Arts, Culture & Entertainment

Why the ‘Shang-Chi’ fight scenes are more than meets the eye

The latest Marvel film nods to the Chinese wuxia genre through fight scenes full of fists, kicks and narrative.

Tony Leung and Fala Chen in a fight scene of "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings."

This article contains spoilers for “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.”

The latest installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” is a thoroughly Asian American affair. Not only does it feature on- and off-camera representation, but it also nods to the Chinese wuxia genre that originated thousands of years prior to the film’s Labor Day weekend release.

Wuxia is a popular genre of Chinese fiction that follows martial artists through adventures in ancient China. Though “Shang-Chi” is set in the modern world, it clearly borrows elements from it – most notably in its fight scenes.

Every fight scene in “Shang-Chi” mesmerizes with bright colors, fast movement and dynamic camera angles. Any viewer would certainly gain entertainment from watching Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) take on multiple assassins in a rapidly accelerating 1-California line bus, but those familiar with wuxia gain additional storytelling that might go undetected by the uninitiated.

“The drama [of wuxia films] is itself choreographed as a kind of martial art, where the fighting is never just kicking and punching, but is also a way for the characters to express their unique situation and feelings,” said director Ang Lee about the genre in a 2001 Dazed interview. His homage to wuxia, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” does just that in spades. In fact, his film popularized the iconic “fighting as flirting” trope for an international audience when it went on to win four Academy Awards in the United States 20 years ago.

“Shang-Chi” director Destin Daniel Cretton joins the ranks of other prominent filmmakers who have masterfully depicted this trope when the leader of the Ten Rings, Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), meets Li (Fala Chen) on his search for Ta Lo, a village home to mythical beasts. With romantic music playing over the pair’s battle, each hit feels like an intimate connection that is only accentuated by the slow-motion cinematography. Actors Leung and Chen perfectly execute long looks filled with sexual tension, and when their hands grasp at each other, viewers aren’t sure if they will pull each other closer or throw each other to the other side of the forest.

Fans of works like “The Grandmaster,” “Legend of the Condor Heroes” or “Word of Honor” won’t be surprised by what happens next: Xu Wenwu cradling a baby named Shang-Chi against his chest.

The rich battle style of the wuxia genre is absent in present-day San Francisco, where an older Shang-Chi works as a valet with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina). When a surly man begins attacking Shang-Chi on his way to work, Katy exclaims, “Does he look like he knows how to fight?” (According to his muscles on display in the opening shot of the film, yes, Katy, he looks like he knows how to fight.)

Once fighting is reintroduced into the film through the revelation of Shang-Chi’s backstory, the battle sequences don’t stop coming. Combat goes on to serve as the reunion between Shang-Chi and his estranged sister, Xu Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) in the ring of an underground fight club in Macau, along with the final confrontation between Shang-Chi and his father in front of the gate to the monstrous Dweller-in-Darkness’s world.

At times, it seems like the only way for Shang-Chi’s family to understand each other is through beautifully choreographed conversations with their fists.

Fighting becomes a way for Shang-Chi to come to terms with his past as well. After he ventures to Ta Lo on his own, he asks his mother’s sister, Ying Nan (Michelle Yeoh), to teach him the distinct martial arts methods of her homeland. The Ta Lo technique as practiced by his mother was the only thing that defeated Xu Wenwu back then. If Shang-Chi can master it now, then he can bring his father down once again.

Just like in wuxia, Shang-Chi and Ying Nan’s every movement in this interaction speaks volumes more than the words they actually say. When Shang-Chi prepares his usual battle stance to spar with Ying Nan, she reaches out and unfurls the fingers he has curled into a fist, implicitly urging him to let go of the guilt and grudges he’s carried from his past.

Indeed, it is only through reconciling the different combat styles of both his parents – from the smooth circular sweep of his mother’s leg to the powerful punch of his father’s ring-clad fist – that he is able to defeat the Dweller-in-Darkness, and more importantly, embrace the past and the family that he shamefully ran from for years.

By the conclusion of the film, Cretton adeptly pulls Shang-Chi through entire emotional arcs with minimal dialogue. Instead, the parts of the plot that progress through the exchange of blows are the perfect tribute for the legendary, illustrious and thoroughly Chinese genre. The film intentionally constructs a world where the children who grew up captivated by the elaborate, exquisite battle choreographies of wuxia can feel right at home.

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” can be viewed in theaters as of Sept. 3.