Movie review: “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”

OK so “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”.

The cliché, familiar to anyone who has ever been bored enough to attempt Risk, is “don’t ever start a land war in China”. The cliché says nothing about box office wars, which is just as well, because Disney and the MCU have just opened fire with “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”, a charm offensive aimed squarely at every moviegoing citizen of the People’s Republic. Beautifully envisioned as a prodigal son tale, the twenty-fifth installation of the MCU follows Shaun (Simu Liu), a valet parking agent, as his small and cozy San Franciscan life is shattered by the arrival of a set of ninja assassins lead by a man with a machete for an arm (Florian Munteanu, whom alert viewers will recognize from his role as Ivan Drago’s sin Viktor in  “Creed II”). The assassination attempt is a calling card from Shaun’s father (Tony Leung), a more-or-less immortal warlord who heads a vast criminal organization. You think you’ve got daddy issues. Shaun must return to China, best friend Katy (Awkwafina) in tow, to find his sister, confront his father, reclaim his Chinese name of Shang-Chi, and resolve unfinished family business. Any parent who has ever wished to get their child to move closer to home, take notes.

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is a brilliantly paced and edited banquet, in which we are served tiny bites of backstory as a palate-cleansing sorbet in between main courses of dazzling scenery and creatively choreographed fight scenes. You’ll never choke on a gristly wad of exposition in this movie—screenwriters Dave Callaham, Destin Daniel Cretton (who doubled as the film’s director), and Andrew Lanham keep explanations to a minimum, opting to show rather than tell. Which, when you have Michelle Yeoh and Fala Chen around, ready to perform balletic kung-fu in glowingly flowing autumn-colored robes (congratulations in advance on your costuming Oscar, Kym Barrett), showing is always the superior choice.

The team of artists responsible for the menagerie of mythical Chinese creatures who fill out the film’s fantastical side also deserve a round of applause: their CGI’d creations are alternately cuddly, scaly, hairy, and imposing, but are always, always, always, distinctively Chinese. The dragons here have moustaches and beards, the lions elaborate curlicues around their mouths and eyes, and the hunduns are… well, just go see the hunduns. I honestly did not realize, before seeing “Shang-Chi”, just how tired I was of the limited range of Westernized imaginary monsters, but now that I’ve seen it, I want absolutely nothing more than an extended exploration of the magical village of Tan Lo and all the cities beyond. The only comparable experience in the MCU is the first glimpse of Wakanda—a magical world built on a non-Western aesthetic and cultural foundation—and, like “Black Panther” and the more recent “Black Widow”, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” offers a similarly refreshing glimpse into the wide-open universe we get to experience when we set down the idea that every single goddamned story in the universe has to center around the adventures of a white American male. It only took us twenty-five movies to get to this one. Let’s keep going. I hear Shang-Chi’s got a sister.

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