Your kids will flip over ‘Shang-Chi’ while it trips over a China divide

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Editor’s note: Journalism professor Buck Ryan and English lecturer Lei Jiao — based in Wuhan, China — are back with their third film review for the CN+R as they seek the holy grail of cross-cultural understanding in these chaotic times. To catch up on their past lessons in Chinese history and culture, you can read their reviews of “Mulan” and “Raya and the Last Dragon,” the links for which are at the bottom of this story.

“Hey, Lei, what’s up with all these rings?”

“Well, Buck, you know the leprechaun’s lament: ‘They’re always after me lucky charms!’ The film ‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ is something like that wuxia-style.”

“Wuxia?”

“Yes, wu (pronounced woo) means ‘martial’ and xia (pronounced shah) means ‘hero.’”

“So, Lei, wuxia is a style of storytelling?”

“Yes, Buck, film producer Peter Shiao says it best: It’s a fantasy genre of romanticism and poeticism from the East, the realm of the outsider, the wandering hero and champion of the common man who is compelled by circumstances to stand against injustice.”

“Awesome. While we’re talking Chinese, what’s up with the hyphen in Shang-Chi?”

“Yeah, Buck, that’s a tip we’re dealing with a hero who is a second-generation bilingual ABC.”

“ABC?”

“American Born Chinese.”

“Oh.”

“The hero’s last name is Xu, so his real Chinese name would be Xu Shangqi. ‘Qi’ is pronounced ‘chee.’”

“Right, Lei, I remember ‘qi’—that powerful life force—when we were reviewing ‘Mulan.’ Your mom called in a qi master to help the force be with her.”

“Yeah, Buck, but Shang-Chi has qi on steroids.”

“So is Shang-Chi a hero you grew up admiring as a kid in China like I did Superman?”

“No, Buck, he’s an American comic book hero like Superman.”

“Oh, so nothing like Mulan, whose legend has been traced to a real girl. Maybe more like Raya and her dragon?”

“Right.”

“So have you taken your daughter, Ruby, to see the film in a Wuhan movie theater yet?”

“No, unlike ‘Mulan’ and ‘Raya,’ which we could see at the movies here for five bucks or less, ‘Shang-Chi’ hasn’t been approved for viewing by the authorities yet.”

“But those other films were available online with Disney+ for $30.”

“Not this time. ‘Shang-Chi’ is the first Marvel Studios movie to debut exclusively in theaters since 2019.”

“And what a debut! The film is a smash, certified as fresh on Rotten Tomatoes with a rating of 92 percent — not No. 1 like ‘Black Panther,’ but higher than ‘Captain America.’”

“I’m hearing different things about the box office — how did it do there?”

“Socko! ‘Shang-Chi’ set an all-time Labor Day weekend box office record in the U.S., bringing in $94.4 million over four days, almost two-thirds of the $150 million or so it cost Marvel Studios to make.”

“Labor Day for you was September 6. In China it’s May 1, 2022, so Ruby and I may get to see it in a theater by then.”

“What?”

“Just kidding. So far it looks like ‘Shang-Chi’ might be a casualty of our poor U.S.-China relations.”

“Why do you say that?”

“On Hong Kong’s online ticket platform, the film’s rating is pretty low, about only 3.6 out of 10, and official Chinese media declared it a bust at the box office.”

“Why would the film be so controversial?”

“Well, Buck, let’s start with Shang-Chi’s father. The Marvel Cinematic Universe framed the film as ‘a story of a young man with a dark past who is forced to reckon with his family’s secret history.’”

“And that family secret is?”

“Well, in the comic books, the father was an evil bastard who represented the ‘Yellow Peril,’ you know, the psycho-cultural menace representing an existential threat to the Western world.”

“Oh gee.”

“Yep, that was Fu Manchu, or ‘the Mandarin.’ The film, however, changes up the character of Shang-Chi’s father, gives him the surname Xu (pronounced ‘shoe’), makes him a more complex, humane and convincing dad, then nervously makes inside jokes about the comic books’ racist past.”

“Racist, eh?”

“The original comic books depicted Fu Manchu with a ridiculous moustache and a Qing Dynasty hat. Buck, we’re living in a world where Dr. Seuss got canceled for drawing a yellow man with a ponytail as a ‘Chinaman who eats with sticks.’ Remember?”

“Touché, Lei.”

“And, Buck, it doesn’t help that Shang-Chi’s father was striving for world domination.”

“Oh double-gee. Something’s telling me you may never see the film in theaters in China.”

“That would be a big blow to Disney. In 2019, with its release of ‘Avengers: Endgame,’ Disney earned 22% of its ticket sales from China.”

“I’ve read that China is cracking down on its entertainment industry lately.”

“True dat. The government’s crackdown follows quite a few celebrity scandals in the past year. I think it is an attempt to create a more positive influence of idols and role models for the younger generation and to enforce socialist values.”

“So you think the government regulators are tracking so much criticism on social media from angry netizens about ‘Shang-Chi’ that it’s giving them pause?”

“I think Disney is in a dance with the authorities, hoping for Swan Lake, not swan dive.”

“Lei, I keep hearing Shang-Chi described as the ‘first Asian American superhero’ even though the actor playing him, the amazing Simu Liu, is Canadian and the actor playing his father, Tony Leung, is from Hong Kong.”

“Welcome to America, Buck. That’s how Disney does its branding — and money-making. Remember, it’s all fiction.”

“So, Lei, does the film’s imagery ring true as Chinese, or is ‘Shang-Chi’ a mashup of Asian cultures like ‘Raya and the Last Dragon’?”

“It’s definitely a mashup with Chinese characteristics.”

“What makes you say that, Lei?”

“Kung fu, sure, very Chinese, Taiji boxing, dragons, yup; sacred beasts, lanterns, ninjas from Japan or maybe they are actually wearing masks from the Beijing opera, bamboo forests, car racing, fight club, karaoke, jokes. It’s a typical Hollywood understanding of pan-Asian culture. I’d say this ‘Master of Kung Fu’ story is a Chinese dumpling with Thanksgiving turkey filling.”

“Everybody seems to be offended by something these days. Anything bother you?”

“Personally I don’t see anything offensive to the Chinese culture. And I quite enjoy the bus fight and the bamboo rack fight with Jackie Chan’s footprint all over it — just like you would see in his movies.”

“What about the meaning of life — any deep insights in the film?”

“Chinese believe that your true self is flawed, like a plant that needs constant trimming and pruning. The best life is a transformative path of lifelong self-cultivation and self-discipline.”

“That doesn’t sound like Shang-Chi.”

“Actually I think his persona is the opposite of traditional Chinese values and philosophy. The Western concept of ‘self’ portrayed by Shang-Chi is to break away from the past, to be free from tradition, and to stay true to oneself.”

“Do you think the film, if it’s ever released, will be a hit in China?”

“Not like in the U.S. The movie’s focus group is Asian Americans. It can work as an olive branch to Asian American communities amidst all the anti-Asian sentiment and harassment, even violence.”

“But so many Marvel blockbusters have been smash hits in China in the past.”

“That’s true, Buck. I guess people, whether they be Chinese or American, are never tired of the highly commercialized vengeance stories. With Shang-Chi, you have a car-parking underdog rising to the top joining his spandex-wearing, hammer-carrying friends to save the world.”

“Any hope the film might be celebrated by the Chinese authorities, and you and Ruby will get to see it in a Wuhan movie theater soon?”

“Oh boy, Buck, it will take all 10 rings for that to happen.”

About the authors: Buck Ryan, a University of Kentucky journalism professor, and Lei Jiao, an English lecturer at Wuhan University of Technology, Hubei Province, China, collaborate on articles to advance cross-cultural understanding. Ryan, who is doing a “participatory case study” of the News + Record, has been a visiting scholar at three universities in China, including Jiao’s WUT. To read prior reviews, go to:

• https://www.chathamnewsrecord.com/stories/love-conquers-slings-and-arrows-aimed-at-new-version,6690

• https://www.chathamnewsrecord.com/stories/raya-meets-camus-so-you-think-its-just-a-kids-movie-eh,8702

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