“When’s the last time we watched a movie in an actual cinema?” I asked my husband while our three kids were taking turns jumping off him.
“I don’t remember,” he replied.
Earlier, my siblings had told me via Whatsapp how much they loved Shang-Chi, The Legend of Ten Rings. That solidified my decision. Even though they’re all the way in Sydney and I’m in Malaysia, we’re connected by our love of good Asian representation and Marvel movies.
With my husband and I fully vaccinated, masked and socially-distanced from everyone in the cinema, I hoped it would be worth the extra effort. Truth be told, I’d had enough of Marvel movies in recent years. I grew bored of all the subtle variations on Marvel-approved white men who rush to be the hero and were groomed for it their entire lives. Thankfully, Shang-Chi was a movie that resonated so much more with me compared to Iron Man, Captain America or Thor.
I’d had enough of Marvel movies in recent years. I grew bored of all the subtle variations on Marvel-approved white men who rush to be the hero and were groomed for it their entire lives.
Watching Shang-Chi, I found myself relating to the themes of family, loyalty, sacrifice, breaking toxic intergenerational cycles; and moved by seeing familiar cultural values onscreen. It was also thrilling to see so many nods to Asian culture like kung fu, karaoke, family meals and strong matriarchs in a blockbuster film.
Shang-Chi, played by Simu Liu, is an Asian-American Marvel hero I can vouch for. He struggles with finding his place in the world, in a country he wasn’t born in. After fleeing a traumatic childhood, he carved out a new life as an unassuming valet driver in San Francisco with his Asian-American co-worker and friend Katy, played by Awkwafina. He starts off the movie estranged from his problematic father. He misses his tender, gentle mother. He has a complicated relationship with his younger sister, both survivors of an apocalyptic childhood. These themes are all very relatable to me.
One of my favourite scenes was at the start of the movie, where Shang-Chi and Katy grab a quick bite at Katy’s family home and exchange pleasantries with her mother, brother and grandmother. Even though I don’t understand much Mandarin, I loved being able to hear it in a Marvel movie, and I enjoyed reading the subtitles in both English and Malay.
It’s rare to see lovingly portrayed family meals alongside exciting fight scenes. Shang-Chi had plenty of great action sequences, with gorgeously choreographed wuxia scenes. Before watching the film, I was worried about how its Asian female characters would be portrayed. Would the script succumb to Hollywood’s long history of stereotyping us? Would they be sexualised? Accused of being bad drivers? Reduced to one-dimensional caricatures?
Before watching the film, I was worried about how its Asian female characters would be portrayed.
To my relief, none of that happened. Instead, I got to delight in watching Asian and Asian-American women who were incredibly different to one another and yet so familiar to me. I loved that Awkwafina wasn’t just a funny side-kick used to prop up the male lead. Her character is an Asian-American woman who understands Mandarin but isn’t comfortable speaking it, and prefers going by her American name. Over the course of the movie, she finds her footing as Shang-Chi’s past catches up to both of them – showing her adaptability and resilience.
Shang-Chi’s mother, played by Fala Chen, is a maternal, tender and strong-willed warrior-mother. Actress Michelle Yeoh played a mesmerising Ying Nan (aunt of Shang-Chi); while Tony Leung did a brilliant job as Xu Wenwu, Shang-Chi’s father. Leung’s on-screen presence was electrifying and he captured perfectly the bewilderment of an Asian father who cannot comprehend why his firstborn son would deny himself the power and privilege of his family’s empire.
Stories like Shang-Chi matter. Yes, these may be characters in a Marvel Universe, but there are real-world consequences to the kinds of stories we consume. Mainstream movies can either build bridges of understanding, or deepen gulfs when they continue to ignore our lived experiences. The fact that it’s taken this long for Marvel to even have an all-Asian cast is proof enough that Hollywood still has a long way to go. Rising rates of anti-Asian sentiment since the COVID-19 pandemic shows just how necessary it is for there to be relatable, positive and nuanced storytelling around diaspora Asian communities. It’s frightening to think that Asian women and Asian elders have been targets of hate simply by existing.
The fact that it’s taken this long for Marvel to even have an all-Asian cast is proof enough that Hollywood still has a long way to go.
Without giving away spoilers, Shang-Chi is a love letter to the Asian diaspora. Being an Asian migrant to the west is a chaotic and beautiful thing. Multiple realities can co-exist. You can disappoint your Asian father, even if he’s not the head of the world’s criminal organisation. You can draw strength from the compassion and patience of your Asian mother, even if she suffers from the fallout of your Asian crime lord father’s past. And action hero or not — you can love family meals, karaoke and get annoyed at your grandmother asking you when you’re going to get married.
Shang-Chi makes me think about what kind of legacy I want to leave behind for my biracial children. The intersections of my identity flow on to theirs. I hope that by the time they’re teenagers and young adults, Asian representation on the big screen will be simply and exquisitely ordinary, and not the groundbreaking event is today.