OK, so after a long theater hiatus, I broke down and saw Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. There were some good bits, in particular the fight in the bus at the beginning, but after that it was a long slide down to end in a lot of CGI goop to wrap it up and incorporate the hero and Awkwafina in some kind of Avengers/superhero gemisch.
The big flaw in the movie was that there was so much exposition and so many flashbacks that the story never really got any momentum going. It’s a martial arts movie! Why are you stopping the kicking and punching and flying leaps to fill in a rather humdrum back story?
There’s a good reason for that, though. We have no cultural background on which to frame the story — they had to explain everything, because you won’t find it anywhere except in comic books from the 1970s. Shang-Chi was invented by two white American guys, based on their assumptions about Chinese culture, which were in turn formulated by an English novelist in the early 20th century. This has zero connections with Chinese culture and mythology — except for the idea that all Chinese guys should know chop-sockey.
Furthermore, that English novelist is best known for … Fu Manchu.
According to his own account, Sax Rohmer decided to start the Dr Fu Manchu series after his Ouija board spelled out C-H-I-N-A-M-A-N when he asked what would make his fortune. Clive Bloom argues that the portrait of Fu Manchu was based on the popular music hall magician Chung Ling Soo, “a white man in costume who had shaved off his Victorian moustache and donned a Mandarin costume and pigtail”. As for Rohmer’s theories concerning “Eastern devilry” and “the unemotional cruelty of the Chinese,” he seeks to give them intellectual credentials by referring to the travel writing of Bayard Taylor. Taylor was a would-be ethnographer, who though unversed in Chinese language and culture used the pseudo-science of physiognomy to find in the Chinese race “deeps on deeps of depravity so shocking and horrible, that their character cannot even be hinted.” Rohmer’s protagonists treat him as an authority.
Rohmer wrote 14 novels concerning the villain. The image of “Orientals” invading Western nations became the foundation of Rohmer’s commercial success, being able to sell 20 million copies in his lifetime.
Marvel originally based Shang-Chi on that concept. Shang-Chi was the son of the evil Fu Manchu. He was renamed in the movie as Xu Wenwu, because Marvel lost the rights to the Rohmer character. I notice, too, that although the movie has an amazing Asian cast, these are the writers:
Cretton, at least, is Asian-American, born to a mother of Japanese descent, but otherwise, this is a story by white guys built on a framework created by a racist idea of the Yellow Peril. At least Marvel is doing a bit of white-washing of its ugly history.
Correction: David Callaham is also Chinese-American, so two of the writers have appropriate connections.
I’ll also add that the movie has significant Asian contributions, and representation is important. I just think the source material has a troubling derivation.