Destin Daniel Cretton | 2021
The efforts of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to keep refreshing itself by dipping into different genres at times seem more evocative of greater films than aiming to become one, and though there is certainly no shortage of artistically transcendent Chinese wuxia films to put Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings in its place, there is an authentic delicacy to its style one doesn’t often find in typical comic book fare. At its centre is our newest superhero, the titular Shang-Chi, a Chinese immigrant whose shady family history remains largely secret from even those closest to him. After an attempted assassination on his life, he quickly finds himself drawn back into a world he had hoped was well behind him. Yet as his story progresses deeper into the devious Ten Rings organisation and the mystical village of Ta Lo, director Destin Daniel Cretton also turns up the elegant beauty of his landscapes and martial arts choreography, bringing a sensuality to Shang-Chi’s personal journey of self-discovery.
There is a visceral impact to casting stuntman Simu Liu in the lead role, as his ability to carry fight scenes without the manipulation of rapid-fire editing allows for some truly impressive choreography to shine through. The first we see of him in combat is on a moving bus, a set piece which, while being a thrilling exertion of bombastic visual effects and choreography, is later topped by more emotionally loaded hand-to-hand contests of precision, strength, and manoeuvring. Eventually, these martial arts encounters transform more into cooperative dances than vindictive, bitter clashes, each combatant working in unison to craft beauty from the collaborative motion of their bodies.
This tension between conflict and coordination is the key to unlocking the complex nuances of Shang-Chi’s relationship with his absent father and master of the Ten Rings, Wenwu. It takes a lot of effort on Liu’s part to not be blown off the screen every time Tony Leung appears alongside him as the family patriarch, providing a performance that certainly makes for one of the most compelling, nuanced Marvel villains we have seen. What could have been a rather dull objective for Wenwu, to recover his deceased wife from another dimension, takes on extra poignancy in the consideration of his entire, centuries-spanning life. Here is an immortal who had effectively given up all power and world-dominating ambition to start a family, only to lose that hope and blame himself when that new life was shattered.
Cretton’s frequent flashbacks bring a real sense of historical weight to the world being built in Shang-Chi, but they also offer Wenwu more depth and empathy than the traditional comic book supervillain, revealing a man whose journey to treachery isn’t as clear-cut as one might expect. Carrying a dangerous mixture of grief, shame, regret, and rage, Leung turns Wenwu into the sort of unpredictable antagonist who isn’t quite sure whether he wants to protect or exact vengeance on his own son, and as such can’t find peace in his internal conflict.
And therein lies the power of this film’s use of martial arts – the paradox of cooperative movement and friction is echoed predominantly within those fights between Shang-Chi’s core family members, as we first witness during the opening prologue where Wenwu meets his future wife, Ying Li. With him dressed all in white, her in a flowing green dress, and their elegant combat set against a gorgeous backdrop of vivid red leaves, an alluring connection emerges between them, underscored even further by the glimpses of eye contact we receive in moments of stunning slow-motion. Cretton calls back to this later in a fight between father and son, this time using the same aesthetic techniques to reveal a mutual recognition of their broken relationship, and which can now only be expressed through a collaborative act of violence, regret, and every so often, a display of genuine compassion.
At a certain point, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings does turn into the sort of predictable, weightless CGI-fest one might expect from a superhero movie fixated on world-ending stakes. Immediately preceding this though is another epic battle of sorts between two rivalling factions of fighters, one side dressed in black, the other in uniform, deep reds, and it is just slightly disappointing that this striking display of ambitious, large-scale combat made up of awe-inspiring stuntmen and women doesn’t play out for longer.
It would be a disservice to simply label this movie as “beautifully shot” and leave it at that, as the level of attention which goes into the colour palettes and designs of the ancient Chinese village where this battle takes places deliberately evokes the style of more traditional wuxia films. In a particularly exquisite shot towards the end, Cretton lets us linger on an array of glowing, golden lanterns floating atop a lake at night, as the red-clad villagers stand in the background and watch these spirit-like lights drift away. There may be patches of weakness here which keep Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings from transcending its comic book movie trappings, but when it comes to using precisely choreographed action as a means to develop character arcs and relationships, the emotional resonance is powerful.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is currently streaming on Disney Plus.