Marvel Studio’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was ground-breaking for a number of reasons. After being in development for nearly two decades, it crashed into the cinematic world, a welcome escape from the real world’s Covid environment.
Not only is it the fifth highest-grossing film of 2021, it’s also the first Marvel film with an Asian director and a predominantly Asian cast.
Although very definitely based in the world of Marvel superheroes, it felt like this film struck a different note from its predecessors. There was a far subtler, more realistic tone to it – the entire concept of struggling to forge one’s own identity while staying true to those who came before was neatly packaged between one action scene and another.
As mentioned in a Vox article entitled “Why Shang-Chi’s success matters – and why it shouldn’t”, written by Alex Abad-Santos and published on September 3, one of the greatest themes of Shang-Chi is the concept of assimilation. Xu Shang-Chi hides his roots when he arrives in America, abandoning his birth name for the far more homogeneous ‘Shaun’.
He lives a nondescript life, doing his best to forget his heritage while living as a young, working-class man in America. This is where the film begins, and from the get-go the question of how to balance identities, the concept of simultaneously honouring ancestors while living in the present day, is brought to the forefront.
The film deals with such a delicate subject matter. From an outsider’s perspective, it felt like the entire concept of the importance of names is dealt with a deft, knowledgeable stroke – the way Shang-Chi went by Shaun for a period of his life to settle into America; that his best-friend Katy, when asked for her real, Chinese name, could not say it properly.
As an Irish audience, many watching could sympathise with the struggle of having a non-English name in an English-speaking world. How often has Saoirse Ronan had to correct interviewers on the pronunciation of her name? Surely every Irish person has either struggled with or knows someone who’s struggled with people mispronouncing their name.
Although this seems to be a minor issue, it leads to a far greater one of identity. The larger idea the film raises – the struggle to assimilate the past with the present is represented aptly in these characters’ turbulent relationships with their own birth names.
To move away from the unseen and very much to the seen, the fight sequences were visually astonishing. They worked to tick the box of a Hollywood action film while also representing both Asian cinema at large and Asian cultures in the range of fighting styles displayed.
This included Shaolin, Tai Chi, Bajiquan, Wing Chun, Hung Ga, Baguazhang and weapons such as bo staffs and hook swords.
Described by the website Screenrant as “Marvel’s first straight-up kung fu movie”, the film’s use of such a wide range of martial arts all added to the aesthetics and was such a critical part of setting up the atmosphere of the film.
The fight sequences, at some points, almost seemed more like dances than battles – so graceful were the moves. It was startlingly clear the film’s production team put high emphasis on the visual aspect of the action sequences, the result of which is masterful.
Although it is not a caucasian viewer’s place to put judgement on the film’s perspective on the experience of growing up as a child of immigrants seeking to find a balance between two different cultures, the manner with which Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings deals with such a touchy subject is done so with a sense of care and finesse.
The motif of the importance of names runs throughout the film, while the visual aspect of the fight sequences serves to impress upon the viewer the ever-present aspect of culture in Shang-Chi.