Words can hardly express how excited I was when I heard Marvel was going to make a superhero movie with an Asian lead. Considering the remarkable strides the studio has made in the last couple years in terms of representation, most notably with “Black Panther” and “Captain Marvel,” I would have been disappointed to see Asians left out of the picture.
Thankfully, Marvel decided to greenlight the film, scheduling “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” for release in 2021. While the original release date was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, the film has now finished shooting and is currently set to be released in July.
This is, to put it simply, fantastic news. Asian representation in Hollywood films has been lacking for a long time, with efforts to improve only occurring in the last few years. Before that, you’d struggle to find an Asian character who didn’t conform to at least a couple of harmful stereotypes.
After decades of baby steps, sidelining and being told it wasn’t our turn, we’re finally getting our day.
But something about it is still bothering me.
I just can’t help but feel like this is continuing the worrying trend of representation with qualifications.
To give a clearer idea of what I’m on about, let’s compare “Shang-Chi” to “Black Panther.” The latter was revolutionary largely because it placed a historically underrepresented group in a rarely occupied position of power. This is, in the context of film history, a pretty huge step. On the other hand, there’s “Shang-Chi.” While we don’t know much about the plot yet, we do know that the titular character, Shang-Chi, is a martial artist, hardly a position Asians in film are unfamiliar with.
So yeah, we get our representation, but we can’t do anything that’s too unfamiliar to general audiences. And this isn’t the first time this has happened. Just two years ago we were in a similar situation with “Crazy Rich Asians.”
While “Crazy Rich Asians” was also an important step forward for Asians in film, there are still a lot of “buts” when describing its racial representation. Yes, it has an all-Asian cast, but the actors aren’t all the right nationality. It feels like a grab bag of all the Asian actors who were available at the time, with no regard to whether they were the ethnicity their characters are supposed to be. In the same movie you have Constance Wu, whose parents are from Taiwan; Michelle Yeoh, who was born in Malaysia; and Henry Golding, a half-Malaysian who grew up in England.
While I was happy to see some people with monolids up on the big screen, I couldn’t help but think it wasn’t really an Asian movie. It felt like a story that was designed to cater to American audiences and their preexisting perceptions of what Asian characters are supposed to be. In this case, they have to be extremely wealthy, the kind of stereotype that’s often brushed off as a compliment.
This is how I feel about “Shang-Chi.” They can’t have Asians go too far outside their zone, so they still have to be martial artists with names such as “Shang-Chi” and "Mandarin.”
Then again, I very well could be wrong. While I know the character names and their general attributes, I don’t know anything about the film’s plot. And there have been noteworthy changes from the source material, such as the removal of the villain “Fu Manchu,” a character associated with a number of racist stereotypes. But I still hold my reservations.
I hope it doesn’t seem like I’m not excited for “Shang-Chi,” because I am. It’s a huge step for Asian representation in the media, arguably the biggest one I’ve seen in my lifetime. An Asian character has never had the chance to hit this many screens, and it does make me happy to think that some kids will get to see someone who looks like them on the big screen, an opportunity I never got.
I just wish they got to see them do something other than kung fu.