connecting theology and life in gospel-centred ways to the glory of God and our joy in Him
Wow, what a movie.
Shang-Chi is a feast for the eyes, filled with well-choreographed AND well-filmed action sequences, telling a relatively simple and familiar story in a culturally sensitive way.
It is everything that Mulan failed to be.
I kept returning to that last thought a few times throughout the movie. When the trailer for Mulan dropped years ago I was excited. I was about ready to purchase tickets online for the screening but then the pandemic shut everything down. Months later I was able to appreciate it on Disney+ thanks to the generosity of my brother. And boy, was I glad that I didn’t pay for it. It was a hot mess. There are some good videos online (with some language warning) explaining in greater detail why it was such a failure – more links below..
So, was I excited that another Disney owned property was going to be attempting another Asian action flick? Ambivalently so – excited, yes, cautious and sceptical all at once.
So, thank you Marvel for getting it right!
Shang-Chi tells the story of Shang, whose anonymous life of obscurity is shattered when he receives what he believes to be an invitation from his sister to make contact. After an unwanted encounter with some assassin’s on a bus, Shang – and his best friend Katy – are both thrust on a journey of discovery as Shang learns to deal with his past and embrace his role, and Katy learns to focus on specialising in something for once in her life. Along the way, they battle Shang’s father – Xu Wenwu – who wields the awesomely powerful Ten Rings, and – in obvious Marvel fashion – save the world.
Let’s start with the beautiful cinematography – in particular the use of colour.
It’s been noticeable in the latest Marvel works that the use of colour in storytelling is intentional. From the general colour schemes to portray character – Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung) is often filmed with cool darker shades of grey and blue (when he uses the rings they glow blue) is contrasted with Ying Li (Fala Chen), Shang-Chi’s mother, who is given warm green tones throughout the movie, and Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) is often found in warm red and orange scenes (his jacket and dragon costume highlights are red, and the rings glow warm orange/red when he obtains them). The colours’ themes are often used even within the narrative – the key instance being Shang-Chi’s introduction and fights in the Macau battleground – his warm colours and tones are thrust into a world of darkness and cold blues. That he loses in that moment adds to the sense that he is out of his depth.
And, if you have been following the MCU in recent phases you’ll know that the colours on the screen are chosen specially to convey meaning. What is conveyed through colour use throughout the movie comes to the fore in an important mid-credit scene. On that spoiler-free note, let’s wait and see what will be revealed to come in future MCU projects.
Next, let me discuss the fight choreography.
One of my biggest gripes with Mulan 2020 (herein Mulan) wasn’t the action choreography per se, but the way in which it was filmed: constant typical Hollywood jump cuts. Shang-Chi marks what I hope will be a clear and helpful change of direction – wide-angle shots, allowing the viewer to follow the ‘dance’ of the battle, and using jump cuts sparingly to highlight and further the narrative of the fight scene. Here is one great example:
At 0:20 we have the beginning of the fight sequence. Shang has landed his first (big) punch and then after checking on Katy we are launched into the first battle – Shang vs two assassins. It’s relatively amazing that the camera holds on to them for 4 good seconds of battle before the first jump cut goes in for a slow-motion – the centrepiece of this fight isn’t Shang: it’s the pendant he is wearing. This is a good jump-cut, helping to focus the narrative of the battle on the stakes.
The lack of jump cuts becomes noticeable when you place it next to this fight scene from Mulan, the opening fight scene between the Witch and various soldiers. The jump cuts are jarring and make following the action difficult, and some of the angles are disorienting.
Of course, filming the scenes is one thing, choreographing it is another. Those who have appreciated the action sequences in Jackie Chan movies will enjoy these as well – thanks mostly due to Andy Cheng and the late Brad Allan, both of whom were a part of Jackie’s stunt team.
On to the story and acting.
It’s a basic story – there’s not much to wrap your head around, nor hold together, and there are not too many surprises. The hero’s origin and journey of self-discovery is a well-worn narrative. The flashback sequences in the movie are well-timed. Splitting them up and introducing them at pivotal moments was a clever move both for pacing and storytelling. As a study on how to engage your movie audience with vital background information, this is a stellar example. There are also some good moments of levity as the potential cliches of the flashback are subverted.
The acting in this movie is solid. Simu Liu is fantastic. Given this is his first major outing there are some rookie weaknesses – perhaps some of his acting choices could have been different, or would have played out differently with a more mature actor – but as with all things Marvel we will not get to grow alongside his character in future features.
Awkwafina turns in a solid sidekick performance who, interestingly, has been given her own arc within the movie. I’m not sure we’ve seen this much in many of the Marvel movies, so it was refreshing that she’s not simply comedic relief – though she is funny.
Tony Leung brings an interesting depth to his portrayal of Xu Wenwu (ie The Mandarin) – his first Hollywood feature after an excellent filmography in Asia. What may have easily descended into the cliched one-dimensional villain, Leung is given so much more to work with. His motivations and complexity of character are easily relatable – especially as a father myself. I’ll speak more on this idea in a moment.
Meng’er Zhang turns in a solid performance as Shang’s sister Xu Xialing, as does Michelle Yeoh as Ying Nan. The rest of the supporting cast, likewise, do not have their time wasted on screen.
Why do I like this movie so much?
For those who follow me on Facebook, you’ll know that I left the movie in tears – it was that good. So, what made it so good?
If you already know me then you’ll know that I’m a big Marvel Cinematic Universe fan. I’ve blogged my review/thoughts on Avengers Endgame before, and I love sitting down and chewing the fat with people about these movies and stories. So, did I love it because it was a Marvel movie? Sure.
Did I love it also because the action sequences were great? Sure.
Did I love it also because it got rid of some of the origins outdated references and, frankly, racist tropes? Yup. (I’m not intending here to judge or condemn the writers/authors of the past – the original comic was a product of its time with its stereotypes and cliches. But this modern update, with proper sensitivity to Chinese culture and practices, was refreshing.)
But there’s another big reason I loved this movie so much, and felt connected and moved: because I felt represented on screen.
I’ve discussed representation before. I’m cautious about using this phrase as I know that it can be polarising – and in our “woke vs conservative” world it can be an unhelpful phrase, loaded with all sorts of meaning.
So, let me explain a bit where I’m coming from. When I say that the representation on the screen mattered to me I’m talking about that which I felt personally connected to – and I felt understood. I have been moved and felt connected to other non-Asian movies before. Heaps of times. But this movie in particular was special for me for a few reasons.
First, it got Chinese culture right. Something that Mulan failed to do. Here is a great analysis of what it got culturally wrong (and while we are at it, here is what it got musically wrong, and female empowerment wrong). The failure of Mulan wasn’t just a meh moment – it annoyed me. Disney didn’t understand me – and told a pandering story that it thought I should connect with. Well, I didn’t.
This is where Shang-Chi’s cultural sensitivity shone. From the way filial piety and family dynamics were shown, to the way in which paying respect for the dead was highlighted and respected. It didn’t pander and for someone familiar with these customs it further deepened the story and personal-ness of the movie’s stakes. (For those less familiar, I’m not sure anything is lost.)
Having these elements of Chinese culture correct was a delight for me. In a strange way I felt heard, I felt understood. I felt as though a wider and important audience, the world, got to hear a bit of my story. Its present popularity tells me that it has, and it’s been well received. On a human level, I think this is what we all need – to know that we are heard and connected with. So much so that I think disconnected hearts lead to all sorts of strife, hardship, and sorrow.
We all need connection. And I think this movie, told well in the way that it did, helps believers in Christ to connect this story with the Big Story.
Connections with the gospel story
On a basic story level this movie connected with an important aspect of the gospel: people are complicated.
There’s been increasing popularity in movies of late in which the villain is given a more complex and nuanced set of motivations. Gone are the days when a one-dimensional villain was embraced. Now we want every villain to be as deep, complex, and compelling as Thanos.
I think this is both helpful and unhelpful for believers to grapple with.
I think it’s helpful because it reminds us that people are complex and we all have a web of motives. This isn’t to say that the people we don’t like in our lives should be considered villains (!), but it does remind us that there is always so much going on in a person’s life that to cast aspersions or to assume motives in others is unhelpful at best and judgemental at worst.
In an increasingly polarised world, we need these gentle reminders that people have way more shades of grey about them. We all have our fears, our desires, our wants and idols. Each of these elements forms a complex web to our central worldview, which flows on to what we value, and are expressed in our behaviour. The more we take our time to connect to each other’s values and core worldviews, the more we will better understand each other.
And then, the better we can bring the gospel message of forgiveness, healing and transformation.
But at the same time, I’m finding this move towards complex villains a touch unhelpful. It would be tempting to think all the world grey, with no clear markers of evil. But believers must hold onto the truth that there is a Great Enemy to God and His people, an enemy who lies, and whose opposition to God is total. There is such a thing as true evil which threatens our souls.
And because of that, we need a hero who will save us from this enemy. And not just any hero. Not just a hero who is overpowered and can simply destroy the enemy in the blink of an eye (though Jesus certainly could). But we need a hero that we can not only call on to save us, we also need a hero to follow – because we need saving not just from an enemy without, but from the corruption we experience within.
And because of that, we also need a hero we can connect with – and a hero who understands us. A true representative. Someone who knows my story, my culture, my emotions and feelings, my strengths and my many weaknesses.
In this way, Shang-Chi can help us see what a great saviour Jesus is. For Jesus has come, God in the flesh – truly human and truly divine, to be the best and greatest saviour. He is able to be our saviour because he was tempted in every way that we were, yet remained without sin. And Jesus is uniquely situated – for he can, and has and does, connect with every human across cultures, ages, and generations.
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