Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): Hail to Tony Leung

Superhero movie can only be as good as its villain character, and “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”, the latest product from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), is often elevated by the very compelling presence of its villain character. Although not occupied with world domination or some other goals as grand as that, he is brimming with sheer emotional intensity as constantly driven by a surprisingly poignant personal motive, and he is probably the most complex MCU villain character since Michael B. Jordan’s character in “Black Panther” (2018).

His name is Wenwu, and he is played by Tony Leung, a Hong Kong actor who has been one of the most interesting performers in our time for more than two decades. With his deeply soulful eyes and natural charismatic presence, he has effortlessly impressed and dazzled me and many other audiences as deftly and sensitively handling his various characters’ matters of heart, and, when I happened to revisit Wong Kar-wai’s great film “In the Mood for Love” (2000) at a local theater early in this year, I was reminded again of what a great performer Leung is. Just like his co-star Maggie Cheung, he does not seem to signify anything on the surface, but both of them subtly convey to us their character’s mutual romantic feelings without any ounce of melodramatic exaggeration, and we are both amused and touched by their exquisitely discreet attitude.

I apologize for digressing a bit, so let’s get back to what I am supposed to talk about here in this review. Equipped with mysterious ten metal rings which have given him not only superpower but also immortality, Wenwu has attained and maintained considerable power and wealth for more than ten centuries, but then he finds himself unexpectedly fallen in love with one woman who dares to stand up against him. As a strong-willed guardian of some hidden magical place Wenwu wants to conquer, Jiang Li (Fala Chen) turns out to be an equal match for him, and we accordingly get a gracefully dynamic fight scene not so far from the duel scene between Leung and Zhang Ziyi in Wong’s recent martial arts drama film “The Grandmaster” (2013).

In the end, Wenwu and Jiang marry while leaving behind their respective worlds, and they subsequently have two children, but, alas, their happiness does not last long. After Jiang’s unfortunate death, Wenwu returns to his old violent way of life, and his grief and anger consequently affected the lives of his two children a lot, Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and Xialing (Meng’er Zhang).

25 years later, Shang-Chi is living normally in San Francisco while working as a parking lot valet with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina), but then his plain daily life, which he has carefully maintained for years since he left his father’s clan, is soon disrupted. When he and Katy are on a city bus, they are suddenly ambushed by a bunch of goons sent by his father, and that leads to an action sequence as impactful as the similar one in “Nobody” (2021).

It does not take much time for Shang-Chi to realize that his father and those goons will also come for Xialing, who seems to live somewhere in Macau, China. Along with Katy, Shang-Chi hurriedly flies to Macau to find his sister, but then he comes across a couple of surprises, and we are accordingly served with another impressive action sequence to behold. Simu Liu, a likable Canadian actor whom I noticed for the first time via Canadian TV sitcom series “Kim’s Convenience”, shows here that he is a competent action movie performer, and Meng’er Zhang also deserves to be commended for bringing lots of ferocity to her character’s swift and precise physical actions.

When Wenwu finally shows himself in front of his two estranged children, he is willing to talk a lot about what he is going to do just like your average James Bond movie villain, but he does believe that this is also a very important matter to his children. He has been searching for a way to resolve his longtime personal grief and pain, and now he is almost near his ultimate goal thanks to what he recently extorted from his children. Leung handles this obligatory expository part with a considerable degree of class, authority, and humanity while maintaining well his character’s steely appearance, and he always commands over several other performers around him, who, in my inconsequential opinion, often seem to be in genuine awe and respect as sharing the screen with him.

The movie inevitably culminates to the big finale packed with lots of CGI actions, but director Destin Daniel Cretton, who wrote the screenplay along with Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham, thankfully does not lose the human dimensions of the story even during the most bombastic moments in this part, and I also appreciate how he and his crew members present many distinctive cultural elements with care and attention. Compared to the disastrously misguided attempt in “Mulan” (2020), the result is quite more authentic as frequently reminiscent of many Chinese martial arts drama films, and I also enjoyed the solid supporting performances from Awkwafina, Fala Chen, Michelle Yeoh, and a certain well-known actor who cheerfully functions as a sort of Shakespearean comic relief in the story.

On the whole, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” brings another whiff of fresh air to the MCU franchise just like “Black Widow” (2021) did a few months ago, and it will surely give a sense of empowerment to many Asian American audiences like “Black Panther” did to African American audiences. So far, the ongoing Phase Four of the MCU has been more interesting than I expected, and I hope the people behind the MCU will keep going further with this welcoming trend.

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