HONG KONG – David Tse recalls being overwhelmed with pride when he left 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,” said the British-Chinese actor and writer over the phone from Birmingham. “Every Chinese in the whole world should be immensely proud of Shang-Chi.”
The film, Marvel’s first with a predominantly Asian cast, was a hit with audiences around the world, grossed more in US theaters than any other film during the pandemic, and grossed more than $ 366 million worldwide since its release early last month.
But despite its box office success and the overwhelmingly positive response from Asian communities around the world, it doesn’t play on a single screen in mainland China that last year saw North America as that the largest film market in the world. It is the latest film to get into trouble in the country amid growing nationalism and tension between the US and China.
“Shang-Chi” was developed with China in mind from the start. Much of the dialogue in the film is in Mandarin, and the cast includes some of the biggest names in Asian cinema, including Michelle Yeoh and Hong Kong superstar Tony Leung, who is making his Hollywood film debut.
Simu Liu, a Chinese-born Canadian actor who also starred on the Netflix sitcom “Kim’s Convenience,” plays Shang-Chi, a reluctant martial arts warrior forced to confront his father. The film has been widely lauded as a great step forward as Hollywood seeks to improve the portrayal of Asians and Asian Americans.
“We are finally seeing a strong character who has not been stereotyped as it has been for generations,” said Tse. “Our young people desperately need more of it.”
In China, where films are strictly censored and the number of annual releases abroad is limited, “Shang-Chi” is not so welcomed. That hasn’t stopped Marvel in the past – in 2019, Avengers: Endgame earned $ 629 million from mainland China audiences, more than any other foreign film in history.
Officials did not say why “Shang-Chi” has no release date, and the propaganda department of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, which regulates the country’s film and television industry, did not respond to a request for comment.
Experts point to the deteriorating US-China relationship, rising Chinese nationalism, and the character’s racist comic book past.
Full of stereotypes
Marvel debuted the Shang Chi character in 1973 amid growing American interest in martial arts films. The early Shang Chi comics were full of stereotypes about Asians, with characters depicted in unnatural shades of yellow. Shang-Chi’s father, a power-hungry villain named Fu Manchu, has been criticized as a symbol of the “yellow threat,” a xenophobic ideology from the 19th century that viewed Asians, especially Chinese, as a threat to Western existence.
Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige has emphasized that Fu Manchu is no longer a character in Marvel Comics and that Shang-Chi’s father in the film, played by Leung, is a very different character named Xu Wenwu. But with some, the connection remains.
“The Chinese audience cannot accept that a biased character from 100 years ago still appears in a new Marvel movie,” said Beijing-based film critic Shi Wenxue told the Global Times, a government-sponsored nationalist tabloid.
Liu, 32, who emigrated to Canada with his parents in the 1990s, has also drawn public outrage over previous criticism of his country of birth.
In a 2016 Twitter post, he described the Chinese government’s censorship as “really immature and non-contact”.
The following year, in an interview with Canadian Broadcasting Corp., which has since been discontinued, Liu described China as a “third world” country where people “died of hunger” when he and his parents left. A screenshot of his comments was posted on Weibo, a popular social networking platform in China, with one user commenting, “Then why is he playing a Chinese character?”
Michael Berry, director of the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies, said Liu’s comments were “taken out of context and politicized.”
“Once a cyber attack is carried out against a film or person in China, there are usually a number of topics of conversation that are fabricated and then used to exploit rising nationalist sentiment,” he told NBC News.
“Reclaiming our culture”
The anger at Liu’s comments is reminiscent of an earlier episode with Chloé Zhao, the Beijing-born director of Nomadland, which made history that year when she became the first woman of color to win the Oscar for Best Director.
“Nomadland” was slated for limited release on the mainland, but then an interview with Filmmaker magazine resurfaced in 2013 in which Zhao described China as “a place where lies are everywhere”. She has been targeted by online commentators who accused her of daubing the nation and the film was never shown.
“Eternals,” an upcoming Marvel film by Zhao, could also be denied a release date in mainland China.
Berry described the treatment of Liu and Zhao as a “great tragedy” and described them as China’s “best hope for a better intercultural understanding between China and the West”.
Many moviegoers elsewhere in the region have celebrated Shang-Chi to promote this understanding.
Adrian Hong, 22, a student who saw the film twice in Hong Kong, which has its own film oversight, said he speaks volumes about the “beauty and grace of Chinese culture.”
“The beauty of the martial arts, the concept of yin and yang, the incredible mythical creatures all add to the film,” he said.
Some Weibo commentators have also questioned the mainland government’s apparent decision not to show the film.
“Why do some people say that Shang-Chi is offensive to China?” asked one user. “The film does not offend China, but instead 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 pushback for all of the Asian hate crimes against us. It’s an answer to all the fanatics who have been against us for decades, ”he said. “Shang-Chi is that we reclaim our culture. It says globally, culturally, that this is a new tide of history. “