The Legend of the Perpetual Foreigner

Picture from “The Vide Times” review of the movie Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Well Shang-Chi came out two weeks ago to boffo box office. It appears from the headlines that it is the best-reviewed, most money-making movie of the summer. Kudos to Marvel for finally giving us a modern-day superhero-wuxia movie.
I follow a YouTube channel called “Accented Cinema”. The YouTuber had a few other comments about Shang-Chi here.
What he said really resonated with me. First, I think he liked the film, but articulated some concerns he had with the narrative (please note: I have not seen the film yet. I will see it when it comes to streaming and may have more to say then. Blame the pandemic).
The author said that Shang-Chi did not look at the Asian-American experience of being “perpetual foreigners” but instead looked at how a Chinese man, who immigrated to the US 10 years ago and has now spent half his life here, returns home and finds himself…home. The Asian-American (and if we’re being fair, Asian-Canadian) experience is that of never feeling at home anywhere. We’re exoticized at home as being “Oriental” and “mysterious” and when we travel to Asia, we don’t feel at home either because of language barriers or actual physical differences that make us stand out.
These experiences are not unique. I can definitely relate. To all of it. As a half-Japanese-Canadian (the other half being Chinese), I have always been taught to fit in. It’s hard to fit in when you’re one of only two kids in your class of 30 students, who isn’t White. And sometimes, as the Japanese saying goes, ‘the nail that sticks out, gets hammered.’ And I got hammered enough, thank you. And I’ve had my fair share of being asked “where are you really from?” even as an adult. What I was not aware was that reconnecting with your culture was also a part of the same experience (which, as you can see, is also what I am trying to do through my writing).
So what the author of Accented Cinema wants is a story that represents the Asian-American experience now, not to take stories from an exotic fantasy past. I am not sure how that would have translated into a Marvel movie, but perhaps they can touch upon these ideas in the next movie – allow Shang-Chi to feel like an outsider in America. Given Marvel’s track record, that might be a great movie.
For representation of the Asian-American experience, I point you to another film that Awkwafina was also in (no, not Crazy Rich Asians): The Farewell. I have gone back to Japan and although have very few close relatives there, was still welcomed with open arms for a few days in Kyoto. But the language barrier still made things a bit awkward at times, much like in The Farewell. And whenever I visit my partner’s extended family, I am reminded repeatedly (but not verbally) about how much of a Canadian born and raised, I really am.
I would also point you to a graphic novel: American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang. Not a movie, but such a great graphic novel about identity issues and what it is like being Chinese when all you have ever known is in North America.

Shang-Chi and Growing Up Canadian

Photograph: Jasin Boland/Marvel Studios (from the Guardian)

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings began its theatrical run this weekend around the world. Don’t know when I’m going to get a chance to see it, but for all intents and purposes, the film is already a success (98% audience score for 2500 viewers on Rotten Tomatoes). Just the latest in a long line of Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, it is yet another character plucked from the obscurity to become a household name (at least in North America).

I have very little memory of Shang-Chi, the Master of Kung Fu. I grew up in the 1970s when the Kung Fu craze started by such movie luminaries as Bruce Lee (Enter the Dragon) and Jackie Chan (him of Cannonball Run fame) was at its peak. And as a young half-Chinese kid, you’d think I’d be thrilled. But I wasn’t. I didn’t even notice. I wanted my super heroes SUPER, and kung fu and martial arts just didn’t seem…well, super. Instead, I read Spider-Man or the X-Men (in their pre-Wolverine days) and other super-heroes with “real” super powers.

But I’ve since discovered martial arts movies and now that Shang-Chi has been released as a superhero movie (and from what I understand, he gets a real power up), I thought I’d give you my Top 5 Martial Arts movies. This is my very subjective list based on what I’ve actually seen.

Number 5 – Enter the Dragon: one of the inspirations for Shang-Chi and one of only two Bruce Lee movies I’ve seen, I really enjoyed the James Bond vibe this movie had. Bruce Lee had such onscreen charisma, I would have loved to see where Bruce Lee’s career would have gone had he not passed away at such a young age.

Number 4 – Police Story 2: Supercop: My mouth dropped the first time I saw this movie in the theatre (yes, I saw this in a small Saskatoon theatre) and the stunts were jaw dropping. It had all of Jackie Chan’s monkey-like martial arts style (his combat with a ladder was a fantastic martial ballet). But stunts like jumping a motorcycle on a moving train sold me as a kung-fu auteur. And of course, this movie introduced me to the legendary Michelle Yeoh. I like this so much better than most of his Hollywood fare.

Number 3 – Kung Fu Panda: There, I said it. Yes, this is a North American cartoon movie series starring Jack Black and it is very much an American idea of what Chinese martial arts are like, but it has a heart that many other North American martial arts movies (animated or not) don’t have. Plus, Kung Fu Panda 2 is the best depiction of wuxia in an animated feature movie bar none. I know a lot of you are now shouting at your screen saying “what about Avatar: The Last Airbender?” Isn’t that the best portrayal of animated martial arts? I would agree…except that is a TV series and not a movie and this list is about movies. But maybe I’ll revisit that sometime soon.

Number 2 – Hero: Tony Leung was part of this Jet Li martial arts film. With Zhang Yimou at the helm, this is one of the most artistic Wuxia movie I have seen. Jet Li plays Nameless, a sword master who apparently kills several assassins who attempted to kill the King of Qin. What follows is a Rashomon-like series of tales told by Nameless. Each one uses a different colour palette and the balletic martial arts wire-work and performances make this film a must see for any martial arts fan.

Number 1 – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: My partner would not rate this as high (she says she had seen better wire work and it didn’t add anything new to the conversation), but for me, this is the most stunning martial arts AND wuxia movie I had ever seen. Ang Lee hit it out of the park with the ballet-like martial arts fights. This movie had Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh and introduced the world to the incredible Zhang Ziyi (who also showed up in my number 2 movie, Hero).

There are so many other great martial arts films made in China, Hong Kong and beyond. More modern films like Ip Man and the Raid have re-defined the martial arts genre. And films like Kung Fu Hustle and Kill Bill pay homage to the martial arts genre of film. But these five films I’ve listed above are my favourites and the ones I go back to if I want to see a masterwork of martial arts. How will Shang Chi compare? No idea. I might get to go and see it in theatres but will likely wait until I can see it at home (COVID is to blame here). Until then, there are always these movies to watch.