Friday, 19 November 2021

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Destin Daniel Cretton's Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is yet another example of a Marvel film in which a well sketched villain ends up obliterating, rather than elevating, its heroes. Tony Leung Chiu-wai plays the bad guy in question, Xu Wenwu, an ancient warlord who has spent centuries clinging to life as the master of a shadowy assassination syndicate thanks to his collection of alien jewellery. Wenwu's story - threaded throughout via flashbacks lousy with Disney's wrinkle scrubbing digital make up - is that of a thrashing monster, a deathless maniac finally brought to heel, physical and emotionally, by his love for Fala Chen's Ying Li, a tai chi master with ties to an inaccessible, spectral, village who ends up paying for her husband's wrongdoings. 

Wenwu introduces a number of exciting tensions to the Legend of the Ten Rings. First, and most obviously, the character is played by Leung, a veteran Hong Kong actor who worked with Wong Kar-wai and John Woo during their 90s peak. Closing in on his 60s, Leung still possesses leading man good looks and is effortlessly capable of communicating both moral complication and a deep, underlining, sadness. Conceptually, the character is a cocktail, drawing from several separate but essentially Sinophobic sources. In the comics Shang-Chi's father is Dr Fu Manchu, Sax Rohmer's Limehouse mastermind woven into Marvel continuity by Steve Englehart, Al Milgrom and Thanos creator Jim Starlin. Here, the character also offers Cretton and his co-writers Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham an opportunity to rehabilitate the Mandarin, a supervillain previously portrayed as a nudging critique of American Orientalism in Shane Black's Iron Man Three - apparently a major sticking point for those in the audience who demand obsequiousness in their comic book adaptations. 

Lastly, Wenwu has a clear objective - one that passes for romantic in this hyperbolic, multidimensional, comic book setting - he wants to rescue his dead wife from the afterlife. Comparatively, Simu Liu's Xu Shang-Chi is depicted as a millennial everyman who has abdicated from his father's life of all-consuming criminality to park cars in America with his platonic best pal Katy, played by Awkwafina. Shang-Chi is hiding, denying his terrible heritage to craft an identity centred around a different kind of invisibility to that exercised by his Dad. There's also a dangling insinuation - one that film never capitalises on - that the bones making mission that brought Shang-Chi to the United States was the elimination of an elderly relative of Katy's. Pauses and interpersonal stress are woven into the film but never clarified, denying the otherwise flat Shang-Chi a sticking point that might actually complicate a viewer's response to this fledgling Avenger. 

Aside from a scrappy bus battle that overcomes the film's soft, computer painted, affectation to briefly prickle the urban anxiety felt by Jackie Chan in Rumble in the Bronx, the real meat of the Shang-Chi character resides in his proximity to his all-powerful father. Wenwu subordinates his child, obviously, but it's the supervillain's attempts at instruction or, in one case, rebuttal that provide the film's strongest material. There are two scenes at either end of the film in which Wenwu defines to his son what he expects from his heir. The first sees Wenwu take Shang-Chi on a father-son trip to exterminate a gambling den as a way to salve their bereavement. The ultra-confident Wenwu is never in danger, dispatching his enemies with such ease that a note of distraction or even tenderness is allowed to creep in. The gangsters he kills are props, the emotional back-and-forth in the scene is strictly between father and son. Wenwu demonstrating to his male offspring the weight he ascribes to a blood debt. Much later, when the film is winding down, we discover the private thoughts that prompted that outing: Wenwu expected his children to fight and die, rather than flee, when their mother was endangered. Trapped on a green screen background, Leung plays these withering expectations to thin air. 

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