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‘Shang-Chi’ is a family film that is coming out at the right time

Why ‘Shang-Chi’ leans into themes of family and legacy

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” star Simu Liu in “Shang-Chi.”
“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” star Simu Liu.
Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Almost every trailer you see for “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” presents a specific kind of film. A young hero with abilities having to fight off his father, who has even stronger abilities.

Hero. Villian. Father. Son. It’s a new version of Darth Vader vs. Luke Skywalker, or something you’d expect from a modern day comic book movie.

But “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is more than a comic book movie. It’s not solely a story of superheroes battling it out for supremacy. It dives deeper than that, focusing on the fundamental importance of family. It’s a family story wrapped into a superhero movies, telling about the struggle of a family to move past differences and deal with the grief of losing a loved one.

And it comes at a time when this couldn’t be more necessary. The world is dealing with plenty of grief in recent months because of the coronavirus pandemic, massive wildfires, the end of the war of Afghanistan and so many more crises. And it couldn’t be more fitting for the Asian American community, too, who have been seen their family members abused, harassed and mistreated in large numbers in the last few years, too, something director Destin Daniel Cretton said influenced the storytelling of the movie.

Disney may have planned to release “Shang-Chi” years in advance. But there’s no question that this family film is dropping at the right time.

How ‘Shang-Chi’ is about family

“Shang-Chi” director Destin Daniel Cretton said the film came to him because of his strong belief that family matters more than anything.

“The filmmaking came from the very strange time that we’re all in right now and I do think that the idea of family, the idea of each of us being reflective of what really matters, has at least for me been a constant during this entire time,” he told me in an exclusive interview. “And so it felt necessary for me as psychologically as I was entering into this crazy big blockbuster Hollywood flashy movie to look around at something that really meant something to me, and, and that’s the story that came up.”

The story centers around the young man Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), who is living his normal life alongside his friend Katy (Awkwafina). Soon, Shang-Chi learns that his father, the Mandarin (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), is seeking out Shang-Chi and his sister, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang). So begins a journey for Shang-Chi to reunite with his family, who has broken apart after the passing of their mother. The film goes onto discuss major issues like grief, family connections, legacy and what it means to be a member of your family, even if you don’t always agree with the decisions your family members make.

Even the relationship between Katy and Shang-Chi is just a deep-lying friendship there — one that feels almost familial. When Shang-Chi and Katy meet new people, there’s yet again this feeling of a deep tie and bond. Nothing feels half-handed or thin. It’s all heavy and very much like members of family coming together. There’s a deepness and richness to every relationship in the film.

‘Shang-Chi’ and its connections to Asian American families

But it’s not fair to say that “Shang-Chi” appeals to one family or another. It’s no question that a lot of the messages within the film apply to Asian American families. And that was on purpose.

Cretton, the director, told me that the film is coming at a time where Asian American hate crimes have been on the rise. And anyone of Asian American descent can recognize their family in those hate crime images and videos that circulate online. New FBI data released Monday found that the number of reported hate crimes against Asian and Black people have risen sharply in 2020.

In fact, hate crimes that targeted people of Asian descent rose 70% compared to 2019, according to the FBI.

Those hate crimes have included videos of older men and woman attacked in the streets. Strangers walk up to those of Asian descent and attack them without any warning.

“If you are from a different culture, I think it’s easy to see those images as just an old Asian man or an old Asian woman,” Cretton said. “And of course, it’s painful, I think for anyone, hopefully, to see those images. I think there’s extra pain for somebody who can literally imagine their grandma or grandpa, in the shoes of that person, and it makes me want to cry just thinking of some of those images.”

He added, “We all love our grandparents so much and and know how much they gave to us. And in Asian culture, there is such a deep respect for the elders.”

“Shang-Chi” pays homage to elders in some of the strongest ways seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, too. We learn about how Shang-Chi’s mother gained her abilities from an ancient village. We see his friend Katy’s elderly grandmother living at home and instructing the youngsters how to live their lives.

The entire film centers on building a legacy for the next generation, and helping those younger than you find a path toward success down the road.

“There’s such a deep respect to history and and everyone that came before us, taking us to the place where we are,” Cretton told me. “I think that’s a shared value among every ethnic group. And so to have that be the focus of this movie is felt relevant to the times. It felt like a great bridge between people — whether they are part of this community or not — to leave the theater feeling like they have more in common with other human beings than they thought.”