Disney’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is the newest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but to many people it’s more than just another superhero movie. To those 22 million Asian Americans living in the country (according to Pew Research), Shang-Chi is a chance at a level of representation practically unseen in Hollywood.
The film follows Shang-Chi, played by Simu Liu, as he is forced to leave his life in San Francisco and return to his roots. Between reliving the past in his family home in China, contending against his grieving and power-hungry father, and saving the world, Shang-Chi is forced to finally figure out who he truly is. For many Asian Americans, that struggle is a day-to-day reality.
“I knew from teasers that it would celebrate Asian culture,” said Kat Moon, a writer for Time and an Asian American herself. “What I didn’t anticipate was that the movie’s distinctly Chinese details would connect me to Shang-Chi in a way I’ve not experienced with any other blockbuster made in Hollywood.”
Those details, Moon goes on to explain, can be seen mostly in the film’s handling of language. The opening scene of the movie is spoken in Mandarin—and given refreshingly accurate subtitle translations, according to Moon—and the characters often switch from English to Mandarin when speaking. There’s even a moment where Katy, Shang-Chi’s best friend played by Awkwafina, confesses to a Mandarin-speaking character that she’s not quite fluent in the language. He replies in English, “All good, I speak ABC.” This is “another knowing wink,” Moon says, “to Asian American audiences who need no explanation on what it stands for: ‘American-born Chinese.’”
In an interview with Bustle, actor Simu Liu said that the best advice he’s ever gotten is “to see being Asian as a superpower rather than a hindrance,” and he plays Shang-Chi—a literal superhero—as if he has that advice on repeat in the back of his mind. Liu, along with actors such as Michelle Yeoh, Awkwafina, Fala Chen, and Tony Leung and director Destin Daniel Cretton, recrafted the story from the original Shang-Chi Marvel comics (which were notorious for their racist tinges) into a fight for Asianness as a superpower.
“Our story is the way it is because it was told through an Asian lens,” Liu said, “and that’s why it is such a celebration of Asianness, of our culture, of our language, and so much.”
As with the duality of language seen in the film’s dialogue, a key theme of the story is a duality of identity—the good and the bad, the past and the present, and, much like in real life for Asian Americans, the two cultures they identify with. “I’m somebody who feels caught between two worlds a lot of the time,” Liu told a gala, speaking not of his character but of him as an individual.
This shared experience makes Shang-Chi that much more powerful for its audience. “This is a journey of self-discovery, of growing up, of learning how to finally deal with pain that [Shang-Chi’s] been running away from his entire life,” director Cretton told reporters. “And that when he is finally able to look inside into his past and embrace good, bad, the joy, the pain, and accept it all as a part of himself.”
Even though it is still unclear whether or not the film will be approved for viewing in China, at-home numbers show Shang-Chi to be an unparalleled success. According to Variety, it grossed $94.4 million within four days of premiering, far exceeding the former record ($30.5 mil) for a Labor Day weekend release.
Though nothing is ever perfect, based on the numbers and the high praise from critics, it seems as though Shang-Chi got something right.
“I’ve experienced first-hand how Hollywood’s influences spread far and wide, for good and for ill, and know that Marvel is introducing its first Asian superhero not just to the U.S. but the world,” said Moon in her review. “Which is why it meant even more to see parts of my identity reflected onscreen, in this genre where there has been a glaring absence of Asian characters.”
“It’s a story about finding reconciliation with your family,” Liu told Bustle, “and coming full circle with questions about identity and who you are.”