‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ Review: Fight Scene Analysis

Illustration by Waverly Wang

Within four days of its release, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings raked in around $94 million dollars, breaking the U.S Labor Day box office record and placing it as the highest-grossing film released in the pandemic, second only to Black Widow. Its success has continued to grow, grossing over $3 million dollars worldwide. 

Simu Liu, a Canadian actor, plays Shang-Chi, a seemingly normal guy who works as a parking valet during the day and sings his heart out at karaoke night with his best friend, Katy, played by Awkwafina. However, his dark, mysterious past doesn’t stay hidden forever, as it forces Shang-Chi to confront the complicated family history he left behind as a teenager. Shang-Chi’s father, the antagonist, Wenwu, is played by legendary Hong Kong actor, Tony Leung. 

Shang-Chi is one of those films where not only is there Asian representation in front of the camera, there is Asian representation behind it, too. The director and screenplay writer, Destin Daniel Cretton, is part-Japanese Hawaiian, and David Callaham, the other screenplay writer, is part Chinese.  

The film opens in Mandarin Chinese and surprisingly stays in Chinese for a good part of the beginning. It’s also scattered throughout the film. The equal use of Chinese and English sends a clear message to the audience: “This movie is made by and for Asian-Americans.” 

Before watching Shang-Chi, I had heard there were many “easter eggs” (inside jokes or sly references) specifically for the Asian-Americans experience, and though I was able to catch some of them, I was more drawn to a more noticeable component of the film: the fight scenes.

Fight scenes can say a lot about a multibillion-dollar franchise or a small indie movie. Some fight sequences are almost balletic — there is a rhythm in the footwork or the smooth twirl of a sword — while others are gritty and feral — close shots with few cuts that hurt to watch but are hard to look away from.

Typically, Marvel movies have a tendency to stick to the safe style of fight sequences: rapid gunfire and clean kicks timed to rhythmic, grungy beats. Lots of movement and little blood. But a fight scene shouldn’t just be there to flex the actors’ muscles. 

A good director ensures every fight sequence enriches the plot of the movie, and Shang-Chi did not pull its punches (pun intended) on its fight scenes. 

Interestingly, the first fight scene of the movie is more of a romance scene. 

It tells the story of how Shang-Chi’s father and mother met and is set in a serene bamboo forest where the fight takes on a spiritual feel. Ying Li is a guard for her village, Ta Lo, against people like Wenwu, but Wenwu is persistent, coming to fight her again and again. He uses the power of the Ten Rings, but Ying Li seems to have an even greater power at hand. 

The pacing pushes and pulls, slowing down to a pace that would make a young person restless, and yet it just naturally builds towards the quiet, intense connection between Wenwu and Ying Li. The shots linger on Wenwu’s expressions as he realizes he’s finally met his match after many centuries. He is captivated. 

The camera circles the figures as they hang in the air unnaturally like otherworldly beings. The cinematography would be cheesy if it did not harken back to classic action-drama, Chinese movies like Hero (2002) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). 

Later, in the modern-day setting, Shang-Chi’s fight sequences are closer to the typical Marvel movie — fast punches and kicks timed to blaring hip-hop music. However, the fighting style is distinct. In one interview, Simu Liu specifies his character uses Wing Chun, a self-defensive, combative style that employs quick, tight arm movements. It’s fitting for the scene as Shang-Chi defends Katy and himself from goons his father sent to hunt him down — all while in close-quarters of a moving bus. 

Finally and most importantly is the emotionally charged and physically intense fight scene between Shang-Chi and his father, which takes place near the end of the film and ties together everything the plot has been building towards. 

As Wenwu fights with closed fists, Shang-Chi’s movements are more fluid and calm, accepting and deflecting blows with open palms. He’s matured beyond the scared little boy he was with his father. Shang-Chi uses Tai Chi, which is about controlling and balancing energy, an art his mother practiced, too. 

The turning point of the fight occurs when Shang-Chi uses the same move his mother used to take Wenwu off guard. ​​​The fight scene parallels the bamboo forests as Shang-Chi symbolically reconnects with his mother’s side of the family. It is only then that Shang-Chi gains control over the Ten Rings.

The scene captures the quintessential superhero origin story of Shang-Chi, but, beyond that, it represents a landmark moment for so many Asian-Americans who have never seen Asian representation in mainstream media beyond the funny background character. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is more than just a successful blockbuster superhero film; it is a film that aspires to resonate with all Asian-Americans on a personal level.