Marvel’s “Shang-Chi” jabs and flips Asian-American film shots

LOS ANGELES – Like many Asian actors, Simu Liu played the unnamed guy who can do martial arts but inevitably loses to a more skilled white man. It was one of his very first stunts.

“Yes, I took my paycheck and went home. I didn’t really complain about it, ”the Chinese-Canadian actor said. “But then you look at the big picture and you look at the opportunities for Asian artists. You see that yes, past a certain point there really isn’t that deeper portrayal.

Now, it’s time for Liu to take out the bad guys and be No.1 on the call sheet. He stars in the first Marvel Studios-led superhero film in Asia, “Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings”. The highly anticipated film, which opens Friday, has all the bells and whistles of a Marvel tent pole – huge fight sequences, dizzying stunts and sweeping locations. While Shang-Chi can kick and punch any opponent, is the “kung fu master” powerful enough that Hollywood finally buries the tired story tropes and backs them up. projects of actors and filmmakers of Asian origin?

The film, directed and written by Asian Americans, centers around the trained assassin Shang-Chi trying to live an ordinary life in San Francisco. Awkwafina and comedian Ronny Chieng are also on the bill. The original comic was inspired by the popular 70s kung fu movies. It pays homage to those but also strives to bring humanity out of the action. Liu, known for the sitcom “Kim’s Convenience,” won the role for his acting chops, not his karate chops.

“It’s his comedy. It’s his ability to show both strength and vulnerability, ”said Destin director Daniel Cretton. “It is his humanity that breaks stereotypes.

The genre of martial arts films has been a double-edged sword for Asian Americans for decades. Bruce Lee, who was born in San Francisco, is credited with bringing Hong Kong kung fu movies to non-Asian audiences due to his breathtaking martial arts prowess. But for many men of Asian descent, it’s still an unfortunate rite of passage to be mockingly called Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan or to be asked about karate knowledge.

“When I moved from Hawaii to California, it was the first time that a random person in a bar called me Bruce Lee casually and jokingly,” Cretton said. “I love Bruce Lee. It’s awesome. The only problem is, that’s all we had.

In fact, a national survey commissioned by the leading Asian Americans to Unite for Change nonprofit in the spring found that 42% of 2,766 adults surveyed couldn’t name a famous Asian American. The next two most popular answers? Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee.

Phil Yu, who comments on Asian-American pop culture on his longtime blog “Angry Asian Man,” also co-hosts a podcast, “They Call Us Bruce.” Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan themselves have never been the problem, he said. It was the way Hollywood worked with the formula.

“It sounds like martial arts, the concept as it has been distorted through a western lens, is used to classify us, to make us feel smaller, and to make fun of us,” Yu said. -Chi “,” when you have a movie that is almost entirely Asian… or almost all the faces are Asian, you have room for everyone to serve a different narrative purpose. “

Another cliché that persists is that of the mystical Asian mentor who trains a white protagonist in martial arts. The white student then becomes the savior back to the United States. It’s a story that Marvel received a backlash for when, in 2017, they threw a white lead in their Netflix series “Iron Fist”.

The “Shang-Chi” team assures that their foray into the Marvel Cinematic Universe is something that speaks to the Asian American experience. The Explosive Adventure is ultimately a family drama about a young Asian immigrant who shies away from his father’s wish to live his own life in America. Dave Callaham, a co-writer, felt moved by the script.

“I have been writing professionally for 19 years. This is the first time I’ve been asked to write from my own perspective, ”Callaham said. “Every other movie I’ve ever written is ‘Step One: Imagine you’re a handsome man named Chris’ – a white man usually.”

“Shang-Chi” is the latest in a group of martial arts-themed productions with Asian actors in the foreground. “Snake Eyes,” starring “Crazy Rich Asians” star Henry Golding and based on the “GI Joe” character, opened in July. This movie also starred Andrew Koji, who is the frontman of the HBO Max series “Warrior”. The historical drama, which has been renewed for a third season, was inspired by a pitch written by Bruce Lee. Then there’s the recently revamped CW Network’s “Kung Fu,” a remake of the 1970s series where white David Carradine played a Shaolin monk.

New “Kung Fu” star Olivia Liang said it looked like Asians were asking for something.

“We get to have fully fleshed out characters who also kick (butt) and do martial arts. … That’s the biggest difference I’m feeling right now, ”Liang said at the“ Shang-Chi ”premiere last month. Entertainment “shapes our view of the world. Because we’ve been so under-represented for so long, people who don’t see a lot of Asians in the community forget that we’re part of the fabric of their world.

“Angry Asian Man” blogger Yu is happy to see these more gradual adaptations, but is keen to see Asian talent overtake this area.

“We still play in this box of Asians as martial arts heroes,” Yu said. “There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with that. But this box should be larger. Look at all of these things that are Asian led stories that have come out in the last couple of years. “

“Shang-Chi” comes at a time when Asian Americans are looking to escape, but also to feel more visible. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Asians and Asian Americans have been the target of race-based verbal and physical assault as the virus was first reported in China. All the actors of “Shang-Chi” used their platform to express themselves or to give money.

Like the romantic comedy “Crazy Rich Asians” three years ago, “Shang-Chi” has more pressure than most of its fellow MCU movies. It is this pressure that makes the future of Asian-led projects tied to box office success.

“We are always seen as each other,” said Jodi Long, who plays Ms. Chen in the film. “I just don’t think we get included sometimes. I think this movie will hopefully change that because it’s our first Asian superhero. We have a lot of heroes in our Asian American community.


Associated Press video journalist Amanda Lee Myers contributed to this report.

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