'One character is not held as a token': Toronto's Simu Liu leads Marvel's best origin story in 'Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings'

·6 min read

When Toronto-raised actor Simu Liu returned to the city ahead of the premiere of Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings (released in theatres on Friday, Sept. 3), playing Marvel’s first Asian superhero lead character, he was greeted with a massive “welcome home” billboard.

“I've walked through Yonge and Dundas Square, it must have been 100,000 times,” Liu told Yahoo Canada. “That was absurdly large...my face was like the size of a house.

“It really was the best homecoming surprise.”

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The large, public gesture matches the excitement that many Canadians are feeling as the Kim’s Convenience star steps into the title role of one of the biggest movies of the year. Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings continues to be celebrated for its mostly Asian cast and, under the helm of director and co-writer of the screenplay Destin Daniel Cretton, accurately representing both American and Chinese culture, a combination that has been historically stereotyped in entertainment.

“It's all about the lens of the storyteller and I think when we look at Asian characters, or really any sort of minority characters, who are told through the lens of somebody who does not fundamentally understand what it means to be that person or of that culture, what you get is this kind of watered down,...certainly kind of a two-dimensional, simplistic, stereotypical version of what that character is, or what that lived experience is,” Liu explained.

He highlighted that the “lens” of Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings is specifically Asian-American in this story, with each actor and each character bringing their experiences growing up in the East or West to the table, contributing to the “whole picture” of Asian culture.

“That's where I think the authenticity is the strongest, when one character is not held as a token, is not given the responsibility and the burden of being representative of an entire people,” Liu explained.

“Asian people are not a monolith. We're not all the same. We're so incredibly varied based on the families that we come from, based on where we grew up, the languages that we speak, and so many other things.”

Wenwu (Tony Leung), Xialing (Meng'er Zhang), Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and Katy (Awkwafina) in Marvel Studios'
Wenwu (Tony Leung), Xialing (Meng'er Zhang), Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and Katy (Awkwafina) in Marvel Studios' "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings." (Photo by Jasin Boland/Marvel Studios)

Simu Liu's 'education' on set

The title character of Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings is likely relatively unknown to many, stemming from Marvel Comics from the 1970s.

In this movie we meet Shang-Chi as a young hotel valet in San Francisco, going by the name Shaun, along with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina), until one day a group of assassins attack Shang-Chi to take a pendant that was given to him by his mother when he was a child, before she passed away.

That’s when Shang-Chi and Katy head to Macau to warn his sister Xialing (Meng'er Zhang), prompting them to confront their family's history and their relationship with their father, played by Tony Leung, who is one of “the world’s greatest criminals,” leader of the Ten Rings organization.

With a large component of the Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings centred around the title character’s relationship with his father, in addition to the epic action sequences every Marvel fan expects (and they are pretty extraordinary in this film, we may even say the best from Marvel), Liu revealed that he wanted to “cherish every possible second” he had with Leung.

“It's such an education for a young actor like me, who I think came to this project, came on board with insecurity and anxiety that kind of manifested in different ways, physically,” Liu said.

“But just to watch him, somebody who is totally at peace with himself, totally fine being perfectly still on camera and...conveying so much in just these tiny movements of the eyes, that really grounded me because it was impossible to be big when you're acting opposite him.”

 Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) in Marvel Studios' Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. (Photo by Jasin Boland/Marvel Studios)
Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) in Marvel Studios' Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. (Photo by Jasin Boland/Marvel Studios)

'Not shying away from the very real darkness and pain'

At a press conference ahead of the film’s release, Cretton said that he believes Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings encompasses the general themes that he really believes in.

“I feel like the stories that I am drawn to are a combination of humour, optimism but also not shying away from the very real darkness and pain that we all experience as humans,” Cretton said.

“I love that this is a superhero that doesn’t get splashed with chemicals to get his superpower, that it is a journey of self-discovery, of growing up, of learning how to finally deal with pain that he’s been running away from his entire life. And that's when he is finally able to look inside, into his past, and embrace good, bad, the joy, the pain, and accept it all as a part of himself, that’s when he finally steps into his big boy shoes.”

Director Destin Daniel Cretton, fight instructor Alan Tang, crew camera operator, and Simu Liu on the set of Marvel Studios' Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. (Photo by Jasin Boland/Marvel Studios)
Director Destin Daniel Cretton, fight instructor Alan Tang, crew camera operator, and Simu Liu on the set of Marvel Studios' Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. (Photo by Jasin Boland/Marvel Studios)

Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings is an example of how, when we make sure that the actors and the behind the scenes team is diverse and representative, we’re left with an objectively better movie that has real-life touchstones that allow people connect to and relate to the content.

In this movie, that includes the Mandarin dialogue, Shang-Chi managing his father’s expectations for him and a funny scene where Katy is roasting Shang-Chi for changing his name to Shaun.

“The conversation behind which language should be spoken was always rooted in just the logic of the characters and who would naturally be speaking what language” Cretton explained. “That conversation started in the writer’s room and then once our actors came in, it was always a dialogue.”

Additionally, there’s a moment when Shang-Chi and Katy arrive in Macau and meet Ronny Chieng's character Jon Jon. Katy tells him that her Chinese isn't very good and Jon Jon says “don’t worry, I speak ABC,” referring to "American-Born Chinese."

“This [is] the first time that you really see in a movie someone just calling out, you know, a lived experience,” Liu said.

“I think, like, culturally you just never see that,” Awkwafina added.

For Cretton, being able to tell this story is "extra relevant" culturally because it is in fact in a massive Marvel movie. 

"If we were not putting Shang-Chi shoulder-to-shoulder with all the amazing other Marvel superheroes that we’ve come to love in the past, that would be, to me, a big disservice to the culture and the character," he said.

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