The Complicated Relationship Between Hollywood, Asian Representation, and Marvel’s 'Shang-Chi'

Films like Marvel’s 'Shang-Chi' are a massive step forward for Asian representation. But are there ways they still leave us stuck in the past?

Sep 9 2021, 4:00pm

One of the most compelling scenes in Marvel’s highly anticipated Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings takes place at the border of Ta Lo, a mystical village with an ever-changing entrance that is guarded by a forest. That’s where Wenwu (Tony Leung), future father of Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first Asian superhero, Shang-Chi, meets Jiang Li (Fala Chen), his future mother. Clad in traditional Chinese clothing in front of a flowing waterfall, the two trade blows in an artful dance, showcasing Jiang Li’s airbending martial arts skills and the unstoppable strength of Wenwu’s ten brass rings. 

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While there was certainly something novel about this breathtaking hand-to-hand combat sequence, at least in the context of an American superhero franchise, there was also something familiar about the montage. Sitting in the theater, I felt like I was watching a fight sequence in an old Chinese wuxia film, a genre that blends Chinese mysticism and supernatural martial artists. And despite my pride at seeing these familiar traditions on such a large American platform, I felt almost stuck in the past—watching the same image of myself Hollywood has always shown me.

From Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000 to Disney’s live-action adaptation of Mulan two decades later, the wuxia genre has long been a fixture of American entertainment;  its appearance in Hollywood dates at least as far back as the 70s, after Bruce Lee popularized martial arts on a global scale through Hong Kong cinema. And though America’s obsession with kung fu increased Asian representation on screen, it also created a situation that has proved hard for Asian and Asian American actors to escape: All too often, films featuring Chinese characters harp on stereotypes of the deep past—even films as groundbreaking as Shang-Chi. And whether they’re drawing on mythologized notions of Imperial China, or a magical “other” world, it can be hard to see how this retro-gazing is truly pushing the conversation around representation forward—especially when we know the harmful, real-life consequences of perpetuating dated stereotypes.

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Asians have fought to be meaningfully represented onscreen for as long as Hollywood has existed. Racist caricatures in the form of Fu Manchus—a barbaric mad scientist rooted in yellow peril stereotypes—dominated Western film and TV after British novelist Sax Romer created the character in 1913. Yellowface abounded throughout the 20th century, with white actors playing Asian lead roles, from Charlie Chan to Warner Bros’ Kung Fu casting David Carradine over Bruce Lee as the series’ lead in the 70s. The trend continued even after instances of explicit yellowface finally started receiving public backlash in the 90s: Just a few years ago, lest we forget, producers tried to cast a white woman as Rachel Chu, the protagonist in Crazy Rich Asians.

There are signs that things are changing. The success of Crazy Rich Asians, despite its many shortcomings, showed Hollywood there was indeed an appetite for Asian stories—especially Asian American stories—told by our own community. Asian-created films like Parasite, Minari, The Farewell, and Always Be My Maybe met with huge mainstream success. And shows like Netflix’s Never Have I Ever, HBO’s Warrior, Hulu’s PEN15, and PBS’ Asian American docu-series, along with a rising movement of Asian American filmmakers reclaiming martial arts, have generated endless buzz. But despite these wins, when it comes to mainstream entertainment, it still feels rare to encounter the sort of Asian protagonist that I can actually relate to.

“Right now, we’re seeing that there's an increased number of Asian representation onscreen in both television and film—and that's a positive, because when I was doing this research back in 2005, we were severely underrepresented in terms of having any Asian characters at all,” says Dr. Nancy Wang Yuen, associate professor of sociology at Biola University and author of Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism. “But if we look at the prominence of these characters, at the lead roles, we are still underrepresented compared to our population, numerically.”

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In a recent study conducted in collaboration with the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, her team found that, across 51,159 speaking characters in 1,300 top-grossing movies in 2019, only 5.9 percent were API. Looking qualitatively at representation, they found that 75 percent of API characters had five lines of dialogue or less, and that 67 percent reflected stereotypical tropes, like “martial artist” or “model minority.” Perhaps most alarmingly, only 13 percent of the API characters they surveyed were “fully human,” meaning that they had a full spectrum of relationships.

To me, “fully human” is an apt way to describe meaningful Asian representation: They’re characters who aren’t tokens but complex beings, full of the same hopes, doubts, and dreams that we grapple with every day. To that end, it’s vital to acknowledge the barriers that Shang-Chi—with its nearly all-Asian title cast—breaks in this space. 

Director Destin Daniel Cretton and screenwriter Dave Callaham, both of mixed-race Asian heritage, did a fantastic job of subverting the story’s overtly racist origins, bringing forth a story of a Chinese American valet (Simu Liu) who leaves behind his mundane life in San Francisco to confront his past after his estranged, warlord father suddenly shows up with a plan to conquer his late mother’s village. We learn that Shang-Chi was trained to be an assassin from childhood and that he grew up in his father’s fortress, in a magical, alternate universe that appears to be Imperial China, though its temporal connection to the present is unclear.

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As he navigates his broken family and slips between worlds, Shang-Chi’s conflicted feelings about his dad are exceedingly relatable. But the real star of the movie is undoubtedly Leung, a veteran Hong Kong actor you may remember from Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love. Although the origins of the character he plays are steeped in racist, yellow peril tropes (Shang-Chi’s father has historically been represented as a sinister sorcerer that poses a threat to the Western world), Leung’s masterfully subtle performance has moved audiences so deeply that they’re calling him the best Marvel antagonist yet.

In many ways, Shang-Chi is a real win for Asian American representation. For the first time, our community has an American superhero to champion—in a movie that set records with $94.4 million in sales its opening weekend, no less. The film also incorporates knowing nods to Asian American viewers throughout, such as Liu taking off his shoes before entering Awkwafina’s family home, or a Macao club promoter joking that he speaks “ABC”: “American-Born-Chinese,” or Asian American. 

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Cretton intentionally pays homage to Chinese traditions in the present-day storyline, and many of the film’s fantastical elements are accurate to real Chinese mythology. At the same time, the film left me wanting more: Although the scenes in S.F. and Macao felt true to the millennial Chinese American experience, much of the main plot action dwells in a fictitious, mythologized past. Fantasy is a key component of the MCU, and the filmmakers were likely limited to their source material here; however, it’s instructive to note that when an American entertainment juggernaut like Marvel takes on a story like this, there once again seems to be an implicit assumption that audiences will find an exotic Chinese world more interesting than reality.     

“When we're thinking about cinematic representations like Shang-Chi or Mulan, invoking martial arts and the exotic East is still in there, even as I think Destin Daniel Cretton has done a great job of incorporating Asian American culture within the film,” says Dr. Yuen. “But the entire film still draws upon and invokes the East as this ‘other’, [exotic] world—even I think in Asia, it would be considered exotic, because it's magical; [it’s fantasy]. Like, we wouldn't ever think that Lord of the Rings is how all Europeans are, right?”

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At the film’s close, Liu and Awkwafina return to modern-day SF after saving the world. They try to tell their friends about their crazy adventures, but nobody believes them or acknowledges the weight of their accomplishments. Despite Cretton and Callaham’s thoughtful adaptation of the source material, this detail bothered me: It made me feel like Shang-Chi could only be a superhero in ancient China—as though the idea of an Asian American superhero, one capable of protecting SF in the way Spider-Man does New York, simply wasn’t something that the film’s characters, and audiences, would find plausible. 

The stakes of favoring an exoticized past over the realities of the present are actually quite high. Given the dearth of Asians on screen, every single role holds undue weight, and confounding fantasy and reality can come with harsh real-life consequences—especially in a time of heightened xenophobia due to COVID-19. “When people don't have a lot of personal experience with a community, they substitute the stereotypes that they see onscreen,” says Michelle K. Sugihara, executive director of CAPE, referencing how yellow peril and perpetual foreigner tropes have created a resurgence of anti-Asian violence the last two years. “When you dehumanize a group of people, it becomes easier to hurt them, to lash out or to commit violent acts upon them. And if people are just being bombarded with these caricatures, it really has damaging effects.”

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A 2021 CAPE study with the Geena Davis Institute revealed that out of the top 10 grossing domestic films from 2010 to 2019, 17 percent of female API characters were verbally objectified and 13 percent were visually objectified—more than any white or non-Asian BIPOC women. The fetishization of Asian women goes as far as the 19th century: In the 1880s, operas like Madame Chrysanthème introduced the world to the shy, exotic Asian woman; in 1904, Madame Butterfly birthed the submissive “Lotus Flower” trope; and the 1930 film Daughter of the Dragon—which featured, ironically, the daughter of Fu Manchu—established the cunning, seductive “Dragon Lady.” But while the connection between the hypersexualization of Asian women and real-life violence is well documented, especially after the Atlanta shootings this year, American entertainment is still rife with these stereotypes.

Sugihara also highlighted how Hollywood’s continued insistence on

portraying Asian characters as submissive laborers reinforces the longstanding model minority myth, especially in light of a 2018 Harvard Business Review study which found that Asians were the most likely ethnic group to be hired, but the least likely to be leaders in the workplace. Representations of wealthy East Asians in productions like Bling Empire, House of Ho, and, of course, Crazy Rich Asians—which have always existed in American media—further propagate the model minority myth. But for me, these characterizations also seem to harken back to dynastic empires in Imperial China or Feudal Japan, once again fetishizing ancient East Asian history in a way that leaves many Asian Americans out of the conversation.

Still, Dr. Yuen and Sugihara both noted how the success of Crazy Rich Asians has precipitated an increased push for authenticity in Asian stories, and they say they’ve received a much higher volume of script consultation requests since. Some of these are from creators hoping that when they touch on aspects of Asian culture, they’re getting it right. Dr. Yuen recalls one instance where producers came to her for guidance on incorporating Chinese Mythology into a story: “I started to say, well, it'd be great to actually talk about Asian American history, or Asian American civil rights—that story has not been told at all,” she said. “They [considered it], but went back to mythology,” she continued, laughing. “But I wouldn't have been able to say that if there wasn't even an interest to invoke Chinese mythology, right?”

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Ultimately, the only solution is to increase API representation at all levels of the industry—not just on screen, but also in writer's rooms and in executive positions. And while Hollywood still has a long way to go, activist filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña, lead producer on PBS’ acclaimed Asian American 5-hour docu-series, says we’ve entered a veritable “golden age of Asian American digital storytelling.”

“There’s this whole blossoming of Asian Americans telling the story,” she says: “Not just Chinese or Japanese stories, which dominated content for many years, but also Korean Americans, Southeast Asians, Cambodians, Hmong, people from Atlanta or Texas or Minneapolis.”

A protest with San Francisco State University in 1968, as seen in PBS' 'Asian American.' Photo courtesy of PBS.

A third-generation Japanese American, Tajima-Peña says her work aims to counter narratives like the model minority myth or the type-casting of Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners—often through historical education and intersectional advocacy. Her most recent project, May 19th, explores Black-Asian solidarity in light of the rise in anti-Asian violence this year. “I'm not saying there's no conflict between Asian Americans and [other groups], or even within Asian American communities. But to me, for the right-wing today, two of the most dangerous words are solidarity and history. Because in history, you see that solidarity. In that solidarity, you see change.” 

Dr. Yuen echoes the thought: “As Asian Americans, we need to be more educated about not just Asia, but Asian American history, so that when we [have the opportunity to tell our story], we can have a full grasp of the narrative and to be able to complicate the narrative in a way that will fully humanize us.”

At the end of the day, the key to pushing representation forward may very well lie in revisiting the past—not through endlessly rehashing the same old stories, but by unearthing the narratives in our history that have been overlooked, that even we as Asian Americans have overlooked. Shang-Chi is certainly a step in the right direction, and I have high hopes that it will inspire others to tell stories that are rooted in the real and historical, rather than the ancient and fantastical. Sugihara put it best: “No one project can fully reflect our huge community or diverse stories. So I really want to celebrate these big, tentpole moments [like Shang-Chi]—and then also keep pushing for more.”

Tagged:

marvel, asian representation, asian american representation, Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings

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