December 17, 2021 | LIFE | By Iris Guo | Illustration by Kira Schulist

Released in theaters on Sept. 3, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” was the first Marvel movie to feature a predominantly Asian cast. A few recent, notable movies about Asian American life (“Crazy Rich Asians,”“The Farewell,” and the like) have openly grappled with the trope of younger-generation Americanization and the struggle between individualism and parental, ancestral, and immigrant ideals. These are the kinds of stories that make the children of immigrants feel caught between two worlds.

“Shang-Chi” does not sidestep those questions. In “Shang-Chi,” family matters; ancestry matters; and young people are expected to make something of themselves.

According to a comprehensive new study from USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, Asian and Pacific Islanders accounted for less than six percent of speaking roles and less than four percent of leads and co-leads in Hollywood films.

Traditionally, as points out in her 2010 study of Asian women in films, when Asians are given roles in Hollywood, they are often stereotyped. Men are stripped of their masculinity, and women, whose sole purpose is to pleasure the white male lead and sacrifice herself, are painted as submissive, fragile and servile.

“Shang-Chi” helps to challenge these narratives by including complex characters with Chinese names, incorporating Mandarin dialogues, and weaving real Chinese martial arts.

As Hollywood is relying more and more on the Chinese markets to make profits on movies, Marvel released “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” with China in mind. Notably, producer Jonathan Schwartz asked the film’s director, Destin Daniel Cretton, who his dream choice was to play the villain, Wenwu, the estranged father of the film’s hero.

Since Wenwu embodied various roles — a stylish underworld boss, an ancient Chinese warrior, and a high-powered modern man, Cretton needed someone with range. Tony Leung (one of Cretton’s favorite actors) accepted the role.

In attracting Hong Kong and mainland China audiences to the theaters, Leung’s role in the film was pivotal. With the same silent passion and stillness that made “In the Mood for Love” and other romances and dramas in Hong Kong, Leung destroys armies, raises a family, and struggles to resist the destructive grief of losing his wife in “Shang-Chi.”

For blockbusters, mainland China is the major market to win, so Disney has submitted the movie for release there. However, “Shang-Chi” has been controversial for some readers of Shang-Chi comic books in the 1970s. They cite the racist origin in the character Shang-Chi’s father, since he was originally named Fu Manchu, an image that evokes the stereotypes first pressed upon Asian immigrants a century ago.

First appearing in 1910 in British author Saxon Rohmer’s novels, Fu Manchu was imagined as a master of disguise, master of chemistry, and all-round evil genius. The books were published around 30 years after the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act in the U.S. prohibiting the immigration of Chinese laborers, which built upon the Page Act of 1875 that prohibited the recruitment to the United States of unfree laborers and women but was enforced primarily against Chinese.

Importantly, Fu Manchu embodied “Yellow Peril,” the racist idea that Asian cultures threatened Western society. Nowadays, Marvel no longer has the rights to Fu Manchu and doesn’t want them. Cretton and his team instead needed an entirely new character that trumped the industry’s racist tropes. Enter Wenwu, a character humanized by his devotion to family.

The movie still has found some resonance with Chinese audiences who have seen the film. For instance, Jin Yang, a Chinese film producer based in Beijing, said to the New York Times that “It’d be great if Chinese audiences could see this film that combines Chinese and Western cultures so well… It’s amusing that it’s Americans’ turn to read subtitles in a Marvel film.”

Although Disney is still far from reaching parity and has room for improvement in promoting diversity, the film“Shang-Chi” is a turning point of Asian American representation.

From “Parasite” and its explosive success, to “Minari” and “The Farewell” landing major acting awards for their casts, more attention is being paid to both diversity and fully fleshed-out characters. It is significant for children of every race and culture to see themselves portrayed in mainstream movies like the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

You can stream “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” on Disney+.

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