Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings: Best American-Made Martial Arts Movie of All Time

Shang Chi
Shang Chi/ Marvel Studios

Dr. Craig's Martial Arts Movie Lounge

In celebration of the best American made martial arts film ever, which is now in my Top Five Martial Arts Films of All Time list (I’ve seen 10,000+ martial arts films since 1973), I’ve summarized my view of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings to the tune of the classic American anthem Home on the Range.

O give me a Ta Lo home where the dragons do roam

Where the hundun and 7-tailed foxes play

Where often is heard, it’s a discouraging world

When Darkness Dweller comes hunting its prey.

Home, home on the deranged

When Shang-Chi and Xialing will sing

As Soul Suckers attack, and kung fu is back

When Shang-Chi wields his father’s Ten Rings.

Shang Chi Martial Arts

Shang Chi/ Marvel Studios

During my blog on Dune (2021) I wrote that the film’s fight choreography outfoxed all the standardized and repetitive fight choreography used in Marvel films. Yet after watching Marvel’s Shang-Chi,I’m so psyched to share that the fight choreography in Shang-Chi has 7-tail outfoxed every American made martial arts movie made to date. At the end of the day, it’s my utmost hope that I can change my mind after every film.

Shang-Chihas really hotted the martial arts film world, a genre that began in China with Ding Jun Shan (1905), with a splendid array of righteous martial arts heroes led by Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) who are destined to team up with the Jiang Hu world’s Ta Lo Village, headed by Shang-Chi’s aunt Ying Nan (Michelle Yeoh) and their Great Protector Water dragon to face the menacingly hideous Dweller of the Dark demon in a rematch that will decide the fate of Jiang Hu and the normal world.

I’m impressed that the directed Destin Daniel Cretton Shang-Chi has evolved into a novel yarn that embraces and romanticizes the spirit of the world of Jiang Hu(translation, rivers and lakes). Historically, this alternative realm is made up of beggars, martial heroes, martial villains, and outcasts who coexist outside of everyday society but live by their own laws, systems of brotherhood and morality code of ethics. In dubbed kung fu films it’s translated as the kung fu underworld. Yet Shang-Chi has become a contemporary tale using the milieu or sub-world of Jiang Hu in a nontraditional wuxia setting. As a result, the story is geared more toward the criminal element of Chinese triads that transcend into the inclusion of beastly creatures via the Marvel Universe style, which are breaking the traditional tenets of the Jiang Hu way of life by infiltrating into normal society, i.e., creating a new dimension of Jiang Hu. It’s crazier than when I was in high school and had to go up to the front of math class to solve a problem on the blackboard and started having body pains due to fibromy-algebra.

Ta Lo and the Protector have kept the Dweller imprisoned in a mountain lair for thousands of years behind the Dark Gate. However, the Dweller has a cunning plan to bring its dirty sheet of mistrust and deceit, interwoven with a fear-inducing fabric to the battle by amassing a hoard of spirit-sucking vermin and finagling Shang-Chi’s father and leader of the Ten Rings organization, Wenwu (Tony Leung), to use his ten rings to open the lair door, which will not be adorable for all societies involved.

If one can speak mandarin, read contemporary Chinese characters and/or have knowledge of reading ancient Chinese characters (zhuan shu), film nuances open up a few extra doors of entertainment.

In the plane scene when Shaun tries to teach Katy (Awkwafina) how to say Shang-Chi in mandarin, she screws up the tones and even on her last attempt, where Shaun said it was right, it was still wrong. Since Awkwafina is a comedienne and has studied mandarin, perhaps it was an inside joke. Also one changes the tones of Shang-Chi, as it happened in the film, it sounded like they were calling him Angry. Sequel idea, The Wrath of Shang-Chi.

Shang-Chi's written Chinese name is 上氣 (shang (above, higher) and chi (breath, air, chi energy from chi gong), perhaps proffering that his chi flow is strong thus his kung fu skills are more powerful than others.

Yet the cool thing is the Ten Rings banner, where within each ring is a different Chinese character written using zhuan shu. The words from the top of the circle and reading clockwise represents their mottoes: power; force; strong; robust; grand; imposing; great; hero; power and influence. Ancient Chinese characters are basically pictures that describe what the character is about, a composition that brings out the essence, feeling and power of the word compared to English that reveals the definition of the word.

Shang Chi Scene

Shang Chi/ Marvel Studios

I had a blast watching the fights, and the way each fight was choreographed and shot with its own distinct flavor. Yet the neatest thing is how fight coordinator Andy Cheng was able to infuse each of the sensibilities of the five different martial arts film genres in one movie. It’s unheard of for an American film to do this and that if I ever had the audacity to do a similar film, I would want Cheng to be in charge because his unique approach to fight choreography reflects his all-inclusive background and understanding of how each genre looks and works.

Without breaking down each of Cheng’s Shang-Chi fights, which I’m immensely tempted to do, yet that would take a separate article, so for now, the best and clearest way to share his thought process and the choreographers and directors that have influenced him, is to describe the five genres of martial arts film, then you’ll get it. Keep in mind that Cheng is a student of each genre and has learned how to create the essence of each genre through his mentors and other cinematic associations throughout his career.

For example, the father of wire-fu (wirework), Ching Siu Tung, told me when it comes to fight choreography and using wirework, use the direction of your mind, then figure out how to do it and shoot it. Even it sounds impossible to do, you can figure out it. Cheng is fan of Ching too and my guess is he knows him. And of course, when learning from Jackie Chan, one major key element Chan teaches is how to do shoot the fight, i.e., camera choreography and how to edit the fight. Thus, during his genre mixing, Cheng has also developed his own style and flavor by adding in a secret ingredient nobody has used before…the AC Way (Andy Cheng Way).

The wuxia pian (loosely translated as "martial chivalrous-hero film),” was the first genre created during the 1920s in Shanghai and was named after the Chinese Wu Xia Xiao Shuo (wuxianovels), literary masterpieces soaked in traditional tales and legends of superhuman swordsmen and magical feats, written during the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907). Wuxia heroes typically combine altruism with exceptional martial arts skills and fantastic magical powers. These characters had extraordinary leaping abilities, could shoot flying swords or daggers out of their hands and weapons, and when they fought super villains, the hero and villain could sit opposite each other and fight with their minds as astral spirits.

Next came the kung fupian that was derived from Cantonese (mandarin gong-fu) that means working man, which connotates hard work. However, the term is used in connection with the martial arts film genre that emerged in the late 1960s and brought to prominence by Bruce Lee in 1971 that presented characters and fight choreography of a more supposedly realistic nature, in other words, less fantastical. Due to the overpowering success of Jackie Chan's kung fu films made by Golden Harvest in the late 1970s, such as Drunken Master (1978), rival studio Shaw Brothers financed the creation of the guoshu pian (national art film) that were designated as neo-hero movies where director Chang Cheh and fight choreographer Liu Chia-liang were credited with developing the genre, which eloquently mixed the fight choreography of kung fu and wuxia films.

With films like Project A (1984) and officially Police Story (1985), Jackie Chan created the wuda pian (fight films using martial arts), in which he combined athleticism, martial arts and dangerously outrageous stunts wrapped in contemporary themes and settings. And finally in 1983, Hong Kong new-wave filmmaker Tsui Hark with Zu: Warriors from Magic Mountain rang in the Fant-Asia film era, a unique genre that quickly evolved into a seductive wild mix of horror, sex, sorcery, fantasy, science fiction and swordplay films all uniquely egg-rolled into something that Western filmgoers could understandably digest, entertainment wise. Tsui’s fight director/choreographer, the man credited with creating the frenetic paced, over-the-top action using far-out sight gags and gravity defying wirework, Ching Siu Tung. The next time you watch Shang-Chi, see if you can spot which fights uses which genres, where some use three genres within the same fight.

Shang Chi

Shang Chi/ Marvel Studios

I would like to end by making a comment on the wildly entertaining fight when Shang-Chi stunningly slaloms around a bendybus smoother than cold satin on a warm day, where many film critics quickly and incorrectly claimed that it was a Jackie Chan fight. Of course, it’s partially influenced by Chan when you consider that Cheng was an incognito stunt double for Chan, which out of great respect for Chan it’s never been a badge of boasting. Yet the bus fight is robustly swayed by Chan’s opera brother, Yuen De, specifically Yuen’s train fight in Dragon from Russia (DFR; 1980). Yuen also cameoed in DFR as a facially disfigured mysterious assassin who takes on the hero with a mindboggling finale fight that reminded me of Shang-Chi battling the Chinese-opera-masked assassin Death Dealer after the trellis fight sequence.

I first met Cheng when he was Sammo Hung‘s stunt double on Martial Law (1998) where I was a fight directing apprentice with Yuen De. The way Cheng magnificently brought together all five of the martial arts film genres in Shang-Shi, itbought tears to my eyes. You’re the Man now brother.

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