By Petor Christensen | September 13, 2021
Primarily known for his work in the 2013 film “Short Term 12”, director Destin Daniel Cretton was given the opportunity to direct a blockbuster bigger than anything he had done before. Cretton was praised for the way he had conducted the 2013 hit with such tenderness and respect for the subject. Following the stories of at-risk teenagers and the counselors that oversee them, Cretton may have constructed a high drama, but did so with a naturalistic style. In the most intense scenes, the natural lighting and handheld camerawork add so much weight and authenticity.
He took care not to press his ideas onto the audience. Many filmmakers provide solutions to such important issues. Cretton understood his role as a filmmaker and tried to present a situation for the audience to consider. “Shang-Chi” being such a different direction for the filmmaker, meant some unfamiliar territory.
The result of this is a film with scattered stylistic choices, over-reliance on visual effects, and an inconsistent tone, even by Marvel’s standards. This may be the most blatantly American film to come out of the MCU, yet there are insincere flashes of Chinese culture throughout.
The village of Ta Lo, where almost all of the action occurs in the latter half, is never really developed beyond an “ancient Chinese village”. It’s a bit confusing to think that such an isolated place would reflect a stereotypical view of Chinese culture, as if they never advanced into the modern age. Most jarring is the appearance of Awkwafina (Katy) and the beloved Hong Kong actor Tony Leung Chiu-wai (Xu Wenwu). It’s possible that this was to create a juxtaposition of culture, but Cretton doesn’t develop this idea enough for the viewer to internalize his intentions.
The most obvious example of this is the conversation between Katy and Xu Wenwu after he brings her, his son Shang-Chi, and his daughter to his residence. Wenwu discusses the significance of using your Chinese name, holding onto your culture and those that came before you. Katy, being so immersed in American culture, has a hard time understanding his perspective. This culture clash has become something attached to Awkwafina and is becoming more tired with every film.
To put it bluntly, Awkwafina has been used like this a number of times. Her roles in “Ocean’s 8” and “Crazy Rich Asians” felt significantly empty, although her performance in “The Farewell” has become her defining role. She is given the role of comic relief in most films she appears in, being a minor character, most likely there for the sake of diversity. It’s no secret that big studios have diversity as a priority. Marvel was lacking in Asian representation and needed some big names. Awkwafina gained more respect after “The Farewell” and was practically given the same character conceptually but without the substance. It almost feels offensive to not give her a main role in “Shang-Chi”, but one that offers so little to the film save for her one-liners.
It’s hard to say how much influence Cretton exactly had in these decisions being that directors notoriously have less control under Marvel/Disney productions than their own creative ventures. Nevertheless, the casting of Michelle Yeoh (Ying Nan) and Tony Leung Chiu-wai (Xu Wenwu) is actually remarkable and works towards Cretton’s intentions. It seems that he wanted a story filled to the brim with both Chinese and American culture and these two are excellent choices for the former. The two stars have a history with action films outside of the scope of Hollywood.
Besides this major grievance, “Shang-Chi” feels distinctly amateurish and inconsistent stylistically.
The beginning sequence covers all the necessary exposition needed for introducing a superhero’s backstory, a common element in any superhero flick. We learn that Wenwu has been pursuing greater power for millennia aided by ten magical rings he wears on his arms.
In his pursuit for greater power, he stumbles upon Ta Lo, an ancient village protected by a woman named Ying Li. They fight and Wenwu is bested, but they become enamored with each other. Li and Wenwu have a child named Shang-Chi (or Shaun). We see Li telling Shang-Chi about her village, although not giving too much detail. She gives him a pendant, and the movie finally begins, Shang-Chi now working as a valet in San Francisco.
There is some expected narration that succeeds in making the viewer feel detached, as narration often does in these montages. They seem to slow down the pacing and break immersion easily. Despite this, the opening sequence still manages to be one of the highlights.
Leung Chiu-wai gives a spectacular performance right away, expressing a lust for power and commanding a deep respect for his persistence. The first fight is full of harsher lighting (which works given the setting) and a camera that truly feels free. The camera perspective is incredible for most of the fight as it seems to match the loose movements of the characters, something that must’ve been executed as a tribute to Wuxia - a genre of Chinese martial arts films that were known for absurd mysticism and creative choreography. Subsequently, the editing is kept to a minimum (at least for a Marvel film) which is always a bonus.
Right after this fight, and with the stylistic expectations set, the film changes abruptly. Thrown into an urban setting, we get our first glimpse at the two leads, Shang-Chi and his friend Katy, who is also a valet. The editing is excessive, the lighting is very controlled, and the framing is centered in an uncanny manner that calls too much attention to itself. Perfectly centered shots of people rarely feel cinematic as the perspective feels too controlled. As spectators, we want to feel as if the camera is our advocate. This choice feels unnatural.
The writing is also no longer concise but rather filled with jokes that very rarely land, and the characters feel like hollow plot vessels. Awkwafina’s character especially feels pointless. She could’ve been removed from the film and very little would be different with some minor adjustments. The music also dramatically shifts from a representation of Chinese culture to an obnoxious representation of hip-hop in the US.
Structurally, most of the film passes by in a series of drawn-out action sequences immediately followed by dialogue, a plot twist or two, and a sudden narrative shift. Watching these characters consistently pummel Wenwu’s nameless baddies for most of the runtime becomes dull. The only engaging scenes involve Tony Leung Chiu-wai sensationally carrying the rest of the cast, developing his character as an extremely empathetic idealist despite being the clear antagonist. The rest of the cast struggles in that regard.
The film reaches the same ending as all Marvel films, with a CGI fight. In fact, the entire runtime felt like one long CGI fight. To say this long portion is taxing for the viewer is an understatement. Watching empty characters we have no reason to be attached to, struggle endlessly for what felt like hours, was truthfully exhausting.
Marvel has had a recent problem with tonal consistency and their latest film is a testament to that. Tense scenes are broken by “witty” dialogue and vice versa. Perhaps, Marvel’s creative team has become confused. It seems that Marvel is trying to combine everything that worked before into one experience. The movie is a mix of the urban setting and style of the Spider-Man movies and the tone of “Thor: Ragnarok”. Unfortunately, “Shang-Chi” also has the impossible task of competing with the grandeur of the “Infinity Saga”. Whether they can maintain the dramaturgy that drew fans in, is in question.
Without the familiar high stakes, these films feel directionless. We know they’re building to something, but it’s unclear for now. The path to the next “Infinity War” or “Endgame” just might have long-time fans losing interest in this transitory stage.
“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is available in theaters such as Regal Crossgates and The Madison Theatre.