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'Shang-Chi' cast, director on how film's tensions mirror family devotion of Asian diaspora

“Especially in a movie like this, I need to find any emotional throughline that I connect with, and family is definitely one of those things,” director Destin Daniel Cretton said.
Image: Awkwafina and Simu Liu in \"Shang Chi.\"
Awkwafina and Simu Liu in "Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings."Marvel; NBC News

While filming the Marvel movie “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” director Destin Daniel Cretton said he and actor Tony Leung, who portrays villain Wenwu, discussed a profoundly difficult question: Does Wenwu, a man fiercely depicted as a Machiavellian megalomaniac, love his children?

“Tony said, ‘100 percent yes,’” Cretton recalled to NBC Asian America. “It was something that he realized, over the course of playing the character, that this character truly does love his kids. But he doesn't know how to.”

Wenwu is the father to two pivotal characters in the film — one being the estranged, underground fighter Xialing, who has become an established, shadowy force in Macao. The other is, of course, the film’s superhero, Shang-Chi, who spent much of his early adulthood away from his family, blending into the San Francisco community under the name Shaun.

Leung’s study of Wenwu the father resulted in an on-screen villain who was not only intensely human but also, to many Asian Americans with loved ones scattered across the planet, likely somewhat familiar.

The film, Marvel’s first Asian superhero movie, which comes out Sept. 3 only in theaters, follows Shang-Chi, who once fled his father’s criminal organization, the Ten Rings, the mysterious location of which is never identified in the film.

The decision was, in part, a reaction to the death of his mother, Jiang Li, played by Fala Chen. Shang-Chi subsequently ended up in the U.S., where he attempted to establish a quiet, new life. However, he’s beckoned back to his roots through a ruse orchestrated by Wenwu — who is bent on reuniting his disparate family once again, even if it means engaging in unsavory means to get his true love, Jiang Li, back with them.

Simu Liu as Shang-Chi in Marvel Studios' "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings."Courtesy of Marvel

Though the movie is heavy on fantastical elements and is largely set in Chinese-inspired land guarded behind a mythical forest, so much of what the characters confront — a longing for a cohesive family unit, the mismatch of cultures and the pain that brews under the surface due to separation — mirrors what people in the Asian diaspora face, those in the film said.

“Especially in a movie like this, I need to find any emotional throughline that I connect with, and family is definitely one of those things,” said Cretton, who’s known for his movies “The Glass Castle” and “Just Mercy.” “There is a bigger connection to that longing between East and West. If you're Asian American, Asian Canadian or somewhere in Europe, we all have family back in mainland China, Japan, the Philippines, and sometimes there is a weird conflict between the two parts.”

“It's sad, because we're also still so connected,” Cretton added. “I do hope that this, this movie is something that we can all be proud of together.”

The tensions between Shang-Chi, played by Simu Liu, and Wenwu are an uncomfortable yet searingly truthful representation of loved ones who are deeply bound by familial bonds but also distanced by years, borders and diverging values. As Liu put it, Wenwu isn’t so much a villain in the traditional Marvel sense as he is an antagonist in the film.

The character’s thirst for power is cut with the desperation to find the family he had before Jiang Li’s death. But his children, harboring years of resentment toward Wenwu for his harshness after their mother’s death and having moved on in their own lives, remain skeptical and not so willing to join his pursuit. The familial trust they all once shared is lost to time.

Awkwafina, who plays Shang-Chi’s ride-or-die friend Katy, said she and many others across Asian America, who did not have the luxury of proximity to their loved ones back in Asia, have experienced those emotions. She said she felt a lack of that automatic feeling of acceptance on her own trip to meet her relatives.

“I was 19 when I went back to meet my family, and I realized how this aspect of distance definitely plays a part in how you keep up and also your sense of belonging and what family means,” she said. “I think there is a very familiar aspect with [Shang-Chi] going back to confront a lot of things in our own lives like meeting family members later in life and trying to kind of restart that relationship.”

With the convergence of his past and present, Shang-Chi also undergoes an identity struggle of his own, similar to that of many Asian Americans. Liu said he felt a kinship with his character and saw himself in the inner turmoil that Shang-Chi — who begins the movie “running away from his past, from his parents, from his upbringing” — felt because of the way he was othered as an immigrant kid.

“Growing up, I felt a certain type of way about my ethnicity based on how I was being treated by the other kids, based on how I was seeing myself portrayed on TV and in movies. Just nothing gave me a sense of pride,” Liu, who was born in China and later moved to Canada, said. “I think Shaun is in a place where he is also feeling a tremendous amount of shame about where he comes from. And I think it's not a mistake that throughout the course of the movie, he gets brought closer and closer until he comes face to face with who he is, where he came from ... and what his father expects of him.”

Though historically there’s barely been a differentiation, culturally or perception-wise, between Asians and Asian Americans in Hollywood depictions, this movie succeeds in making strong distinctions, most notably through its three main characters. Katy, for example, is a born-and-bred San Francisco chick who has a penchant for karaoke and soju, so beloved by all across the diaspora, but she is very much regarded as an American once in Asia.

“There's a moment in our movie where we're faced with somebody who is speaking Chinese very, very quickly. And Katy has to say, ‘Oh, no, my Chinese is not good.’ The other guy, played by Ronny Chieng, is like, ‘Oh, don't worry, I speak ABC.’” Liu said. “‘ABC,’ of course, stands for ‘American-born Chinese.’ And it's something that ... maybe people outside of the Asian community haven't heard as much. I'm really excited to bring that nuance and that dimensionality.”

Michelle Yeoh as Ying Nan and Jayden Zhang as young Shang-Chi in Marvel Studios' "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings."Courtesy of Marvel

While brief, the scene was significant in attending to the cultural differences between the characters, who, physically, appear as though they could be of similar backgrounds. Cretton said one aspect that was critical to achieving such detail was casting people who felt intimately connected to those roles and saw themselves in them.

“For us, what really helped us in defining these different backgrounds for these characters was casting actors who fully understood their characters ... and seeing who really understands what it means to have one foot in Western culture and one foot still in Chinese culture,” Cretton said. “Awkwafina really understands what it means to be an Asian American. Once we were into the scenes with Tony Leung and [Meng’er Zhang, who plays Xialing], it was a constant education as to the differences between mainland Chinese and Chinese Americans.”

All agreed that Hollywood as an industry has not yet reached a point in which those nuances are thoughtfully incorporated into all storytelling of the Asian diaspora. “Shang-Chi” may represent “one step in a wave” of more accurate, human representations, Cretton said.

But Awkwafina added that the community shouldn’t stop demanding more.

“I think as Asian Americans, it's very important that we kind of emphasize that distinction,” Awkwafina said. “It's our reality.”