Legend has it that way back in 2014, Canadian actor Simu Liu — having yet to see any significant depiction of Asian superheroes on the big screen — decided to take matters into his own hands and tweet at Marvel directly. “Hey @Marvel, great job with Cpt America and Thor. Now how about an Asian American hero?” read Liu’s tweet.
Four years later at the San Diego Comic-Con, Marvel head Kevin Fiege announced that ‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of Ten Rings’ was in production and that the hunt for a leading man was on. Liu took to Twitter again, this time with a new request. “OK @Marvel, are we gonna talk or what? #ShangChi.”
It would be another year before Liu, most famous for his role in the comedy series ‘Kim’s Convenience’, was revealed as taking on the mantle of Shang-Chi and this time Liu revisited his very first tweet, retweeting the same with a dry “LOL”.
But as much as we’d like to internalise the myth around the upcoming film — out in UAE cinemas on September 2 — a couple of tweets did not turn around Liu’s luck.
“Unfortunately, Simu, it was not your tweeting. It was your acting ability, your constant professionalism, and then multiple reads and meetings that you did that got you the job,” affirmed Fiege in a virtual press conference held before the release of the film.
But Liu, unable to completely accept the praise, quickly replied, “Speak it into the universe and it will find a way.”
Going on about his experience of working on a Marvel movie for the first time, Liu said, “It was like impostor syndrome every single day. It truly was such a treat and it was all I could do just not to mess it up. When I was first cast, I did my final screen test with Nora [Awkwafina], and she did such like a wonderful job of putting me at ease. My nerves were sky high."
"I was an actor from Toronto, and I really had never allowed myself to imagine being a part of the MCU. I mean, it’s the craziest dream that someone can possibly dream," he added. "And Nora did such a great job of putting me at ease and just being in the moment with me and we had such a beautiful chemistry. This like bickery old couple chemistry right from the get-go. And that was so beautiful and as I met, more members of the cast like Tony and Michelle [Yeoh] and Sir Ben [Kingsley]… just every day, it was like waking up to another dream.”
For ‘Shang-Chi’ director Destin Daniel Cretton — who helmed ‘The Glass Castle’ and the critically-acclaimed ‘Just Mercy’, both starring Oscar-winning actress Brie Larson, as well as ‘Short Term 12’ and ‘I Am Not a Hipster’ — working on a Marvel movie was not high on his list of priorities. On the contrary, the director reveals that he had actively asked his agent to never let him work on a Marvel film.
But when he heard that the studio was developing an Asian superhero film, the Maui-born filmmaker couldn’t help but put forward his name. The director also added that speaking with ‘Black Panther’-helmer Ryan Coogler eased some of his fears.
“The thing that Ryan said to me, which really eased my mind was that the pressure is hard. ‘It’ll be the hardest thing potentially that you have done up to this point, but none of that pressure or none of those complications come from the people that you’re working with or for,’ he said. And that’s what I found. This is like a very special place to work where, not to toot Kevin’s horn, but there is an environment of curiosity and of exploration that comes from the top down. There is no fear-based mentality in this studio which has really allowed us to take risks and chances and be able to instill that same fearless exploration with everybody involved in this film and I think that’s a huge reason that the movie turned out the way that it did,” said Cretton.
“Marvel wanted to tell this story in the right way and look at every character as a multidimensional human being,” continued Cretton, “to try to avoid every stereotype that has been hovering around Asian and Asian American characters for a long time. So, it was really inspiring to go in and talk to them at that first meeting.”
‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ tells the origin story of a hero who has been running from his past for so long that he’s forgotten what it means to be himself.
“‘Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings’ is the story of a young man who realises that his father is essentially one of the world’s greatest criminals,” said Feige, “and Shang-Chi has to learn how to process that, and deal with it, in order to evolve beyond it. He must find the heroism needed to break free of his father’s legacy. But there are many sides to all stories. In our film, the world’s perception of his father and his perception of his father prove to be more complex than Shang-Chi initially thought. That was a great driving story for us that we wanted to explore.”
The film’s impressive cast list also includes stars Awkwafina (‘Crazy Rich Asians’, ‘Oceans 8’); Meng’er Zhang in her first film role; Fala Chen (HBO’s ‘The Undoing’, ‘Sound of the Desert’); Florian Munteanu (‘Creed 2’, upcoming ‘Borderlands’); Benedict Wong (‘Doctor Strange’, ‘Avengers: Endgame’); Yuen Wah (‘Kung Fu Hustle’, ‘Australia’); Ronny Chieng (‘Crazy Rich Asians’, ‘Bliss’); Zach Cherry (‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’, ‘Unsane’); Dallas Liu (‘PEN15’, ‘Underdog Kids’); with Michelle Yeoh (‘Tomorrow Never Dies’, ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’); and Tony Leung (‘In the Mood for Love’, ‘The Grandmaster’).
Long-time Marvel fans will remember that the Ten Rings Organisation from as far back as ‘Iron Man 3’, where Sir Ben Kingsley played the Mandarin. In the film it was revealed that the person purporting to be the Mandarin was actually an actor named Trevor Slattery, played by Kingsley, who was hired by the leader of the Ten Rings to impersonate him and promulgate his agenda.
“We talked about when we do bring the person behind the Ten Rings Organisation to the screen, we wanted to do it when we felt we could do the character justice and really showcase the complexity of the character,” said Feige, “and that’s what’s fun about the MCU at this stage. We can make a film like ‘Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings’ and introduce a brand-new hero to the world, but the subtitle actually connects it back to the very beginning of the MCU, which opens the door to exploring the Ten Rings Organisation and who is really behind it.”
In ‘Shang-Chi’, audiences will learn the history of the real person who leads the Ten Rings — Xu Wenwu (played by Tony Leung), Shang-Chi’s father. The power of the actual Ten Rings, which are in Wenwu’s possession, allowed him to build the Ten Rings criminal organisation.
“The movie is about that evolution and personal growth of self-acceptance and self-love. And it’s something that I absolutely think will be relatable, whether you’re Chinese or Asian or not.”
Producer Jonathan Schwartz was conscious that bringing to life this particular corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in a big, action film featuring martial arts was going to be an important first step. “There’s this deep wealth of martial arts-themed characters within the comics that we haven’t really been able to bring to screen yet,” he said. “‘Shang-Chi’ felt like a great way into that entire world, to bring the martial arts world that exists as characters in the comics to life in the same way that ‘Doctor Strange’ was able to bring the magic side of the universe to life and that ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ was able to bring the galactic side of the universe to life.”
Added Liu: “The movie is about that evolution and personal growth of self-acceptance and self-love. And it’s something that I absolutely think will be relatable, whether you’re Chinese or Asian or not.”
A beautiful friendship
While the heart of ‘Shang-Chi’ is the story of a family in disarray, taking centre stage also is the friendship between Shang-Chi and his best friend Katy (Awakwafina), who is Chinese American.
“Katy is Shang-Chi’s reckless Asian American friend who he meets when he relocates to the States in San Francisco. Katy and her family kind of take him in, and he has a very close relationship with her and her family. I would say that it’s almost like she is his home in America,” said Awkwafina. “There is a point where Katy tells a story of how she first met Shang-Chi. She almost feels like she needs to protect Shang-Chi, which is ironic because he is more than necessarily equipped to take care of himself. But Katy meets him in school by taking down a bully who is picking on him. Since then, their relationship has kind of evolved, and they bicker a lot. But I think that it’s very obvious that they have a lot of love for each other.”
When asked if there ever was a compulsion to turn the friendship into a romantic relationship, director Cretton said, “When one of our co-writers, Dave Callahan, and I were creating this relationship, we were thinking we actually have a lot of friends who are not the same gender as us, and it is strictly platonic but also very intimate and caring. And we haven’t seen a lot of that on screen, and we were really excited to create that relationship between Shang-Chi and Katy. It also just naturally felt like the only way to go with this movie because Shang-Chi is so deep in his own inner struggle. I don’t think there’s emotional space for anything else.”
“This is the first Asian American superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That’s an important distinction, an important milestone for us. We’ve waited a long time for a moment like this, to see ourselves portrayed in this way on screen. For many of us whose parents immigrated, we never really saw ourselves on screen meaningfully. We saw caricatures, stereotypes and erasure in a way. I’m encouraged by what’s been happening over the last two years, and I think ‘Shang- Chi’ will be an important part of that conversation.” — Simu Liu, actor
Don’t miss it!
‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ releases in UAE cinemas on September 2.