula works, whether origin stories or multiverse Avengers.  My hats are off to them for not only bringing lesser-known superheroes from comic obscurity, but also minority representations into mainstream America and making them a global phenomenon.  Standing on the muscular shoulders of “Black Panther” is “Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.”  

Relative unknown Simu Liu is Shaun, a valet parking attendant living in San Francisco, sharing a close friendship with his friend and co-worker Katy (Awkwafina, “Crazy Rich Asians”).  One day a mundane bus ride turns into a heart-pumping joyride when Shaun is inexplicably attacked by several assassins, not to mention by one assassin with a sword arm, wanting to have a jade pendant he’s been wearing on his neck since he was a child.  

To say Katy is surprised to learn her best friend is a kung-fu master is a major understatement.  Awkwafina’s comical reaction is priceless.  While Shaun is fighting, Katy steers the bus in a thrilling “Speed” style.  

It turns out that Shaun is Shang-Chi, the son of an ancient warrior, Wenwu (Tony Leung).  Possessing the magical Ten Rings makes Wenwu immortal.  From one lifetime to another, he conquers lands, amass powers and influence world events.  

Wenwu’s continual quest for domination takes him on a trip to find Ta-Lo, a mystical village in a hidden world filled with mythical creatures and otherworldly powers.  He’s stopped on his track by the guardian, Li (Fala Chen).  Fighting and falling in love, their graceful scenes in an enchanting forest are classic wuxia.  They eventually get married.    

The fights in ‘Shang-Chi’ are a blend of real wushu, used in hard-hitting hand-to-hand combats, most impressively seen in the aforementioned bus scenes and another alongside of skyscraper scaffoldings, with fantasy wuxia style, where the fights look a lot like balletic dances of superhuman powers, channeling life energy and controlling earth elements.  Growing up in Asia, I saw many movies and TV shows with both styles.  

The pendant-hunting assassins are not only searching for Shang-Chi, but they’re also after his long-lost sister, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), and Shang-Chi travels across the globe to track her down.  Xialing is an outcast daughter of Wenwu, unceremoniously excluded from the family’s martial arts training and emotionally abandoned after their mother’s death.  Xialing is no wallflower, however.  A self-starter and determined beyond her means, she becomes a skilled fighter and more, truly on her own.  

Wenwu is convinced that Li is still alive, held captive by her own people in Ta-Lo. He tells his now grown children that he’s heard his wife’s voices, pleading with him to find and save her.  This sounds believable to Wenwu; after all, the villagers didn’t approve of their marriage and taking up residence in Ta-Lo due to his past, leading the couple to give up their powers and leave everything behind to start anew outside as a family.  

Besieged by all-consuming obsession of grief and fury, Wenwu is determined to find the ultra-secret entrance to Ta-Lo, a maze of moving bamboo forest, to free his wife.  He would burn the entire village to the ground if he had to.  

Shang-Chi, Katy and Xialing have the upper hand in finding the passage to Ta Lo first, by way of a character that shouldn’t be spoiled here.  If Themyscira is the paradise of “Wonder Woman,” Ta-Lo is that world in Shang-Chi.  Lush, vibrant and serene, the village has its own backstory, with the people embroiled in wars against soul-sucking, flying dark creatures.  

The villagers are trained and have special weapons, along with a protective water dragon, to fight these creatures should they escape from their prison.  Wenwu’s arrival and his misguided search for his belated wife threatens not only the village’s survival, but also the universe, should these creatures escape into the outside world.  

Immortal warlord Wenwu is a very sympathetic, complex villain, exceptionally acted by Leung with a wide range of spot-on human emotions.  He may be power-thirsty, but the abiding love he has for his wife is genuine, as well as his desire to leave his criminal past behind when he married her.  His relationships with his children are dramatically complicated, especially with his son.  Shang-Chi’s transformation, from a laidback valet to warrior worthy of the Ten Rings feels organic.  The familial bonds are filled with pathos and the soul of the story.  

‘Shang-Chi’ may be a Marvel movie, but it feels fresh and different.  It introduces us to a whole other world, steeped in mythology and authenticity, and it’s an origin superhero story unlike any other.  As always, stay tuned for the end-credits.  Familiar characters appear and something tells me the discovery signals something greater and that Wenwu’s legacy may not be lost.  

Dragon-sized epic and deeply personal, ‘Shang-Chi’ is a sheer spectacle and heartfelt joy to watch.  

Copyright (c) 2021. Nathalia Aryani

Nathalia Aryani is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic (rottentomatoes.com/critic/nathalia-aryani). She has a movie blog, The MovieMaven (sdmoviemaven.blogspot.com). Twitter: @the_moviemaven. She can be reached at indotransserv@gmail.com.

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