Shang Chi Review (No Spoilers): A Return to Glorious Hong Kong Wuxia Stories

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.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) - IMDb

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.

Watch The Prism — smallnartless: Brigitte Lin in Peking Opera Blues...
Also, way more gender blurring than you might think. Popka! Check out Brigette Lin! You would like her

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.

Flower Drum Song (1961) - IMDb

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.

Shang-Chi Writer Says Tony Leung's Wenwu Was Tricky To Write

15 thoughts on “Shang Chi Review (No Spoilers): A Return to Glorious Hong Kong Wuxia Stories

    • You are totally right! And probably too big of a star to be willing to take this part.

      On Mon, Sep 13, 2021 at 6:59 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  1. OK have to speak up for Michelle Yeoh. She was a spectacular kung fu action star who went toe to toe with Jackie Chan and also led her own films (like Wing Chun, one of my top five all time action movies because of what you’re saying above, great characters and story, very funny, and fabulous fight scenes). She was so good she crossed over and was cast in a James Bond movie where they didn’t let her actually fight for fear of making Pierce Brosnan look like a ninny. She anchored Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and later starred in Memoirs of a Geisha and played Aung San Suu Kyi in The Lady. From there she’s aged into heavyweight matriarch roles in big budget movies like Crazy Rich Asians, Last Christmas, and Shang-Chi.

    This was her signature kick:

    https://images.app.goo.gl/h5HXJYJxqsMD8gJG9

    As you can tell I’m a fangirl and she’s one of the reasons I wanted to see Shang-Chi :).

    Liked by 2 people

    • Emily – First, thank you so much sticking up for Michelle Yeoh and educating us on her!!! I, like Margaret, would have also categorized her as someone who played love interests or mother roles. But reading your comment, watching Wing Chun, and reading up more about her gave me so much more perspective! While she plays those roles, she has done SO MUCH MORE!!! She is SUCH A BADASS! It totally makes sense that she came from a ballet background and then transitioned to martial arts. Her action scenes are amazing!!!

      Second, how did I just find out about Wing Chun?!? And THANK YOU for introducing me to that movie!!! It was so so good! If I were describing it in Hindi film terms it had the best of the 90 camp, and some amalgamation of Sholay and Mujhse Dosti Karoge but with a FEMALE ACTION HERO who fights (literally) for herself, her business, and her future! She rescues a widow that is about to be sexually assaulted, she fights off bandits, she saves a potential suiter from the bad guys. Oh, and she has a randy single aunt who is her primary source of support, and she learns martial arts from a female instructor!!!! This might be the coolest movie ever!!! Also, was it just me or was there huge sexual tension between Wing Chun and Aran Charm? I want that lesbian romance!!!! Or maybe, Wing Chun, Aran Charm, and Pok-To should be a throuple?! I am now recommending Wing Chun to everyone! Thank you again for introducing me to the movie and Michelle Yeoh action movies!

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      • OMG, I’m so excited you now share my love of Wing Chun!! So awesome in every way. Wing Chun watch along!

        That is the most fun Michelle Yeoh movie I’ve seen, but Supercop is the most fun Michelle Yeoh + Jackie Chan movie. And I do love Jackie Chan too. They’re good together, he pushes her fighting and stunt skills and she plays straight man (so to speak) to his comedy.

        And yes, totally agree that her chemistry in Wing Chun is better with the women than with any of the men!

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  2. Ha, just saw it this Sunday, first cinema visit in years, I don’t usually bother with Marvel films, but Tony Leung!! Michelle Yeoh!! It would have been rude not to. Utterly fab fab fab, I do love xianxia anyway, Awkwafina is so smart – only demurs were a slight bit of clunky plot crowbarring re villain and what was that??? four-wheel drives thundering through Narnia/sacred land??? NO,

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    • Yeah, the father-child stuff was EXCELLENT, but the “portal to a dark world” ending was kind of weird.

      On Tue, Sep 14, 2021 at 5:50 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  3. I haven’t really seen Wu Fu films. Even though I love fight scenes. I tried watching some Jackie Chan, but didn’t make it through a movie. So I have no reference to what a Chinese film is. What struck me was how American Simu Liu & Awkwafina’s characters were. Extra surprising considering Simu Liu’s character didn’t arrive in the U.S. till 15. These guys were my high school classmates, on the big screen, with mad fighting skills. Also, they did S.F. really well.

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    • Yes! Simu Liu’s character felt very Lion King/Hamlet/Prince Hal sort of thing. Once he escaped his Grand Destiny, he went all in on just being “average” and enjoying life. I’m very excited to see what they do with his character next. The end tag seems to imply that, once he is free and powerful and so on, he chooses to just return to hanging out in SF and enjoying life some more.

      On Tue, Sep 14, 2021 at 8:16 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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    • Booo! None of them have Peking Opera Blues! I am using that as my litmus test, it’s a successful mainstream film from Hong Kong from the 90s, but not a crossover hit in the US or a super new thing. Somewhere has to be a resource for that kind of movie!

      On Wed, Sep 15, 2021 at 6:19 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Half a dozen sites on Google claim to have it, none so far with subs. I watched it for a few mins this morning without them but couldn’t figure out what was going on like I can with Indian films. Actually, it kind of reminded me of an Indian film. Beautiful cinematography, colors, settings, costumes! Now you have me hooked.

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        • I have it on DVD, somewhere. But I would like to find it streaming so I can recommend it to other people!

          On Thu, Sep 16, 2021 at 7:02 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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