Why “Shang-Chi” is not a success in China

Marvel released “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” with China in mind. Simu Liu, the Canadian lead actor in the film, was born in China. Much of his dialogue is in Mandarin. The cast includes Tony Leung, one of the greatest Chinese-speaking movie stars in history.

The studio’s first Asian superhero film is a success, attracting praise and ticket sales in East Asia and other global markets. Perhaps the only place where the film was not well received – in fact, it was not received at all – is mainland China.

Disney, which owns Marvel, has yet to receive clearance from Beijing regulators to show the film in the large but heavily censored film market. Although the reasons are unclear, “Shang-Chi” may fall victim to the low point in US-China relations.

China is pushing back Western influence as well, with increasingly vocal nationalists denouncing foreign books and films and the teaching of English. They even criticized Mr. Liu for his earlier comments about China, which he left in the mid-1990s when he was a small child.

Lack of access to the world’s largest film market could limit the film’s revenue. But in other parts of Asia, the film received warm reviews from audiences for the way it portrayed a Chinese superhero overwhelmed by a racist story.

“I really expected the film to be racist,” said David Shin, a Marvel fan in Seoul. “I was surprised at how much they approached Asian culture.”

Worldwide, the film has won over $ 250 million, while ensuring that audiences will see more of Shang-Chi, the main character. Big sales in Asia helped: “Shang-Chi” earned over $ 23 million in the Asia-Pacific region and debuted to top the charts in South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Singapore. It also set an industry record for its September weekend debut in Hong Kong.

The film tells the story of a little-known Marvel character created in 1973 – 16 years before Mr. Liu was born – and updated for audiences today. It focuses on Shang-Chi, a young man working as a valet who is reluctantly drawn into his father’s deadly criminal organization known as the Ten Rings.

The group takes its name from the magic rings that Shang-Chi’s father, Xu Wenwu, wears on his wrists, which endow them with a destructive power that has helped them destroy and conquer empires.

Xu Wenwu is played by Mr. Leung, a legend of Hong Kong cinema. His role in the film was essential in bringing Hong Kong audiences to theaters, said Kevin Ma, Hong Kong film industry observer and writer.

“It is hard to imagine that anyone who watches Hong Kong movies wouldn’t know who they are,” Mr. Ma said, adding that Mr. Leung has been used as a central character in commercials for the film in the Chinese city. .

To reshape the comic book character to appeal to Asian and Asian American audiences, Marvel entrusted the film to Destin Daniel Cretton, an American director of Japanese descent. Along with Mr. Liu and Mr. Leung, the cast includes Michelle Yeoh, another major star in Asia, and Awkwafina, the Asian-American actor and comedian.

The strong performance of “Shang-Chi” comes after a wave of financial and critical successes for recent films with Asian actors and production crews, like “Crazy Rich Asians”, “Parasite” and “The Farewell”.

But for blockbusters, mainland China is the main market to conquer. So far this year, its theaters have garnered $ 5.2 billion in ticket sales, according to Maoyan, who tracks China’s box office results. Disney has submitted the film for release there.

Despite its absence, the film sparked a heated debate on the Chinese internet. Global Times, a nationalist tabloid controlled by the Communist Party, published remark who cited the character’s racist origin.

Shang-Chi comic book readers in the 1970s saw Asian faces colored in artificial oranges and yellows. They saw the main character shirtless and without shoes, spout “platitudes of fortune cookies in stilted English,” the New York Times recently noted. And then there was Shang-Chi’s father in the comics: his name was Fu Manchu and was caricatured as a power-hungry Asian man, an image reminiscent of the stereotypes first imposed on Asian immigrants ago. a century.

“How can the Chinese be insulted like that,” the Global Times commented, “while at the same time we let you take our money? “

Some critics in China have also pointed to Mr. Liu’s earlier comments on China. A nationalist account on Weibo, the popular social media platform, posted several screenshot from a precedent maintenance with Mr. Liu in which he recounted how his parents had left “third world” China where people were “starving”. (The video is no longer online. A spokeswoman for Disney declined to comment on the comments.)

Mr. Liu has criticized China before. In 2016, while starring on the TV show “Kim’s Convenience”, he wrote on Twitter, “I think countries that try to censor and cover up dissenting ideas rather than confront them and deal with them are out of touch with reality.” When a Twitter user replied, “It looks like America,” Mr. Liu replied, “I was talking about the Chinese government censorship. It’s really immature and disconnected.

Others, including some who said they saw the film, spoke up for him.

“There is nothing wrong with the film and half of its dialogue is in Mandarin Chinese”, wrote a Weibo user. “Those who said it insulted China before were too irresponsible. “

Still, the film resonated with Chinese audiences who managed to see the film. Jin Yang, 33, a Beijing-based Chinese film producer, praised the film after seeing it at a Hong Kong cinema, which despite its own growing censorship operates under different rules.

“It’s a bit unfortunate that the film was not released in mainland China,” Ms. Yang said. “It would be great if Chinese audiences could see this film which combines Chinese and Western cultures so well. “

The debate over “Shang-Chi” preceded the film’s release, as China’s talkative online audience debated Mr. Liu’s appearance, an argument that the actor himself noted with amusement. Some claimed to see a fleeting resemblance to a young Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, which led to Retouched images that others have predicted could hurt his chances of succeeding with Chinese film regulators.

The problems in China may have unwittingly helped sales in other Asian markets, where Beijing’s growing hostility to its neighbors has hurt public perception of the country.

“I thought the film might not be well received in South Korea because the protagonist was Chinese,” said Kim Hanseul, 31, a Marvel fan in Seoul. But, he said, the film’s absence in China “actually led more Koreans to watch the film.”

Fans of the film said they are hopeful Chinese audiences could eventually see it.

“It’s funny,” said Ms. Yang, the film’s producer, “that it’s Americans’ turn to read the subtitles in a Marvel movie.”

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