How Shang-Chi, master of Kung Fu, overturned stereotypes

In the pantheon of Marvel superheroes, there are Spider-Man and Iron Man and Captain America and… Shang-Chi? Admittedly, one of the les...


In the pantheon of Marvel superheroes, there are Spider-Man and Iron Man and Captain America and… Shang-Chi?

Admittedly, one of the lesser-known players on the comic book company’s list, Shang-Chi, aka the master of Kung Fu, was not even familiar to many of the creators that Disney and Marvel Studios hired there. has a few years to bring the character to cinematic life.

Destin Daniel Cretton, the director of “Shang-Chi and the legend of the ten rings”, Which comes out Friday, had never even heard of the character when he was growing up. The Canadian actor did not have either Simu liu (“Kim’s Convenience”), who plays Shang-Chi in the film.

When screenwriter David Callaham, a longtime Marvel fan, was first approached about the project and said it would feature an Asian superhero, he figured he had to be Amedee Cho, aka the Korean American Hulk, who made his first comic book appearance in 2005. When Callaham found out it would be Shang-Chi, “I said, ‘I don’t know what it is. “”

A lot of people haven’t. For the creators, this gave them a lot of freedom in creating “Shang-Chi,” which stars Liu as a young Chinese-American hotel valet – and unbeknownst to his closest friends, “the greatest martial artist in the world” – trying to come out under the thumb of his bossy father.

Whether owned or not, the film is cause for celebration: it is the first and only Marvel superhero film starring an Asian star, starring an Asian American director and screenwriter, and based on a character who was actually Asian in the original comic.

But oh, that comic! When The Hands of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu was first released in 1974, the series was largely a product of its time – with its’ 70s hairstyles and nods to Fleetwood Mac – and from even older eras, with sources that dated back to the 1920s in England. It was also one of Marvel’s most problematic racial issues, with Asian faces rendered in garish oranges and yellows unseen in nature, and Orientalist characters like Shaka Kharn (a reincarnated Genghis Khan knockoff); the monosyllabic Chankar (aka “the unstoppable sumo”); and Moon Sun (a Chinese “elder” accompanied by his “most adorable and honorable” daughter, Tiko).

His star spent much of his time shirtless and without shoes, spouting fortune cookie platitudes in staid English, and hanging out with Brits with names like Black Jack Tarr and Sir Denis Nayland Smith.

And then there was his father. Shang-Chi’s father was not just any bossy Asian patriarch who wanted his son to follow him into the family business, but Fu Manchu, the big bad guy in “Yellow Peril” created by British novelist Sax Rohmer in 1913. mustache, Fu Manchu dreams of dominating the world. In a 1932 film starring the garish yellow-faced Boris Karloff, he orders his followers to “kill the white man and take his wives.” When resuming a series with that kind of legacy, what should Marvel do?

Ditch Fu Manchu, for starters. “Fu Manchu was problematic for a billion reasons,” Callaham said.

Even so, Cretton said, the adaptation of the series seemed daunting. “When I first met Marvel, actually, I really went over there to put my voice in the room and say, can you please avoid this or try not to do this?” recalled Cretton, who is best known for “Short term 12And other dramas. “I never thought that in a million years I would end up booking the concert.”

Even without Fu Manchu, Marvel wanted to preserve the family relationship at the heart of the story, but with a father figure who would appeal to a prominent actor. “When they asked who we should be playing father, the first name on my mouth was Tony Leung,” Cretton said. “But I also said there was no way to get it.”

In many ways, getting Leung, who won the Best Actor award at Cannes in 2000 for his role in “In the Mood for Love,” was a signal to just about everyone that Fu Manchu wouldn’t be in the game. movie, in any form. One of Hong Kong’s most beloved and gifted actors playing a racist, anti-Chinese stereotype? “I can’t imagine Tony Leung playing a character like Fu Manchu,” said Nancy Yuen, author of “Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism”. “It’s just not humanly possible because of who he’s been in film history before.”

Casting Leung was also part of a larger campaign to fill in the history of Asians, which comics, and even comics’ own influences, rarely did. (Perhaps revealingly, the two most prominent white actors in the new film, Florian Munteanu and Tim Roth, play monsters.) In the 1970s television series “Kung Fu,” which Marvel hoped to adapt to the period before settling on Shang-Chi, the “Chinese” hero of the series (played by David Carradine) was surrounded by a largely white cast; similarly, in the 1973 film “Enter the Dragon” – from which the original comic drew heavily, down to frame-by-frame action sequences – Bruce Lee fought alongside non-Asian actors like John Saxon and Jim Kelly.

This latest martial arts tale is packed with Asian faces, including veteran Hong Kong stars like Leung and Michelle Yeoh, and Asian American actors like Awkwafina, Fala Chen and comedian Ronny Chieng.

“I grew up in Hawaii and all of my friends are a mix of Asian American or Pacific Islander,” said Cretton, who is of Chinese descent. “I wanted Shang-Chi to be surrounded by a group of young people who reminded me of my friends and felt like my friends.”

For a very long time, said Liu, “the martial arts genre focused on this fish out of water story, which often took place in white America and focused on white figures. I think it was time to really reclaim that narrative, to tell a story on our terms without a white-focused lens. “

To that end, the creators made a major reboot of Shang-Chi himself. Gone are the dated costume – “we weren’t going to make a movie about a guy in formal attire and a headband, walking around Central Park chopping up people in karate,” Callaham said – and the Englishman on stilts. Instead of a guilt-ridden hero tormented by killing people with his bare hands and having a demon for a father, this updated hero would be relatable – even funny.

Marvel Studios has been making its heroes funny for years, even those, like Iron Man and Thor, who never looked so funny in the original comics. But Shang-Chi, one of the very few Asian characters in the Marvel Universe, cinematic or otherwise, has always been remarkably devoid of humor, even by superhero standards – another stereotype that the creators attempted to embrace. overcome. “There has been this assumption in America until fairly recently that Asians and Asian Americans can’t be funny,” said Gene Luen Yang, author of the latest Shang-Chi comic book series. “I think that’s why they asked Eddie Murphy to play Mushu in the ‘Mulan’ animation.”

The creators were so aware of all the preconceptions they faced that they even made a list of Hollywood stereotypes about Asians that they hoped to dispel. In their movie, the comedy would come of Asian characters, not to be directed against them. “We were also very interested in portraying Shang-Chi as romantically viable, as an Asian man,” said Callaham, “and at the same time very aware of the opposite stereotype of Asian women, where they are oversexualized or fetishized.”

To prepare, the creators turned to martial arts films like the 1978 classic “The 36th chamber of Shaolin”, considered to be one of the greatest kung fu movies of all time, as well as 80s action flicks like “Big problem in little China. “

“I am also a big fan of ‘Kung Fu Hustle‘”said Callaham, a movie that, like“ Shang-Chi, ”features flying bracelets, wuxia-inspired action sequences and, yes, a lot of comedy.

“Shang-Chi” also features mystical creatures; a devious take on the racist past of Fu Manchu and Marvel’s Fu Manchu type character, the Mandarin; and martial arts heroines galore. But for Callaham, one of the most memorable moments in the making of the film had nothing to do with the monster-filled chaos or martial arts stunts.

“I was writing a sequence where Shang-Chi is in San Francisco, and he hangs out with his friends, living a lifestyle that isn’t entirely different from what I’ve experienced in the past, ”he said.

“I suddenly felt overwhelmed with emotion,” he continued. “Usually I’m hired to write a movie star role so we can attract a movie star, and usually it’s not Asian faces. He’s usually a handsome white man named Chris or something. And all the power to these guys, but I always had to put myself in a position to imagine what it would be like to be someone else. It was the first time in my life that I could sit down and no longer have to imagine it.

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