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‘Shang-Chi’ charts the search for self

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” (2021). Cast: Simu Liu, Tony Leung, Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen, Michelle Yeoh, Ben Kingsley, Yuen Wah, Florian Munteanu, Benedict Wong, Andy Le, Jayden Chang, Elodie Fong, Arnold Sun, Kunal Dudheker, Stephanie Hsu, Jodi Long, Tsai Chin. Director: Destin Daniel Cretton. Screenplay: Dave Callahan, Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham. Story: Dave Callahan and Destin Daniel Cretton. Source Material: Steve Engelhart and Jim Starlin, Marvel Comics. Web site. Trailer.

Who we are and how we determine that can be an arduous undertaking, one replete with doubt, uncertainty and even denial. But, if we’re to attain satisfaction and fulfillment in life, it’s a process we must all go through to discover just what makes us, us. No one’s immune from this either, not even those who possess seemingly superior powers that one might think would automatically come with greater self-awareness. Such is the dilemma faced by a reluctant superhero in the thrilling and thoughtful new action-adventure saga, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.”

Successfully running away from a troubled past may seem like an expedient and effective way of escaping it, but appearances can definitely be deceiving. So it is for Chinese immigrant Xu Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), who fled his homeland to find hoped-for peace of mind in San Francisco. He spends his days as a parking valet and knocking around with his friend and co-worker, Katy Chen (Awkwafina). However, it’s readily apparent that they’re both slumming it in their current occupations; they’re both vastly intellectually and academically overqualified to be parking cars for a living. So why are they doing it?

In a sense, Katy and Shang-Chi (who has now Americanized his name as “Shaun”) are both hiding from – and searching for – themselves. Katy is trying to duck from her overbearing mother (Jodi Long), who clearly wants her daughter to follow a traditional lifestyle as a wife and mother, something Katy knows she doesn’t want, despite an obvious uncertainty about what to replace it with. As for Shaun, his choice to hide from himself is also a deliberate decision, one to withdraw from his past, something he rarely talks about. Yet there’s definitely more to Shaun and who he is than he lets on, something that becomes unexpectedly and startlingly exposed.

One morning, while Shaun and Katy are riding the bus to work, he’s approached by a band of thugs seeking to steal a green pendant that he never takes off. The necklace was a gift from his deceased mother, Li (Fala Chen), who told him that it would always help him find his way home if he ever got into trouble. Given the sentimental value of this piece of jewelry (and the secret power he suspects it possesses), Shaun refuses to give it up, and a fight ensues that makes the battle scenes in most kung fu movies pale by comparison. As Katy and stunned onlookers stand agape at what unfolds – most notably Shaun’s never-before-seen fighting expertise – the bad guys are systematically taken out, including a muscle-bound Romanian hunk named Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu), whose missing right hand has been replaced with an appendage befitting his name. But, in the midst of the conflict, Shaun discovers the pendant is missing, apparently snatched by the thugs as they made their escape.

When all is said and done, Katy is dumbfounded by what happened, prompting her to coax Shaun to come clean about what happened. It’s at that point when she (and viewers) learn of her friend’s mysterious past. Shang-Chi grew up with a once-powerful, self-serving father, Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), who spent a millennium amassing wealth and virtually limitless power thanks to his command of 10 magical rings that he found (and never took off). That outlook changed, however, when the supreme master met Li, the only person capable of defeating him in battle, something she did by winning over his heart. Wenwu’s prevailing attitude changed from one of greed to one of loving benevolence, a new perspective that led to marriage and the birth of two children, Shang-Chi (Jayden Chang) and his sister, Xialing (Elodie Fong). But, when Li died, Wenwu was so heartbroken that he began reverting to his old ways, even training his teenage son (Arnold Sun) to become a reluctant assassin, a role than Shang-Chi clearly did not want to play. So, when his father gave him his first assignment, Shang-Chi used the opportunity to flee to America, never looking back.

Now, however, with the theft of the pendant, Shang-Chi realizes that his father has discovered where he has been hiding when he learns that dad dispatched his henchmen to grab the jewelry – and to send a message. He also knows that his now-adult sister (Meng’er Zhang), who is still living in China, is also likely in danger, especially since she possesses a matching pendant, one that, if paired with the stolen item, might unleash tremendous powers that could spell trouble for more than just him and Xialing.

Realizing what he must do, Shang-Chi departs for China. And Katy, who believes she has nothing to lose by tagging along, joins him as they go in search of his sister to warn her. But the journey turns out to be nothing what they expect as they encounter a highly self-sufficient Xialing, along with an ever more determined Wenwu and his army of minions, including the infamous Razor Fist. Their odyssey subsequently takes Shang-Chi, Xialing and Katy far afield from the world they’ve grown accustomed to, including forays into mysterious territory akin to the mythical Shangri-La, where they meet great warriors, magical creatures, a has-been actor (Ben Kingsley) and long-lost family members, such as their wise and courageous aunt, Ying Nan (Michelle Yeoh). It proves to be quite the adventure, one that tests everyone’s character and beliefs – and enables the trio of young adults to at last find themselves.

Like many films in this genre, in the process of discovering himself, Shang-Chi comes to the realization that he’s a bona fide superhero. But, more than that, like many comparable origin story films, he finds his authentic self, his mission in life, his reason for being. And that happens because he begins to believe in that notion. Those beliefs make it possible, just as they do in virtually every other manifestation scenario thanks to the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon those resources in materializing the existence we experience.

This is something of a challenging road for Shang-Chi, because, on some level, he knew this about himself all along but seemed to willfully deny it. The memories of his troubled upbringing after his mother’s death most likely contributed significantly to this. When his anguished father began reverting to his old ways and starting training his son to use his abilities for nefarious purposes, this imposed change of course in Shang-Chi’s life did not set well with him. His mother lovingly taught him to use his abilities for beneficial purposes, just as she did when she swayed Wenwu to change his ways. But, when Li was no longer in the picture to guide him, Shang-Chi fell under the influence and tutelage of his father, who set an example that was anything but honorable and caused the idealistic teen to hide his true feelings for fear of severe ridicule from his dad. And, when Shang-Chi made his escape to America, he put his past behind him, including any desire to use his abilities benevolently. Shaun retreated into himself and shut the door tightly behind him.

Such barriers can stay in place for only so long. At some point, the focus required to form the beliefs needed to erect and maintain those barricades – even though intangible – becomes overwhelming, and what they’re designed to hold back can no longer be contained. Circumstances will arise to liberate what’s been “artificially” restrained, hence the encounter with Wenwu’s goons that led to Shaun’s transformation back into Shang-Chi.

As the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that Shang-Chi is not the only one going through an evolutionary growth spurt. Katy follows suit, leaving behind her old life to find her own authentic self as well. To a great degree, this involves getting out from under her mother’s thumb. But that’s not all; as a somewhat immature wild child, she needs to find something to focus on, something with a purpose, an undertaking that will allow her to channel her beliefs into something meaningful, useful and purposeful. And, as her odyssey takes shape, it involves more than just being Shang-Chi’s sidekick; she looks for and finds a way to liberate her own authentic self.

Interestingly, both Shang-Chi and Katy draw considerable inspiration from Xialing. When the long-separated siblings reconnect, Shang-Chi finds that his baby sister has grown quite self-reliant in her own right, in many ways more so than he has. When Shang-Chi learns how she accomplished this, he’s duly impressed, given that she made use of her abilities at the same time he was abandoning his own. Xialing’s experience thus gives Shang-Chi a source of encouragement and motivation to draw upon, not only in his words and deeds, but also in the beliefs he adopts to forge a new path for himself, enabling his true superhero self to emerge and prosper.

In addition to following such inspiration, Shang-Chi learns how to rid himself of beliefs that no longer serve him, specifically those associated with fears, limitations and allowing the ghosts of his past to dictate the course of his life. That’s a crucial step for anyone working the manifestation process, for such hindrances keep us locked in place and prevent us from creating what we desire. At the same time, this also calls for a willingness to accept and embrace change. New beliefs are obviously called for when the old ones no longer function, so anyone looking to move forward must be comfortable with this step as well. That may not be easy, given how many of us tend to resist change at almost any cost, but it’s essential for forward progress to occur.

Once Shang-Chi understands all of the foregoing issues, he comes to see that he’s at last able to live out his destiny, a practice that conscious creators often call exercising their value fulfillment, being our best, truest selves for the betterment of ourselves and those around us. Being a superhero is obviously what Shang-Chi was meant to do. But his path in discovering that may be a little more challenging than for others embracing their destinies. His circumstances heavily involve his readiness and ability to choose that course. Shang-Chi’s destiny is not simply handed to him; he has to want to pursue it and take the steps needed to make it happen. Fortunately, he has plenty of wherewithal and inspiration to help bring that about, an outcome that truly is super.

For a film that I wasn’t especially looking forward to, this latest offering from the Marvel Universe certainly surprised me. While the trailer appeared to bill this as little more than a grandiose martial arts movie, director Destin Daniel Cretton’s latest has an epic quality about it, presenting a story that’s mythic in nature and infused with themes related to morality, personal evolution and coming into one’s own, qualities not often found in releases like this. The picture is essentially an origin story piece in the same vein as “Captain Marvel” (2019) and “Black Panther” (2018), with a narrative that mirrors both of these cinematic predecessors but with better overall execution, especially in the writing and pacing. Besides its captivating story and well-orchestrated (though generally not overdone) action sequences, this offering features ample comic relief, unexpected touches of whimsy and surprisingly good performances, especially from Awkwafina, Yeoh and Kingsley. While the film’s closing act is admittedly a little too drawn out, that’s a small price to pay for everything else it has to offer. “Shang-Chi” is easily one of the best films of the summer season and one of the finest additions to the Marvel Universe to come along in quite some time. Action-adventure fans will surely enjoy it, but even those generally less drawn to this genre will likely come away from this one having had a good, uplifting and entertaining time. The film is currently playing in theaters.

Living up to our potential can be one of the most daunting journeys we’ll ever embark upon. It brings us face to face with the core of our being, forcing us to deal with our true selves, whether we like it or not. We might even try to shy away from it, thinking it’s beyond our capability to deal with. But, once we realize that’s who we really are, it becomes easier to accept and to make peace with it. And, with such an alignment in place, there’s no telling what we might achieve. Who knows – we might even save the world. And wouldn’t that be fun.

Copyright © 2021, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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