film

Review: Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings

Written by Dave Callaham, Andrew Lanham, and Destin Daniel Cretton, and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, “Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings” is Marvel Studio’s first foray into the world of Martial Arts, Wuxia, and all the Kung Fu you can handle. After the conclusion of “Avengers: Endgame” Marvel needed to wow us with their latest new Superhero- and Shang-Chi more than accomplishes that. By leaning into every possible Chinese and Asian-American inspirational genre and medium of culture the filmmakers could conjure up, it really sets this film apart from the rest of the Cinematic Universe. Though while there were several tie-ins to the broader world, it never felt too encroaching or out of place in this film. Throughout the runtime I had moments during which I thought to myself, “Wow, this is like a live-action side-scroller beat ’em up video game” or “Wow, they really went for the gold with the Wuxia stuff” or “Oh My god, what is that? A Pokemon?!” and finally “Am I just straight up watching a Live-action Studio Ghibli movie right now?“. Now, granted, I’m not saying that this film transcends any of those inspirations mentioned, but it does do an excellent job of making itself unique enough, while visually referencing those well known touchstones. The most exciting aspect of this film is that while you can still see the formulaic structure of the MCU at times- it’s the moments, beats, and scenes that break away from the mold that feel fresh and electric. The best thing I can say about a movie where the lead character is a Master of Martial Arts, is that the fights, and star Simu Liu himself, are outstanding!

So, what’s the story about anyways? Mostly, it’s the tale of a strained Father-Son relationship, though that does leave out a lot of the details. We pick up the tale in San Francisco, where Shang-Chi has been living for a decade after an escape from the grasp of his father’s reach. He works as Valet Driver with his friend Katy (Awkwafina), and they actually really seem to enjoy their job. In fact, during the first act these two showcase a friendship and lifestyle that’s easily the most relatable and realistic in perhaps all of the MCU so far. After a few long nights fueled by alcohol and Karaoke, they’re rudely awakened by the plot when Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), better known to comic-book readers as The Mandarin, sends a strike team of Ten Rings assassins to San Francisco. This kickstarts the most memorable fight scene of the movie in which Shang-Chi takes on all fighters on a city bus. The choreography is slick, kinetic, and every punch, counter, and kick feels powerful when they land and equally nerve wracking when death blows are nearly missed. This is the energy that fuels the newness of this film, and future filmmakers that utilize Simu Liu would do well to remember what worked in this film, and why. While that aspect of the film is exciting and entertaining, the character work done with Shang-Chi, and Wenwu specifically, are a step above your average superhero flick. Yes, it’s the age old theme of the cruel Father and wayward Son- but the layers given to both make the spectacle of the third act a backseat to the emotionally resonant dynamic relationship between Hero and Villain. It’s no surprise that an actor of Tony Leung’s caliber could inhabit such a good villain- what is a surprise is just how comic-book accurate the Mandarin is, and how the filmmakers utilized him.

Xu Wenwu is the driving force of the plot. Which rings true based on the opening sequence of the film detailing his thousand year past and how the Ten Rings organization have changed the course of history from behind the shadows for a millennia. Here The Mandarin, isn’t just a villain that makes good on his threats- he’s also someone that fell in love and tried to challenge his own past for the sake of his family borne out of that love. It’s a kernel of the greater world that’s built upon in this film. I won’t ruin all the secrets this film has to offer, but trust me, they crafted an excellent version of the Mandarin with this film, and it’s all the greater for all the nuances and depth they gave him. In fact this is one of the most well-rounded casts of the MCU so far, the legendary Michelle Yeoh even graces the film as Shang-Chi’s Aunt Ying Nan! Everyone is on point, there’s no cringe factor in sight, and we even get a couple of fun cameos. Though, admittedly, speaking of being on point- I have to mention that Bill Pope is the cinematographer for this film. If you don’t know the name, you likely know at least one of the movies he’s worked on. Bill Pope has been the cinematographer for such films as “The World’s End”, “Baby Driver”, All three “Matrix” movies, “Army of Darkness”, “Spider-Man 2”, and “Team America: World Police” to name a few. There were many moments during the film where the camera movements, angles, and sense of movement all felt fresh and unique to the cinematic universe, and I have a feeling Bill Pope was intimately involved in a lot of those sensory scenes. There’s definitely some time in the film where it has “The Marvel look” and I get that they want to keep things somewhat similar across all films, but I’m glad they gave Pope room to breath and explore more so than maybe some of the other cinematographers in the past were allowed? They would do well to hire big name cinematographers like Pope, and let them experiment with the look of these films. If there’s ever going to be the much ballyhooed “Superhero Fatigue” we keep hearing about, the visual drudgery of the MCU will probably be part of that process.

“Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings” was the shot of adrenaline that the Marvel Cinematic Universe needed, and will continue to need in the future. If the Superhero monolith continues to takes risks and invest in new characters and stories with this level of detail and fun, then it’ll be a future worth going to the movies to see. Obviously, highly recommended.

Final Score: 1 Morris

film

Old School Review: “Chungking Express” (1994)

Written and Directed by Wong Kar-Wai, “Chungking Express” is a uniquely romantic film out of Hong Kong in the early-to-mid 1990’s. This film falls heavily into the category of “Art film” and it relies far more on the feeling or sensation of its characters and imagery than the logic of plot progression. If that sort of film repels you, then this one may not be for you. Though I do suggest going out of your comfort zone when choosing which movies to watch, broadening one’s artistic horizons is always encouraged. Anyways, this film is essentially split into two halves- almost directly down the middle of the runtime. Each half even has its own cinematographer! The first half belonging to Andrew Lau, and the second to Christopher Doyle.

Both halves of the film follow lovelorn police officers in Hong Kong. The first half follows Officer 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro) in the midst of his listless drudgery, the symptoms of a recent breakup. He’s taken to buying canned pineapple with the expiration date of May 1st- thereby giving himself a month after the break to wallow in self pity. When the date comes, he decides to eat the entirety of the canned pineapples he’s collected and then go out to a bar and try to seduce the first woman he sees. That first woman, however, happens to be a someone we’ve seen along side Officer 223’s malaise. We get almost no information about this woman (Brigitte Lin), other than the fact that she’s involved with some serious criminals. She’s always sporting a blonde wig and sunglasses, something that looks straight out of a 1940’s Noir’s femme fatale wardrobe. We witness her oversee a bunch of Indian men as they prepare to smuggle large amounts of heroin, watch her dance with a white man in a nightclub (possibly indicating him to be her superior), and observe as she goes on the run in an escalating foot-chase through the crowded marketplaces and streets of Hong Kong with a few haphazard shootouts along the way. By the time she escapes into a quiet bar and has a few drinks to settle her nerves, officer 223 enters in civilian clothing- eyeing her as his next obsession of love. From here, the two share a night of communal drinking, awkward expressions, and a sexless night at the officer’s apartment as he watches old movies late into the night as she sleeps unconsciously next to him. When she mysteriously exits in the morning, we follow officer 223 on his habitual route to the Midnight Express fast food shop, which just so happens to be frequented by another officer, number 663 (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung).

The second half of the film changes up it’s color palette and tonal sensibilities while still focusing on another officer experiencing love-loss in Hong Kong. This half is drenched in a colder blend of colors, whereas the first was submerged in deep reds and yellows. It’s also more akin to a rom-com dipped in whimsy than the first’s playful experiment in aspects of pulpy crime; a woman in danger, some gunplay, all existing in a subsect of a criminal underworld that exists parallel to everyday life. Officer 663 is also experiencing a sense of purposelessness in the aftermath of a breakup with a flight attendant (Valerie Chow). After the flight attendant leaves 663’s apartment keys, accompanied by a handwritten letter, at the Midnight Express we’re introduced to Faye (Faye Wong), the cashier with a pixie cut. After everyone else in the kitchen has read the letter, Faye indulges and takes a keen interest in officer 663. Faye’s interest quickly turns into a strangely, quirky, obsession as she repeatedly sneaks into his apartment to clean and rearrange his things. In other films, and in real life, several of her actions would seem alarming and unstable at times- but here it’s presented as playfully romantic. Which incorporates into the film’s thesis on relationships, both in the wake of longing and the potential of a new love. Taking the film as a whole, it’s harbors a unique ideology in which change is inevitable, but also that you must open yourself up to allow for the potential of a new positive evolution to take place.

This was an interesting film to take in. On its own merits, “Chungking Express” has something unique to offer- even if I didn’t quite love it as much as I anticipated, the film’s reputation exceeded itself for me personally. Though I am glad to have seen it. I admired the techniques employed throughout both halves. Melding slow motion, pixelation, and freezing the foreground while simultaneously blurring and speeding up the backgrounds of officers 223 and 663 in certain compositions helped to establish them as alone in a sea of people constantly on the move. Even though the film immerses itself in the wallowing of dissolved relationships- it retains a sheen of dreamy optimism that pairs well with it’s hypnotic nihilism, resulting in something truly bittersweet. I caught this film on the Criterion Collection’s streaming service (The Criterion Channel), and I cannot recommend the service enough. If you love old cinema and foreign films from every era, its worth your time.

Final Score: 1 month’s worth of canned pineapple

*For a deeper dive into the film and further context, check out the link below! I found the article to be an illuminating read:

https://thedissolve.com/features/movie-of-the-week/216-keynote-chungking-express/