Film Review: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

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Boiled Tofu

Marvel’s formula is a wash that cleanses its movies of all flavour. The directors’ names change, so too the composers, but you’ll be damned if you can get to the end of these flicks and taste anything – it’s like chewing buffet tofu. Until now that sensory flatlining has been a regret but with Shang-Chi, the studio’s foray into Eastern mysticism and Wuxia flicks, it’s a betrayal of the movie’s poster promise. What’s the point of experimenting with fusion food if you don’t add the spices? A film designed to sell orientalism to the Chinese looks like its iconography has been ripped from those free calendars you get at your local takeaway. The equivalent would be a portrait of Britain sourced from a branch of Churchill Gifts.

The shift toward calibrating Hollywood movies for the Chinese market (thereby ruining them) has been going on for two decades now. Chinese box office is big business. But what American movies used to offer were personalities, both in front of and behind the camera, who unapologetically celebrated the parent culture’s irreverence and decadence. Shang-Chi, from its flat composition and mechanical editing, to its low-key score, is a curiously muted offering. It begins with a thin slice of Americana – just enough to orientate its core audience, then leaves it behind for a quiet, unshowy tale of dynastic power and hereditary angst. Ben Kingsley’s served up as a buffoon – an apology for Iron Man 3’s cultural appropriation in a movie built on cultural appropriation.

The film’s lack of guile or invention aside, the big question posed by Shang-Chi is can a cinematic universe rely on an expanding mythology alone? The MCU’s always been a magpie – its characters dropped into films that liberally borrow from better movies, sprinkled with pop cultural ephemera – but those initial phases were personality driven. Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Thor, the Hulk – these were big characters. That cut through even if the stories that introduced them were underwhelming. But if you wouldn’t launch a universe with heroes whose connection to the mythos is arguably more interesting than they are, why would you rely on that tactic now?

Simu Lu’s chop-socky nice guy is affable but forgettable. The filmmakers have acknowledged this in-movie by pairing him with Awkwafina’s wide-eyed, jokey tagalong. If he’s not strong enough to carry his own movie, how can he power a franchise? Similar questions can be asked of Doctor Strange, Black Panther’s supporting cast (as Chadwick Boseman is no longer available), Peter Parker, Captain Marvel, and the forthcoming self-serious, implicitly insipid Eternals.

Shang-Chi for all its Asian iconography and sub-Kill Bill action, is a prisoner of the aforementioned Marvel formula. It’s too light to be involving, undercutting big moments with glib humour. It’s too generic in its staging to be memorable. But most fatally, it’s too plugged in to that wider scheme – the films it must feed and co-exist with, to have its own identity. In a movie where much has been made of its identarian credentials, that would be pretty funny, but we’re increasingly too bored to laugh.

Ed’s novel, Murder by the Bottle is out now. Buy it from Amazon or the RedDoor Book Shop. But do buy it.

Directed by: Destin Daniel Cretton

Country: US

Year: 2021

Running Time: 132 mins

Certificate: 12A for ponderous family moments, boiled jokes, and Michelle Yeoh.

18 Responses

  1. Jennifer Hill says:

    The author lacks sufficient knowledge on the background of the film, and many terms and analyses he used are overall inaccurate.

    In the first paragraph, you already used the term “orientalism” which is an outdated inaccurate term (and considered to be related to mockery and racism to actual Asian culture), and it is clearly not what the film tries to sell, as the studio has been trying to be extremely culturally appropriate and with thorough research to avoid any outdated racial and cultural stereotypes. (unlike what this author has done)

    In the second paragraph, the author stated that basically Hollywood films have been ruined for two decades now due to studios’ expansion into the Chinese market. This again is laughably false, as in the past two decades, there are many critically acclaimed American films that had excellent box office in China (e.g. Interstellar, Avatar, 1917, Inception, Green Book, and many more).

    And then the author stated that in his opinion, the unapologetic irreverence was one of the reasons why the films before were good. I agree that films with a certain level of irreverence and sarcasm are interesting to watch, and many American films in the past two decades have done that. But if the author is talking about the ignorance, racism, racial stereotypes that only the films in the past have, which made the films better to watch for him, then it is clear why the author dislikes a film like Shang-chi, which celebrates the diversity in America while introducing a unique culture to the world.

    It is also attention-grabbing that the author chose the title “boiled tofu”. Which he tries to explain as a way to describe his feeling towards the film, of course, we can not easily judge his intention, but when all the other reviews to this Asian American lead film did not choose a title that is simply a strange sounding-horrible Asian dish, I think it is a bit obvious that similar to the actual review he wrote, ignorant and inaccurate.

    • Ed Whitfield says:

      The idea the review contains cultural or racial stereotypes is groundless. Orientalism is the right word because it refers to a reductive western view of Asian culture, rather than the authentic article. No one would say this movie is that. If the filmmakers tried so hard to avoid racial and cultural stereotypes, why tether the characters to ancient mysticism and dynastic politics? The film is a showcase for aspects of Chinese culture that Westerners have consumed from second hand sources. That’s the film as made. Their intentions may have been different, but I don’t review intentions. I can also reveal that Three Men and a Little Lady, despite featuring British actors, wasn’t an entirely accurate depiction of Englishness. If you’re shocked by that, there are plenty more examples where that came from.

      You misunderstood the second paragraph, perhaps because you were stewing over the misunderstood first paragraph. The point was not that American movies have been released into the Chinese market. American movies are released in multiple foreign territories and always have been. I was referring to studio pictures that have been designed to appeal specifically to the Chinese market (sometimes pandering to censorship and racism in the process). Usually when this happens, it’s at the expense of the film’s cultural specificity and such titles are typically artistically compromised. Another way of putting it would be to say they’re bland. A film designed to play widely everywhere and not trip any cultural sensitivities risks being characterless.

      The idea that I enjoy American films that showcase ignorance, racism and racial stereotypes is absurd and a product of your imagination. The point was that American cinema loses something when it flattens itself out to appeal to specific territories abroad. This is a by-product of escalating budgets and the rising importance of foreign markets in making American movies profitable. The same is true of Chinese cinema of course – the richness, dynamism and kineticism of which was tellingly absent from Shang-Chi. But I’m sure you noted this as you wouldn’t comment on such a thing from a position of total ignorance.

      To be clear, to address your sinister innuendo head on – there’s nothing horrible about tofu when it’s prepared with skill and culinary understanding. The title alludes to the way this American movie has served up a bland version of Chinese culture. You can discern this, if you’re not minded to make mischief and seek attention, by reading the words.

      As for your boorish final remark, I’ve deleted it as it’s a silly ad hominem attack that has nothing to do with the film under discussion. Though the ignorance it displayed was in keeping with the rest of your comments. Thanks for reading and see you at the movies!

  2. It’s funny that this article is akin to chewing on tofu with no taste at the end. As an Asian I think I speak for many Asians that we actually like the taste of tofu. It may taste bland to someone who has not grown up eating it or understanding the different tastes and textures, but to us it is extremely obvious and delicious. I understands this writer is just expressing their opinion, but it may be interesting for them to also understand as a critic that your opinion is sometimes unjustly flavored by your personal experiences or lack of.

    • Ed Whitfield says:

      Well Chad, I didn’t expect this to become a discussion about tofu, but I agree with you – tofu when done right is very good indeed. For me, this movie was like the white cubes you get in all you can eat buffets. In short, don’t presume to know what I know or don’t. Thanks for reading!

      • Maggie Choe says:

        Is there really such a thing as buffet tofu? If so, please do reference a place that you’ve been where they serve an item like this.

        But honestly speaking, it’s a disappointing metaphor that you’ve come up with to liken it with bad buffet food. From the comments you’ve written below, it looks like you’re shrugging off this point that other Asian people are trying to tell you is harmful. For someone reviewing a film and critiquing it on it’s “Orientalism” and cultural appropriation, using this boiled or buffet tofu metaphor is in bad taste. You seem to think that not taking accountability for this metaphor is the right approach. It’s not.

        “A film designed to sell orientalism to the Chinese looks like its iconography has been ripped from those free calendars you get at your local takeaway” — Three points here, 1. I’m not sure where you’re getting this Chinese market bias from because China deliberately doesn’t want this movie to be shown there. 2. Why would Chinese people want to be sold Orientalism? That’s an insulting claim. 3. Clearly you’re missing the point, there’s real Asian American history being showcased in this film. Yes, parts of the film look like that local takeaway because that’s an accurate representation of SF’s Chinatown. It’s not a caricature making fun of Asians, it’s a real tribute.

        “But what American movies used to offer were personalities, both in front of and behind the camera, who unapologetically celebrated the parent culture’s irreverence and decadence.” — What parent culture in which movies are you speaking to here? White American culture? That’s really the bulk of what we’re talking about (discounting Black Panther as I’m assuming you’re talking about decades of film here.)

        This review is problematic to say the least and uninformed at best. Do better.

        • Ed Whitfield says:

          Ironically, given the film’s initial setting, it was San Francisco where I first encountered tofu in an all you can eat buffet – bland little white cubes of the stuff with the consistency of satanic ejaculate. As this was 20 years ago, you’ll forgive me for not making a note of the name and business address, but then I wasn’t to know I’d be quizzed about it on the internet decades later by someone who apparently denies the existence of things that obviously exist.

          I have no accountability for using the metaphor, beyond selecting it as appropriate shorthand for the filmmaker’s approach to the material. I’m free to use any metaphor I wish. Neither of us own language. The idea it’s a racial slur is, as I’ve said, preposterous. Who’s harmed by it? You? Harmed by an allusion to a culturally specific product being served up in the blandest form possible? You seem to not understand the distinction between the theme of an argument and its target. Unless you work for Disney and Marvel, you are not the group being targeted by the insult. Again, this is apparent just by reading the review. Also, please don’t presume to speak for a community. 3 commentators who’ve had a kneejerk reaction to the phrase without considering the context or argument, don’t constitute an offended people.

          It’s nice that you read the film as a tribute to Asian Americans. That’s great. But Disney don’t make tributes they make movies that they hope will do well at the global box office and the market they’re desperate to crack – indeed, they’ve been making concessions to this country’s censor for years to ensure their flicks do well there, and including more of their actors to appeal to the country’s audience, is China. The market’s worth $9b. The screenwriter of Shang-Chi is on the record saying that the script was scrubbed and retooled to ensure it would be passed for Chinese exhibition. That’s because if American studios, if they get it right, can potentially double the US box office take if they can land a hit there. But the thinking about making American movies palatable to audiences begins in pre-production. Not all American movies. Just these four quadrant blockbusters that need global money to recoup the massive outlay involved. You say China “deliberately doesn’t want the movie”. The clumsy phrasing aside, I think you mean that it has yet to be passed by the CCP. But that’s not because of the movie-as-made, which was designed to be acceptable to Chinese audiences – it’s because a) the property has legacy issues with the Chinese government due to its association with Fu Manchu and b) and most importantly – Simu Lu, has made remarks that disparage the country, which has caused a backlash. He’s been branded “high-class Chinese” for saying these things. So don’t fret about me summarising the film as bland tofu. Reflect that in China the star of the movie has been lambasted for insulting the entire Chinese nation.

          When I talk about the “parent culture” showcased in American movies, I’m NOT talking about white culture. I know it’s hard to break free from a racial, identitarian view of the world, but have a go. If you’re not an American, one of American cinema’s many pleasures is the melting pot – the range of cultural influences, but also those aspects which is uniquely American – the country’s former confidence, self-critiquing humour. This is not a comment on race, sorry. You may see Shang-Chi as a celebration of Asian American culture, but a movie that spends half an hour in San Francisco and the rest of its running time in a real world and mythological version of China, is not really that concerned with capturing and exemplifying the Asian-American experience. Again, you could discern this by watching the movie. So by all means come here an comment on my review, but not in a knee jerk way – think about what you’re saying before you say it. In your own words, do better.

          • Mike says:

            Anyone who writes “X is problematic at best” just means “I don’t like it”. Bigging-up the fact you don’t like something linguistically doesn’t make the argument any more compelling…

  3. Steven Oh says:

    The sad truth is that I left the film wanting more. I agree that by design, this film seeks to bridge the gap between the traditional American audience and the international billing that currently drives the movie industry. Is Shang Chi an ultimate throwdown of the Asian hero drama? Not really. But as far as exposing the American universe of comic book-ology to another dialect, this movie does a pretty good job.

  4. Comment cliche writes... says:

    Dude – Do you actually enjoy movies? Tried clicking on ~5 reviews thinking maybe your take on Shang Chi was just a bad egg.

    Nope – Your entire existence seems to be just shitting on films and trying to sound intelligent while doing so.

    Imagine dedicating your life to writing about something you hate.

    I think the texture of your brain is probably more akin to “boiled tofu”. (What an ignorant and mildly racist title – another non-surprise.)

    • Ed Whitfield says:

      “Dude”, yes I do. I’m now going to share with you a revelation that will transform your understanding of the world, so don’t read on until you’re sitting down and you have your family and friends around you, because you’re going to need a lot of support from now on. Are you ready? Here it comes:

      If someone doesn’t like the films you like that doesn’t mean they hate films.

      You see, to imagine otherwise would be to live in a world where you were the sole arbiter of what constitutes good work or bad. No one wants to live in that world. Well, maybe Marvel Studios.

      As for trying to sound intelligent, you’ve resoundingly failed on that score. Maybe up your own game before presuming to comment on mine? You’ve got a long way to go so I’ll see you back here in 20-30 years.

      Please refer to other replies on the “boiled tofu” front. If others can process the metaphor, there’s hope for the minority who can’t, though not much hope. We can surely all agree on that?

  5. (This will contain a few minor spoilers so readers beware)

    I thoroughly enjoyed your review and your comments to the comments. They put a succinct explanation to a missed opportunity of a movie. It would appear that this movie could have gone in so many interesting directions but it suffers from character development relapse. I liken this to the 7th Star Wars movie. All of the original characters, who had grown over three movies, were underwhelmingly turned back into older, lesser versions of themselves from before they had grown not to mention the movie was a mashing of the previous trilogy into a single movie. Lack of imagination is what hurts films, including this one. The father turns back to his old ways apparently having learned nothing from his time with his wife and then succumbs to hearing voices because he is supposedly missing his wife so much that he will do anything to be reunited with her and have a complete family again. This rings so hollow on many fronts because the movie shows nothing that would imply he is a man missing his beloved or that he desires a family and not a large dynastic empire. His ruthlessness drives his children from him and the audience is left thinking this guy is just a prop to show the power of the rings, create a “bad guy” for the purpose of fight scenes, and provide a plot point to move the story to the final showdown. The movie itself makes reference to this when the main character asks his dad if mom would even recognize the man he is now. So many contrived plot lines that simply exist to pull the movie through its paces could indeed be considered boiled tofu.

    I actually like the reference to boiled tofu because I thought it also implied taking something and doing the simplest thing you could do to it rather than exploring the vast intricacies waiting to be unlocked should someone invest time and effort into making an exquisite and memorable final product.

  6. Mike says:

    Dear Ed,

    As a fan of the original ‘Master of Kung Fu’ comics in the 70’s (okay, I was a teenager), I was disappointed by ‘Shang Chi’ and delighted to find a single dissenting critical voice admid the otherwise unanimous praise on Rotten Tomatoes. You’re right – it’s tofu in the negative sense of your apt metaphor.

    As I remember the comic, Shang Chi was a fish out of water, baffled by the cultural inferority of the West compared to his native China and using his martial arts skills reluctantly on behalf of the British Secret Service in their global battle with his father. (Was he a pawn, unfilial or on a just cause, was his ongoing mental conflict.) The saga was a collision between a Bruce Lee movie and a Connery Bond flick with plenty of genre tropes and set pieces from each thrown in. Tons of cinematic potential… none of which has been realised.

    So, yeah, we have the comedy side-kick (from Ant Man and Spiderman), the strained tie-in to the MCU, the post-credits Easter Eggs that add nothing. But worse than any of those, the film morphs into ‘Neverending Story’ partway through with endless CGI spectaculars that can only end one way – A Shang Chi win. Yaay!

    Enough moaning.

    Ed, I can also say as a Brit, I enjoyed your withering responses to the correspondents here who dared to criticise your review. You give the lie to the notion that Americans don’t do irony.

    • Ed Whitfield says:

      Thanks for reading, Mike. I welcome criticism of any review. My only proviso is that it should be a criticism of what I wrote not what someone imagines I think. I’m also British so the notion Americans don’t do irony is still up for debate, but you won’t catch me chairing it due to the cultural sensitivities involved.

  7. Reance says:

    Spot on review of the movie and great responses to the comments you got.
    It’s not often you see a critics that actually try to take a deeper dig, isn’t afraid to hold a movie up to the light to see what sort of shadow it casts and to see how it fits in with the current times and trends.

  8. Terry says:

    So if this movie were about an African-American hero, would your title be ‘Soggy Fried Chicken and Moldy Watermelon’? And if you did use that as a headline, what do you think the reaction of the black community would be?

    Rethink your headlines.

    • Ed Whitfield says:

      Hi Terry,

      If you refer to replies to previous comments it will help you to understand the metaphor. Alternatively, read the review. Then rethink. Or start thinking.

  9. Jake says:

    I personally believe that the MCU is taking away a lot of investment in more interesting, albeit riskier IP’s. I feel like the black sheep for not liking 90% of MCU movies. The formula is always the same and each movie is a reskin in its motifs and themes.

    This one has almost universal acclaim and reminds me of the critical response that the last Jurassic World films got. Sometimes it sucks when you examine how the movie market is shifting with movies like this one but I find solace in the fact that low budget and indie films are thriving with the advent of streaming. Most of which have more substance than your typical blockbuster with .003% of the budget.