SPOILER WARNING for Marvel’s Shang-chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings; reprinted from Medium.com
I’m not a real Chinese anymore either! Nobody here is real Chinese.my dad
Honestly, I can’t even remember what my Dad and I were talking about. The geomancy of furniture arrangement in my old condo? The chi balance of our last meal? Conflict avoidance between family members reinforced by Confucianism?
“You don’t get it because you’re not a real Chinese,” my dad said.
“Well you don’t [whatever] too,” I retorted.
“I’m not a real Chinese anymore either! Nobody here is real Chinese.”
He was referring to the fact he’d lived and worked in the United States for decades, despite having been born and raised in Guangdong province. He’d fundamentally changed. In conversation with me, his American-born Chinese (ABC) daughter, he alleged nobody present was ‘real’ Chinese in cultural expectation and perspective. That was neither an insult nor the #goal; it was a matter of fact. (Or at least: a common opinion.)
This was something I thought of a lot while watching the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Shang-chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings. The first Asian superhero protagonist, there’s a lot riding on Shang-chi’s muscular shoulders. Better scholars than I have written at length about how this sets an unfair degree of pressure on a single character/film, which would be more evenly distributed if Hollywood gave us more media to rest our hopes on. As I watched, I found myself fighting back automatic questions of accuracy, whether or not its creators did their due diligence, and where that diligence was due. Inevitably I found myself wondering if mainland audiences would find the storyline too Americanized, and conversely to a lesser extent, if American-born Chinese viewers might find too much pandering. (In case you were wondering: as of September 4, 2021, jury’s still out; the film has not been released in China.)
But at some point in the first third of the movie, I managed to shrug off most of that deliberation.
See, the fictional Xu family isn’t ‘really’ Chinese. In his universe, Wenwu was an expatriate who formed his own cultural archipelago a millennium old, emphasizing martial arts, mysticism, and political chessmastery, raising his kids accordingly. Any resemblance to my ancestral Han Chinese texts and practices of Daoism, geomancy, and Confucianism should by rights be centuries removed and shaded by interpretation. In exactly the way Wakanda is a fictional country on an existing continent, Xu Wenwu’s private holding is a fictional island on (I presume) an existing sea.
- The Mandarin language dialogue. My fluency is intermediate at best, but what I could parse was gorgeous and thoughtful.
- Rejection of the “East Asian people can’t drive” stereotype. Yes.
- Physical and verbal affection. Some cultural archipelago action here! Within the Xu family, the forehead kisses (two people touching their foreheads together as a sign of affection) felt far removed from Han Chinese culture as I know it. I dug that. (Maybe would’ve liked something a bit more fresh like the Wakandan two-arm salute, but I’m not sure that actually reinvented gestures either.)
- Morris and his ilk of fuzzy faceless winged critters. I had concerns the creators would only bastardize Chinese mythological creatures (see more below) and not bother at all with the MCU’s madcap creativity with world myths, straight-up aliens, and Venn overlap thereof, but they did! Morrises are so weird! I love them.
- Filial piety by Shang-chi and his sister toward their father. By no means as model children in a model family, but a funhouse mirror version thereof. I really wonder how Western audiences felt about it when Wenwu rolled in right after sending waves of ineffective assassins after his kids, and Shang-chi heard him out despite obvious differences in morality. I also wonder whether Wenwu’s final moment of clarity and gesture of self-sacrifice/reconciliation might be seen as an unearned redemption, cheap and yucky and ripe for hot take discourse. To me, these scenes echoed the structure of the household that plays out in immigrant and mainland households to this day. In my opinion, Simu delivered Shang-chi’s sense of fidelity and conflict well, but the script could have leaned in deeper.
- Sexism in Wenwu’s army! Western scholars have written about how ancient Daoism upheld more gender equality and empowered women thousands of years ago, in contrast to Confucianism, which systematically reinforced patriarchy. (Incidentally, my friend from Hong Kong disagrees, based on contemporary practical transmission of cultural knowledge.) But it was interesting to see women in more positions of power in Ta Lo, a dimension apparently in balance with nature and populated by Daoist mythological creatures, portrayed in opposition to Wenwu’s pursuit of power (technological and mystical), boys-only club, and rigidly hierarchal army. Somebody out there is already writing a thesis about this.
- Grief, because I’ll never shut up about this. I don’t think it was handled with as much ingenuity or care as WandaVision but I guess that’s a high bar. (You know what would have been cool? Papa Wenwu initially trying to conquer Ta Lo in black clothing, then perpetually mourning in white. Ah well.)
I’ll be frank: I don’t care about the moral consistency of the MCU or lack thereof, or how Chinese cultural norms mixed with that. We all remember Steve Rogers served in the USA military, which makes of God as they fire around the Fifth Commandment.
II. STUFF I DIDN’T LOVE
- Integration into the Marvel Cinematic Universe timeline felt clunky, even as a forgiving (forgetful) viewer. I’m sure there’s an avid YouTube video in the works somewhere about Wenwu running Middle Eastern warlords behind his wife’s back, or turning up his nose at Norway when the Frost Giants invaded in 965 AD. Whatever! I will say the second end credits scene turned it around for me a bit.
- The subtitles/translation were kinda rough. Without conducting a statistical analysis on incidence counts, I suspect they kept untranslated more Xhosa and/or Wakandan words in Black Panther (Dora Milaje, Jabari, Kimiyo) than they did Mandarin in Shang-chi (just — Ta Lo?). And as ever, nuance was lost that didn’t have to be. For example, “Shen Long” was translated to “Great Protector,” when my best guess they meant 神龙 or “god/spirit/celestial dragon.” Shen Long is a cool phrase. But if we can’t have that, isn’t ‘The Dragon God’ doper than its replacement? Can White people not be trusted to try on two whole Chinese names? As reviewed by others, the Mandarin dialogue in the film was wonderful, and I wished I was more fluent!
- Related: contrary to the English subtitles provided during dialogue with Katie’s grandmother, Chinese people do not have a “Day of the Dead.” That’s a Mexican tradition. We have a Tomb-sweeping Day (清明節, Qingming Jie). White people, pls.
- Qilin (麒麟, mythical chimera) were treated as numerous backdrop herding animals with less of a role in deciding the fate of the cosmos than a bunch of over-sized lions! Mfer, qilin are celestial-ass animals of pure righteousness known to appear under singular circumstances and light shit on fire with their hooves! Why did they elevate rhinoceroses to quasi-sentient steeds but reduce qilin to fleeing pigeons? Missed opportunity!
- Bamboo scaffolding, minor beef. At Xialing’s fight club, we see scaffolding on a shiny, modern skyscraper in use for years, with incongruously rusty guts. It was like seeing a minimalist modern mansion finished with popcorn ceilings then covered in a tarp, for tarpy fight reasons — a minor contrivance that didn’t make sense, obvy for aesthetic reasons.
- Why didn’t we see teenage Shang-chi complete his kill in flash-back, or at least the lead-up and ambivalence? What a weird choice of moments to leave off-screen and summarize in brief dialogue.
If I had to offer a working thesis on my hopes for representation: I don’t need my experience captured ‘accurately.’ What I would like is care taken to either a) preserve the ‘spirit’ of iconography, myths, and cultural elements considered important (or sacred), or b) deliberately and thoughtfully do something clever with it. Reality is, while the characters may not be ‘real’ Chinese, the film evokes, relies on evocations of, and will shape future perceptions of my home culture. As someone who’s worked as a movie extra, I understand Hollywood reduces most complexities to props or aesthetics out of parsimony (being gracious here), relying on the existing lexicon of audience allusions. However, when that lexicon has been racist and lazy for decades, creators have to work hard and smart.
Overall, I thought the film did a good job veering around potholes. I enjoyed Shang-chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. I plan to watch it again in hopes I’ll find more to like. Hopefully, I’ll have rubbed the cloudy expectations off my lenses or found something new to appreciate through them. It was a beautiful movie with solid performances, intimate stakes, and some of the loveliest Mandarin to ever screen in American cinema.