I don’t know if this is my most attractive quality, but I’m obsessed with kung fu. But only if I can watch somebody else get kicked in the face. Martial arts films have been my not-so-guilty pleasure for many years, particularly those of the wuxia variety. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Hero” filled me with a sense of awe and adventure and grounded me in an understated spirituality that colors my beliefs today. Realistic flicks like “Ip Man” moved with a graceful deadliness that froze me to my seat. They will always be a part of me.
But when “Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” was released on September 3, I was more than a little apprehensive to see it. I felt it was doomed to be another flavorless Marvel flick, full of dull cinematography, incessant quipping and zero creative risks. More than one after-credits scene. Woof. I was ready to be disappointed.
The film follows Shaun, played charmingly by Simu Liu. He leads an unfulfilling life in San Francisco, parking fancy cars and partying with his best friend, Katie (Awkwafina). That is, until his father’s men attack them and steal Shaun’s pendant. His father — played hauntingly by Tony Leung — is Xu Wenwu, an immortal warlord gone mad. He reveals his plan to use the pendant to locate and conquer Ta Lo, a mythical village where he believes his deceased wife has been imprisoned. After revealing his past as an assassin to Katie, Shaun teams up with his sister Xu Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), his aunt Ying Nan (Michelle Yeoh) and Katie to find and protect Ta Lo, and prevent Xu Wenwu from releasing the Dweller-in-Darkness, the evil entity luring him there. Ben Kingsley also makes an appearance as Trevor Slattery — aka the Mandarin from Iron Man 3 — whose presence grounds the film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The most sincere compliment I can give “Shang Chi” is that it doesn’t even feel like a Marvel movie — it’s much better. Its characters are funny without being quippy, and in their soaring moments, they submerge us in the deep emotional waters characteristic of the wuxia genre. Watching the characters fight is like witnessing a violent dance performance: Generic punches and brute force are replaced with the fierce lyricism of wire-fu and traditional wushu. The film, in harmony with its influencing works, asserts its own uniquely Asian identity in an invigorating and decidedly “un-Marvel” way.
Still, it remains a Marvel movie in some ways. The movie is set in a realm of mythical creatures and abilities, but when you pair sometimes uninspiring cinematography with unnecessary CGI, it numbs viewers to the emotional impact of the scene. Watching two CGI beasts fighting in a CGI setting with no interesting shots made for a disappointing finale.
“Shang Chi” presents a uniquely captivating adventure that occasionally slips into Marvel nonsense. Old habits die hard, but not hard enough to kill this film, which rises above its peers as worthy of a second watch. Maybe even a third.