Yeah, I Love Tony Leung Too, But…: My Take on SHANG CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS

By James Kenney

Well, I saw it with my kid today, good-dad duty forced me to go to my second Marvel film of the year, the first being BLACK WIDOW. Which did I prefer? Well, I guess Destin Daniel Cretton’s SHANG CHI‘s heart is in the right place, but I kind of sort of preferred BLACK WIDOW. Florence Pugh and Scarlett Johansson and the male gaze and all that. But I also saw David Lynch’s DUNE for the first time on the new Arrow Blu-Ray release this week, and wholeheartedly preferred that so-called abomination to both.

Good Stuff about SHANG CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS:

Tony Leung (Tony Leung Chiu Wah), who plays the villain, is great when he looks wounded or tired or hurt and speaks Chinese. A great reactor, he’s always been brilliant at registering thought with the viewer, whether quizzically pondering Faye Wong in Wong Kar-Wai’s CHUNGKING EXPRESS or guardedly studying the mayhem surrounding him in John Woo’s HARD BOILED. He’s as mesmerizing as ever here whether falling in love or calmly giving orders to burn a magical village as long as he’s speaking Chinese (more on that later).

Simu Liu as Shang Chi is likeable and compelling enough to carry a movie.

Some of the Kung-Fu is certainly fun, if derivative, but at least it’s derivative of interesting stuff such as old Jackie Chan movies and wuxia-styled kung-fu cinema.

Michelle Yeoh is good and commanding as always, although she has too many shots where she has to react to dragons and heroics and villainy without actually doing much herself.

I am super happy to see Benedict Wong from one of my favorites, DIRTY PRETTY THINGS, show up. For all I know he’s in other Marvel films too, I don’t pay attention. But he’s in this and he’s good.

Representation. It is good to see non-white characters front and center in big-budget high profile action films, for sure. I really dug Dune, but, man, it’s a creepy, cruddy, dusty, puss-filled WHITE world, I’ll admit. I don’t think a person of color has a single line in it. Keith David, Dennis Dun and Chief Dan George would have been welcome to show up, say a line or three and then be immediately killed as happens with so many of the (white) characters in it.

For a little less than an hour I found SHANG CHI engaging enough without being compelling.

Bad Stuff about SHANG CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS:

Tony Leung when he speaks English, at least in this. He’s highly competent of course, but his English-speaking voice is flat, monotone and careful. He does not hold my attention when he acts in English, and the fact that he doesn’t act in English much throughout his career might indicate he knows he’s not in command in English–luckily, the film does allow its Chinese characters to speak in Chinese a fair amount of the time.

I’m glad he has gotten a good publicity bump from this, hope he didn’t have to give too much of his salary to the Chinese government, and maybe someone will go back and watch IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE because of renewed interest. But, really, I ultimately didn’t find this performance particularly special, and this is a guy who is one of the greats with compelling material in his native tongue.

Before the busy overlong climax, the second hour, which has little action and a lot of character stuff involving endless flashbacks, proved really boring to me. All competently shot (or should I say computer-rendered) and acted of course, but damned if there’s one point in a Marvel film where an audience is allowed to get something without a character saying out loud momentarily later what that thing is in bald expository dialogue.

Action scenes, including the good kung-fu stuff, that are all CGI-cartoons, whether the action itself, or actors’ heads grafted onto stuntmen, or the sets. These poor guys are acting in front of green screens ALL THE TIME and there wasn’t a moment I felt I could trust I was watching an actual stunt and not some animated nonsense. If you like cartoons, fine, but I don’t, beyond Loony Tune short subjects. From the sets to the skies to the action to the de-aged actors., this movie, like I guess many recent films and all recent Marvel films, is a glorified cartoon. Thank you, no.

Too many climaxes in dim grey settings. Doesn’t Marvel know no one turns up their projector bulbs enough anymore? The final fight with cartoon people sitting on the back of dueling dragons splish-splashing all over a blue-grey lake next to some grey-grey mountains, was almost indecipherable to me. I did catch comic-relief Awkwafina getting a direct hit on the bad dragon with her 24-hour-old archery skills, which might have been a nice touch if I hadn’t seen this moment coming from the previous 45 minutes where they kept telling her her archery skills weren’t good enough.

So if you liked it, cool, but for me? Nah. I’ll take DUNE‘s in-camera and practical effects, and gorgeous and beguiling sets actors could actually walk on, shot in high style by Freddie Francis. It was pretty inscrutable (I’ve never gone near DUNE in any form) but so is Lynch’s LOST HIGHWAY, INLAND EMPIRE, etc. The cast was great and the film is filled with haunting images and genuinely startling moments of beauty and horror. It’s David Lynch given a huge budget! A great, strange, messed-up movie directed by a true artist under duress! I’ll be remembering Kenneth McMillan’s happy, psychotic, boil-covered face as he floats in the air, Sting’s self-satisfied savagery, the little dogs roaming around while everything explodes around them, and Linda Hunt’s piercing, glowing blue eyes much longer than anything in any Marvel film I’ll ever see, apparently. DUNE is a humpback classic. SHANG CHI is competent mediocrity that should do nicely trying to engage (and not offend) a worldwide audience. Yawn.

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