Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, 2021
Patrick Hao: The latest Marvel release, Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings, has been called groundbreaking and monumental by featuring an Asian American superhero with a predominantly Asian-led cast. It certainly did phenomenally at the box office by making $94.4 million during the four-day Labor Day weekend, shattering the previous record from Rob Zombie’s Halloween (30.6 Million). Mind you, we are still in a pandemic.
As Marvel/Disney is wont to do, they, and the media covering them, have been quick to celebrate the achievement that they themselves have perpetuated by not casting Asian led superheroes and leads. Marvel/Disney has had a history of doing this representational checklisting with their constant trotting out of “exclusively gay moments” and female empowerment.
All of this discourse around Shang-Chi and the importance of representation in Hollywood films has made me, a first-generation Asian American and lover of media, feel very ornery about the whole thing. And this is not the first time. I have felt this way during the discourse around the release of Fresh Off the Boat and Crazy Rich Asians. While I acknowledge that it is a big deal that this movie is as successful as it is, I prickle at the fact that it takes a major studio superhero movie to validate our (Asian Americans) existence in order to feel seen.
So I thought it would be great to have a running dialogue to explore these feelings about representation and media, and what better person to do it with than Drink in the Movie’s resident Marvel expert and overall great mind for media, Anna Harrison.
Anna Harrison: Thanks, Patrick!
Representation is a thorny issue to begin with, and then add on that Disney’s tendency to self-congratulate and tout things like LeFou dancing with a man in Beauty and the Beast as uber progressive and it can be tricky to tackle. Marvel has certainly diversified in recent years and continues to do so, but like you said, most of the time they will tout what should be commonplace as an artistic and personal triumph for them, the most recent example being the discussion around Eternals having an openly gay character kiss his husband.
I think there is something to be said, however, for seeing representation as a superhero. When I saw the original Wonder Woman’s No Man’s Land scene, I teared up in the theater. When I saw Wonder Woman charge across the trenches, I was touched in a way that I was definitely not expecting—I’m normally the very unsentimental type, and so my reaction caught me by surprise. Superheroes have such a mythic status in our culture: they’re supposed to represent the best of humanity, they’re the strongest, the bravest, the smartest, etc., and to see one of those superhumans on screen that reflects you to after so many years of the same can be quite affecting, as I found out. (Captain Marvel would not inspire such a reaction in me, I’m afraid.) It’s a bit like proof that you, too, could be an Avenger/member of the Justice League/whatever, and that it’s not just for hot white guys named Chris. Projection is what superhero movies are all about, after all. I think their prevalence in pop culture and the idealized nature of the heroes themselves makes it mean a little bit more when you finally see a superhero that reflects you. (Whether said prevalence is a good thing is a whole different conversation.)
Patrick: There is no doubt that there is emotional power in representation. I still pump my fists in the air every time the theme song from The Nanny namedrops Flushing, Queens (my hometown). But I’ve been thinking a lot about this tweet from Tao Leigh Goffe recently: “when representation is the only aspiration, it ensures that all firsts will be lasts.“
And I wish Tao Leigh Goffe would expand a little bit more on this thought but I interpret this to mean that representation in and of itself is not enough. What matters more to me are the narratives involving diversity. Asian Americans are in a complicated space in American culture. Firstly, the term encompasses a large number of people, races, and countries—many of which are vastly different in terms of cultures and social hierarchy. But, as a social group and monolith created for ease of narrative, Asian Americans fall somewhere between white and black. When it suits the narrative, Asian Americans are used as the “model minorities,” an example to other POCs to the myth of “pull yourself up by your bootstrap” success in America. And then in an instant, xenophobic racism even in predominiantly Asian ethnic enclaves. And from that trauma and contradictions, I think a lot of Asian Americans and culture would like to fit into the former than the latter fueling a lot of anti-POC sentiments within the Asian American community itself.
I think mainstream Asian American art reflects this desire to be accepted by mainstream audiences (really what I am saying is white America) in a way that irks me. I think there is an interest in creating a universal experience which is great, but what that does is sand off the edges and problems of the diaspora in America. Eddie Huang, the author of Fresh Off the Boat in which the sitcom is based on, famously complained that the show creators of Fresh Off the Boat adapted his memoir of a complicated, angry childhood into a “universal, ambiguous, cornstarch story about Asian Americans.” And watching that show, I too was frustrated by how easy assimilation was for this Taiwanese family to crack wise so easily with White Orlando neighbors.
Getting back to Shang-Chi, it seems fitting that the ultimate conflict I felt within the movie is a story of fitting into the expectations of success of your parents. Shang is escaping the shadow of his father and starts as the lovable schlob who is perfectly content with partying and karaoking while being a valet attendant. Similarly, Katy (Awkwafina) is in a similar situation with her more normal immigrant parents. The movie contrasts this early on with a conversation with their other Asian American friend who followed the traditional path of becoming a lawyer. This trope of first and second generation Asian Americans not living up to parental expectations seem to be the most palpable Asian American story to tell. I suspect it could be because it is cultural but universal in a way that does not necessarily have to deal with the thorny complicated issues of diaspora. To have even the superhero story be about that felt pandering.
Anna: I’ve never seen that tweet before but I think it brings up a great point. Often there’s so much hype around something like Shang-Chi, Black Panther, or Captain Marvel that any missteps they make get lost, and attempts to criticize get shouted down because everyone is so caught up in the idea that we finally have an Asian/Black/woman-led movie it simply becomes enough that the movie exists at all, when really you should be able to level nuanced critiques at them. This, of course, excludes anyone who review-bombed these films; I’m talking more about criticisms like yours. One thing that irks me a lot when people bring up valid criticisms surrounding representation is that often the response will be something like, “Just be grateful you got representation at all.” People shouldn’t have to choose between no representation and subpar representation—that’s not an either/or situation, though some people often act like it is, and mere representation isn’t always enough.
With Shang-Chi specifically, from my standpoint, I think the conflict was less specifically about parent/child relationships—though it’s certainly a part of that conflict—but about reconciling all the disparate parts of yourself and the struggle with identity. There was a lot of focus on Shang-Chi being pulled between two worlds: he ran away from his father to America and Anglicized his name, and resists getting pulled back; he tries to avoid being like his father, but is always reminded that he’s both a product of his mother and his father; in the end, he accepts the Rings and his father’s legacy while still maintaining his sense of self and finding that balance. Of course, it all gets settled easily enough over the course of this one movie (and my commentary is coming from someone who’s descended from a long line of white Americans, so grain of salt!), and, like you said, is all made pretty palatable/monolithic for non-Asian audiences and doesn’t go into specifics.
Oftentimes when movies that bill themselves as being representative of X race, Y gender, Z culture come out (and allow their producers/distributors to cross off one more spot on their representation bingo card), they run into the issue where one camp will say they wish the movie had been more authentic in showing the struggles that a certain group faces, and another camp will want simply to watch the movie and not be reminded of their own issues they face outside the theater. I think Shang-Chi tried to straddle the middle of that and throw bones to both sides. I personally don’t really know which “side” I fall on, as I think both have merits—and I also think it’s another issue where it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation; rather, they can be threaded together. I was wondering what you thought of that conundrum (and if it’s a conundrum at all or I’m just making it up in my head).
Patrick: I know, personally, that I feel anxiety whenever I criticize a “seminal project” like Shang-Chi. I believe the phrase for this right now is called “rep sweats,” or, as that article defines it, “the feeling of anxiety that can come with watching TV shows or movies starring people who look like you, especially when People Who Look Like You tend not to get a lot of screen time.”
I do wonder if I would feel any differently if I truly believed in Shang-Chi’s arc in the movie. Trying to avoid spoilers, I never felt him coming to terms with his identity and father issues, which deflated his self-realization at the end. To give positive notes on Shang-Chi, the opening wuxia ballet between Wen Wu (Tony Leung) and Ying Li (Fala Chan) might be one of the best scenes in a Marvel film. What a brilliant move on their part to cast Leung and his devastatingly sad eyes to give the film instant gravitas.
Speaking of the conundrum you were speaking of—representation of struggles or escapist entertainment—I often feel like, unfortunately, the movie industry has made things feel like one or the other. Either it is Minari or Tigertail in which it feels so oppressively about the struggles of recent immigrants or it is Mortal Kombat, Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins, and Shang-Chi in which there are Asian leads in blockbusters as prior properties and kung fu/karate ninjas.
That’s why I felt so attached to movies like Lucky Grandma (dir. Sasie Sealy) and The Half of It (dir. Alice Wu) from last year. Both are not perfect movies, but there is a liveliness—one is a comedy and the other is a coming of age romcom—to these films that felt true to the experience without feeling like “oppression porn.” Authenticity is a hard thing to define but you can immediately feel the difference.
Anna: I do appreciate that this movie has brought Tony Leung so much international recognition—I even got a friend to watch Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love and now I’m getting sent daily TikToks about how hot Leung is (which… yeah). He’s just so good. I do appreciate that Shang-Chi pays homage to its roots with that wuxia scene and by casting legends like Leung and Michelle Yeoh (though almost all her dialogue was exposition), and it was helmed by Asian creatives, which is something that Marvel’s failed to do in the past. (Iron Fist immediately comes to mind, which was problematic in a lot of ways; Daredevil and Doctor Strange also appropriated certain Asian cultures and used them as either a threat to their main white character, as in Daredevil, or some vague mystic power to heal their main white character, as in Doctor Strange.)
“Oppression porn” is a great phrase. I think there’s also a sense that, by watching those oppression porn movies, you (white people or people whom the movie isn’t about) gain “woke points” for being so supportive of minorities. Disney’s definitely given themselves woke points, not for oppression porn necessarily, but for making any movies involving non-white casts. I think that’s the hardest thing about representation today—it’s so tied up in profit that, even if it starts from a genuine place, it inevitably starts to be seen as a cash grab or a way of courting a new market. It’s really hard to separate the intention of the individual creators from the intention of the huge corporation trying to score brownie points with certain audience segments.
Patrick: Listen, we can easily make this whole conversation about how hot Tony Leung is. It is very heartening to see people discover the power of “Little Tony.”
In terms of the homages to wuxia, something about it feels affected as well. This results in vague cultural things like the mythical village of Tae Lo, which was very Shangri-La and orientalist—more Panda Express or PF Chang’s than something “authentic.”
I think a lot about this scene from Do The Right Thing where Mookie talks to Pino about how his favorite actor, musician and sports athlete were black, yet he still used the n-word and has racist views. This year the most popular movie has been Shang-Chi, the most popular baseball player is Shohei Ohtani, and BTS is regularly on the radio. Yet this is the same year that Robert Aaron Long killed six Asian women in a spa in Atlanta along with a slew of other Asian hate crimes. Thinking about my childhood, Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan are the coolest movie stars. Yet when I was called Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan on the playground, it did not make me feel cool. Even if Shang-Chi makes a lot of Asian kids feel proud, being called Shang-Chi won’t make it better.
That is why I am frustrated by representational checklisting as an end. We hold these works in high regard in the cultural discourse because it feels anointed by a big studio. Yet there are lots of Asian American art that are undervalued and underseen that have been doing the work. I started my time at Drink in the Movies after not writing about film for a long time because I felt so inspired by Drink a Bowl of Tea. This was a 1988 movie directed by Wayne Wang about the problems of diaspora in Chinese communities in the late 1940s. Wayne Wang has continued to make interesting work about diaspora since then, yet it felt like it took a while for people to come around to talking about his work as a filmmaker. Same thing with the previously mentioned Alice Wu, whose first film Saving Face is a cult classic LGBTQ+ film, set in the Asian community. Yet it took her 15 years between that film and The Half of It. When people express appreciation for Shang Chi as it is a savior for representation, as a first of its kind, it feels diminishing to other pieces of valuable art. I do not wish to make this an either/or situation, but Marvel has sold itself as that and continuously fuels that thinking by taking money from mid-budget films and theater space.
There is a great book by Cathy Hong Park called Minor Feeling: An Asian American Reckoning and in it she presents a lot of ideas of discomfort of Asian American identity in America. She has a passage about Crazy Rich Asians in which she says of the opening scene in which Michelle Yeoh decides to buy the hotel that would not house them because of discrimination:
“The takeaway from the crowd-pleasing opening scene… if you discriminate against us, we’ll make more money than you and buy your fancy hotel that wouldn’t let us in. Capitalism as retribution for racism. But isn’t that how whiteness recruits us? Whether it’s through retribution or indebtedness, who are we when we become better than them in a system that has destroyed us?”
In many ways, I feel like the celebration of Shang-Chi is rooted in the idea above. There is a desperate need to be accepted by a system that so easily discriminates. Look into the behind the scenes controversies behind three of the biggest Asian American mainstream works: Fresh Off the Boat, Kim’s Convenience, and Crazy Rich Asians. Despite being prominent shows and movies about Asian Americans, power imbalance continues to brew and racist tendencies appear.
So my question is, what does Shang-Chi ultimately solve? Do we need an Asian superhero? Well, we have Detective Dee, Bahubbali, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, all of anime.
Do we need more Asian Americans on screen? Sure, but at what costs are we bending over backwards to a certain ideal to plead to people to look at us as people?
I am not sure if Shang-Chi is the salve that people declare it as—that Disney declares it as.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings Trailer
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is currently available in wide theatrical release and will be available to stream on Disney+ October 17th.