Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of Ten Rings is a film of many firsts. Opening in the US last weekend, it is the first Marvel superhero film to be shown exclusively in cinemas since the pandemic began. It stars the Marvel franchise’s first and only Asian lead, with an Asian American director and writer, and based on a character who was actually Asian in the original comic.
It is also the first film from Marvel Universe not to be granted approval for distribution in mainland China (although it has been released in Hong Kong and Taiwan). Although no reason has been given, industry observers see little chance that the authorities will greenlight a mainland Chinese release anytime soon – in spite of the film featuring Mandarin as well as English dialogue.
Disney, which owns Marvel Universe, had earlier tried to appeal to Chinese audiences with Mulan, a highly-anticipated release which flopped in China last year (see WiC511).
The American studio was blindsided by the local criticism of Mulan, having gone out of its way to tailor the big-budget film for audiences in China. Paradoxically, it knew its new Chinese-themed superhero film Shang-Chi and the Legend of Ten Rings was going to prove more of a challenge from the outset.
The choice of Shang-Chi as the lead character was even a surprise to China’s diehard Marvel fans when the studio announced the project.
Even the screenwriter David Callaham admitted to the New York Times that when he was told he had to write a story about Shang-Chi, his first reaction was “I don’t know what that is”.
Not only did Disney choose an unconventional superhero, the selection of Liu Simu, who stars in the lead role, was a surprising one too.
The fact that the 32 year-old is something of an unknown actor in China didn’t help. The Canadian-Chinese was born in Harbin before moving to Toronto when he was five. And while American audiences may find him handsome, the response to his looks from his native country were less enthusiastic. Some even offered the scornful opinion that Liu doesn’t look Chinese.
“I got a tonne of trolls,” Liu told the magazine Men’s Health in an interview. “They’d leave Chinese comments on my page, and I’d be so excited to translate them, because I thought ‘ooh they must be voicing their support’. And [instead] it would be like, ‘Your face looks like a dog’s arse, you don’t deserve this role’.”
Part of this is aesthetic differences over ideas of beauty between the Americans and Chinese. But another racially-charged issue could be the bigger factor in why Shang-Chi has been shunned by Chinese cinemas.
The problem, many reckon, is that the original comic The Hands of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu, which was first published in 1974 and on which the film’s based, was full of racist stereotypes: all the characters had orange-looking faces, many of them were also shirtless and shoeless. Shang-Chi’s father in the comic, Fu Manchu, was a caricature of an Asian man with bright yellow skin, long curved fingernails and a thin moustache. Created in the early twentieth century, Fu embodied all of the “yellow peril” anti-Chinese stereotypes of that era (for our earliest mention of the character see WiC166).
The film has received a Disney makeover: gone are the racist overtones, as well as the problematic character of Fu Manchu. Instead Shang Chi’s father is a man named Wenwu, played by the well regarded Hong Kong actor Tony Leung. Wenwu remains a criminal mastermind, albeit a superpowered one thanks to his 10 rings (hence the name of the film). And yet that plot change hasn’t been enough to quell a backlash in China.
British newspaper The Times notes the associations with Fu “explain why the first Marvel superhero film with a Chinese lead character appears to have been snubbed in China. Though Fu Manchu does not appear, many Chinese believe the film can never disassociate itself from a figure seen as an embodiment of Western bias against China.”
Screenrant also explains that “many still see Shang-Chi as a symbol of the American exploitation of Chinese culture”.
As for its leading man Liu, Canadian celebrities have not been enjoying much fanfare in China. Superstar Kris Wu, for one, has been arrested on rape charges. Amid Beijing’s ongoing crackdown on the entertainment industry, Hong Kong star Nicholas Tse recently announced that he is renouncing his Canadian citizenship too.
Liu’s casual comments about his native country haven’t helped either. In an interview in 2017 with Canadian broadcaster CBC, for instance, he described China as the “third world” and said that there were “people dying of starvation” there. He also talked about he considers himself as “completely Canadian”, as well as how his parents used to tell him stories about growing up under “communism in China” and how they had the “pipe dream” of moving to Canada.
Screenshots of the interview have gone viral this week on Chinese social media with thousands of angry comments.
“How does he get away with playing a Chinese?” one asked.
Marvel’s problems in China may just be beginning. The studio is also facing intense scrutiny over its upcoming blockbuster Eternals, which boasts a much bigger budget, given it stars the likes of Angelina Jolie Selma Hayek and Richard Madden.
In a preview of Marvel’s upcoming movies last week, CCTV introduced several superhero films under production including Spider-Man: No Way Home (due to release in December) and a sequel to Doctor Strange due next year. However, the state broadcaster’s movie channel didn’t mention either Shang-Chi or Eternals. Critics believe this is a sign that both films won’t be permitted cinema releases in the country.
The problem with Eternals is that the film’s director, Chloe Zhao, despite being the first Asian woman to win an Oscar for best director with Nomadland, has also caused enormous controversy in her home country because of statements that were deemed ‘unpatriotic’ and derisory (see WiC538).
It would be a disaster for Disney if the big-budget Eternals got blocked from Chinese screens too…
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