By GWEN MURANAKA, Rafu Senior Editor
“Does he look like he can fight?” says Katy (Awkwafina), referring to her bestie Shaun (Simu Liu), right before he wallops an entire busload of bad guys in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.”
There’s a new Marvel superhero and, seeing Liu punch, kick and toss out a mean quip, I thought of how my nephew Spencer might be wearing a Shang-Chi costume for Halloween and how cool that is. Finally, a hero who is proudly Asian, who isn’t the sidekick or the nerdy scientist.
The hero of “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” opening on Friday, is front and center in his own movie, and the way the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) works, he will be back to fight again.
When we first meet Shang-Chi he is going by “Shaun,” living a mediocre life, working as a valet in San Francisco and trying to avoid his true destiny as a master of martial arts. Naturally, a video of the bus scuffle goes viral online, leading Shang-Chi and Katy on an adventure to far-off lands and encounters with fantastical beasts, the worst being his father, Xu Wenwu, (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung), leader of the Ten Rings crime syndicate, whose true identity will be familiar to Marvel fans.
Watching this latest superhero romp, it made me think of the last time I was in an actual movie theater back before the pandemic changed everything. We went to the Arclight in Manhattan Beach to see “Parasite,” the South Korean dark comedy about class and privilege that won the Best Picture Oscar in February 2020.
At that time, “Parasite” was a moment when Asians had reached a pinnacle of acclaim and acceptance in predominantly white Hollywood. Standing on the stage of the Kodak Theater, clutching a gold statue, director Bong Joon Ho exclaimed, “I feel like something will hit me and I will wake up from this dream.”
It has been a dream since then, but not the kind any of us wanted or could have imagined.
A month later, COVID-19 would upend everything. Movie theaters closed, chains such as Arclight have gone out of business and, much worse, Asians have experienced traumatic levels of violence, discrimination and racism.
So much has happened that watching “Shang-Chi” in 2021 feels like more than just another fun, action flick. As an Asian American who survived 2020, it feels like a statement that we matter.
Having said that, “Shang-Chi” is a fun flick, in the vein of “Ant Man,” kept light with humor and the chemistry between stars Liu and Awkwafina. Also welcome is the presence of so many familiar Asian stars, including Michelle Yeoh, Benedict Wong and Ronny Chieng, as well as Jodi Long, an alum of East West Players. Because this is a Marvel film, there are cameos that are too fun to spoil the surprise and end-credit scenes that tease adventures to come.
In this time of the Delta variant, it is understandable if folks might be hesitant to go to a movie theater, but the special effects, sound and action scenes are made to be seen on a big screen.
Casting has been one of the strengths in Marvel films and “Shang-Chi” is no different, particularly in its Asian Canadian star, Liu, known for his role in the Netflix comedy “Kim’s Convenience.” It’s thrilling to see the emergence of a young star who, like Daniel Dae Kim, Sandra Oh and Tamlyn Tomita, isn’t afraid to use his celebrity to battle tired stereotypes and amplify AAPI voices.
Liu emigrated from China at the age of 5 and was raised in Ontario, Canada. He attended the Richard Ivey School of Business and worked for a top accounting firm before he was laid off, leading to a career change. He campaigned to win the role of “Shang-Chi” and seems to be making the most of it, keenly aware of its potential to change popular culture and perceptions of Asians.
Back in March, Liu wrote a column for Variety on anti-Asian racism, referring to the fatal attack in February on an 84-year-old Thai American in San Francisco. He wrote: “Anti-Asian racism is very real, and it will not be solved with an opulent rom-com or Marvel superhero, but with you — the bystanders — acknowledging the validity of our pain.
“When I see photos of these Asian elders who have been attacked, I see the embodiment of my own parents’ journey; their dreams and their struggles; their sorrow and their unwavering optimism. How many Vicha Ratanapakdees need to happen before you see anything at all?”
Liu hasn’t been afraid to call out the powers-that-be at Disney either. When Disney CEO Bob Chapek called the film “an interesting experiment” in reference to its 45-day theatrical release window, but also perhaps implying that films starring Asians are also experimental. To this, Liu responded with a fiery retort.
“We are not an experiment. We are the underdog; the underestimated. We are the ceiling-breakers. We are the celebration of culture and joy that will persevere after an embattled year. We are the surprise. I’m fired the f**k up to make history on September 3rd; JOIN US.”
Those sound like fighting words — and after the past year we’ve all experienced — I am more than ready for it.
“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” directed by Destin Daniel Cretton and starring Simu Liu, Awkwafina, and Tony Chiu-Wai Leung, opens in theaters on Friday. Rafu readers can check our social media for a chance to win free passes.
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