Woot! This was such an awesome movie! Totally worth going (masked and cautious) to a movie theater. And nostalgic for me, because it brought me back to my Hong Kong phase in college and reminded me why I loved those movies.
“Wu Shu” is the more accurate transliteration of the martial art usually called “Kung Fu”. “Wuxia” is the stories about Wu Shu heroes. Elaborate complex tales with morality and responsibility and relationships and romance and everything. These stories are all over Chinese pop culture, movies, but also novels and everything else. It’s not just about the fight scenes and “wire work”, it’s about the stories.
When I was in college, one of the local art movie theaters had an annual Hong Kong movie series. 8 classics shown on the big screen, different ones every year. I saw The One Armed Swordsman, The Bride With White Hair, The 36th Chamber of the Shaolin, Swordsman and Swordsman II, and my favorite movie, Peking Opera Blues. I went from classic Wuxia to modern “gun foo” from John Woo to modern rom-coms. I never got as deep into them as I did Indian films, not even close, I couldn’t tell you a single thing about Chinese/Hong Kong film history, or even that much about Chinese history. But I really REALLY enjoyed watching them.
The reason I liked them is the same reason I like Indian films and, I believe, the reason these are the two industries that have as many watchers as Hollywood films. They are strong stories presented onscreen in a uniquely filmic visual manner. The wire work fights you see in Wuxia movies are as beautiful and unique and imaginative as any Indian song sequences. But they exist in support of the stories, if that makes sense. The fight scenes have MEANING, they aren’t just about the fight.
And that is what I remembered while I was watching Shang Chi. That mixture of strong stories with emotion and relationships, expressed through gorgeous action sequences. This isn’t just a Marvel movie that happens to have an all Asian cast. This is a Marvel movie that gave me the feel of a movie from China.
There are a million things I can’t quite pinpoint to give me that feeling, but one obvious thing is the cast. Tony Leung is by far the biggest name and, for once, Hollywood give something worthy to an actor from a non-English industry. He is the heart and soul of this movie, it’s his film more than anyone else’s. And everyone else was cast following the standard Marvel rules. A strong hard working experienced but not super famous yet actor as the lead, ready to carry a whole series. Very talented unknown people surrounding him. And one strong older actor as a “ringer” to bring this all together. And yes, they all happen to be Asian.
It’s that “happen to be Asian” that feels different to me. This film is a culmination of social changes that have been happening for decades. Simu Liu is an experienced actor with a minor fan following and lots of training, just like Chris Evans was when he was cast as Captain America. Awkwafina is a well-known comedian. Michelle Yeoh has been around for decades playing love interest or mother roles. Fala Chen was a TV actress who had done some independent film work. Meng’er Zhang was a stage actress who saw an open casting call. They didn’t have to beat the bushes and train unknowns to make this cast happen, the groundwork was already done.
Let’s go back to Tony Leung for a second. That’s the one groundwork that HASN’T been done. There is no equivalent to him in America, no older Chinese actor with that level of skill and gravitas. Michelle Yeong is as close as we can come, and her career straddling multiple industries never gave her the level of success Tony Leong had working within the Hong Kong industry. But this movie gives me the hope that in 20 years, we will have Chinese American star with that level of experience.