Marvel’s “Shang-Chi” was designed with China in mind. Here’s why Beijing doesn’t like it.
HONG KONG – David Tse remembers being overcome with pride as he stepped out of a UK cinema after watching ‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’, Marvel’s latest superhero film.
“Our community has finally arrived in the West,” the British Chinese actor and writer said by telephone from Birmingham. “Every Chinese person around the world should be immensely proud of Shang-Chi. “
The film, Marvel’s first with a predominantly Asian distribution, has been a hit with global audiences, earning more in US theaters than any other film during the pandemic and grossing more than $ 366 million worldwide since its release in Canada. beginning of last month.
But despite its box office success and overwhelmingly positive response from Asian communities around the world, it doesn’t play on a single screen in mainland China, which overtook North America as the largest market last year. cinematographic world. It is the latest film to run into trouble in the country amid rising nationalism and US-China tensions.
From the start, “Shang-Chi” was designed with China in mind. Much of the film’s dialogue is in Mandarin, and the cast includes some of the biggest names in Asian cinema, including Michelle Yeoh and Hong Kong superstar Tony Leung, making his Hollywood film debut.
Simu Liu, a Chinese-Canadian actor who also starred in the Netflix sitcom “Kim’s Convenience,” plays Shang-Chi, a reluctant martial arts warrior forced to confront his father. The film has been widely hailed as a big step forward as Hollywood tries to improve the portrayal of Asians and Asian Americans.
“Finally, we see a strong character who hasn’t been stereotypical like we’ve been for generations,” Tse said. “Our young people desperately want more. “
“Shang-Chi” has not received the same reception in China, where films are strictly censored and the number of foreign releases each year is limited. That hasn’t stopped Marvel in the past – in 2019, “Avengers: Endgame” grossed Chinese audiences $ 629 million, more than any other foreign film in history.
Officials have not said why “Shang-Chi” does not have a release date, and the propaganda department of the ruling Communist Party of China, which regulates the country’s film and television industry, has not responded. to a request for comment.
Experts point to the deterioration of US-Chinese relations, the rise of Chinese nationalism, and the character’s racist comic book past.
Full of stereotypes
Marvel debuted with the character of Shang-Chi in 1973 amid growing American interest in martial arts films. Shang-Chi’s early comics were riddled with stereotypes about Asians, with the characters depicted in artificial yellow tones. Shang-Chi’s father, a power-hungry villain named Fu Manchu, has been criticized as a symbol of the “yellow peril,” a xenophobic ideology that originated in the 19th century in which Asians, especially the Chinese, were seen as a threat. for western existence.
Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige pointed out that Fu Manchu is no longer a character from the Marvel comics and that Shang-Chi’s father in the film, played by Leung, is a completely different character named Xu Wenwu. But for some, the connection persists.
“The Chinese public cannot accept that a character with prejudices from 100 years ago still appears in a new Marvel film,” Beijing-based film critic Shi Wenxue told the Global Times, a nationalist-backed tabloid. by the state.
Liu, 32, who immigrated to Canada with his parents in the 1990s, has also sparked public anger over past comments criticizing his country of birth.
In a 2016 Message on Twitter, he described the Chinese government censorship as “really immature and out of touch.”
The following year, in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. which has since been withdrawn, Liu described China as a “third world” country where people were “starving” by the time he and his parents left. A screenshot of his comments circulated on Weibo, a popular social networking platform in China, with one user commenting, “So why is he playing a Chinese character?
Michael Berry, director of the Center for Chinese Studies at UCLA, said Liu’s comments had been “taken out of context and politicized.”
“Once a cyberattack is carried out on a movie or an individual in China, there is usually a series of talking points that are fabricated and then exploited to take advantage of the growing nationalist sentiment,” he told NBC News.
“Reclaiming our culture”
The anger over Liu’s comments echoes a previous episode involving Chloe Zhao, the Beijing-born director of “Nomadland,” who made history this year by becoming the first woman of color to win the best director.
“Nomadland” had been slated for limited release on the mainland, but a 2013 interview with Filmmaker magazine resurfaced in which Zhao described China as “a place where there are lies everywhere.” She was targeted by online commentators accusing her of sullying the nation, and the film was never shown.
“Eternals,” an upcoming Marvel film directed by Zhao, could also be denied a mainland Chinese release date.
Berry called Liu and Zhao’s treatment a “great tragedy”, describing them as “China’s best hope for better intercultural understanding between China and the West.”
Many moviegoers elsewhere in the region celebrated “Shang-Chi” for promoting this understanding.
Adrian Hong, 22, a student who has seen the film twice in Hong Kong who has his own film regulator, said he spoke volumes about “the beauty and grace of Chinese culture.”
“The beauty of martial arts, the concept of yin and yang, the amazing mythical creatures, it all adds up to the movie,” he said.
Some commentators on Weibo have also questioned the apparent decision of the Continental government not to air the film.
“Why do some people say Shang-Chi offends China? Asked a user. “The film does not offend China, but rather promotes traditional Chinese culture.”
For Tse, the actor and writer, “Shang-Chi” is all the more important because of the rampant anti-Asian racism, discrimination and violence unleashed by the coronavirus pandemic.
“This is a step back for all Asian hate crimes against us. This is a response to all the fanatics who have been against us for decades,” he said. “Shang-Chi is to win us back our culture, but overall, culturally, it’s a new wave of history.