2021-09-17 07:37:40 Why ‘Shang-Chi’ Isn’t a Hit in China

Why ‘Shang-Chi’ Isn’t a Hit in China

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” was created with China in mind. Simu Liu, the film’s lead actor from Canada, was born in China. The majority of the dialogue is in Mandarin. Tony Leung, one of the most well-known Chinese-language film stars in history, is among the cast members.

The studio’s first Asian superhero film is a success, garnering critical acclaim and ticket sales in East Asia and other global markets. Mainland China may be the only place where the film has not been well received — in fact, it has not been received at all.

Disney, which owns Marvel, has yet to receive permission from Beijing’s film regulators to release the film in the vast but heavily censored Chinese film market. While the reasons are unclear, “Shang-Chi” could be a victim of the current state of US-China relations.

China is also resisting Western influence, with increasingly vocal nationalists condemning foreign books and movies, as well as the teaching of English. They have even chastised Mr. Liu for previous remarks about China, which he made when he was a small child in the mid-1990s.

Lack of access to the world’s largest film market may limit the film’s financial success. In other parts of Asia, however, audiences have praised the film for depicting a Chinese superhero burdened by a racist backstory.

“I was expecting the movie to be racist,” David Shin, a Marvel fan in Seoul, said. “I was surprised by how well they addressed Asian culture.”

The film has grossed more than $250 million worldwide, ensuring that audiences will see more of Shang-Chi, the title character. “Shang-Chi” earned more than $23 million in the Asia Pacific region and debuted at the top of the charts in South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore. It also set an industry record in Hong Kong for a September weekend debut.

The film is a retelling of the story of a little-known Marvel character who was created in 1973 — 16 years before Mr. Liu was born — and has been updated for modern audiences. It revolves around Shang-Chi, a young valet who is reluctantly drawn into his father’s lethal criminal organization known as the Ten Rings.

The group is named after Shang-father, Chi’s Xu Wenwu, who wears magical rings on his wrists that give him destructive power and have helped him destroy and conquer empires.

Mr. Leung, a Hong Kong film legend, plays Xu Wenwu. According to Kevin Ma, a Hong Kong film industry observer and writer, his role in the film was crucial in attracting Hong Kong audiences to the theaters.

“It’s difficult to imagine anyone who watches Hong Kong films not knowing who he is,” Mr. Ma said, adding that Mr. Leung was featured prominently in the film’s advertisements in the Chinese city.

Marvel enlisted the help of Destin Daniel Cretton, a Japanese American director, to reshape the comic-book character in order to appeal to Asian and Asian American audiences. Aside from Mr. Liu and Mr. Leung, the cast also includes Michelle Yeoh, a major Asian star, and Awkwafina, an Asian American actor and comedian.

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“Shang- Chi’s” strong performance follows a wave of financial and critical success for recent films with Asian casts and production crews, such as “Crazy Rich Asians,” “Parasite,” and “The Farewell.”

However, when it comes to blockbusters, mainland China is the market to beat. According to Maoyan, which tracks Chinese box office results, its theaters have earned $5.2 billion in ticket sales so far this year. Disney has submitted the film for release in that country.

Despite its absence, the film has sparked heated discussion on the Chinese internet. The Communist Party-controlled nationalist tabloid Global Times published commentary citing the character’s racist origins.

In the 1970s, readers of Shang-Chi comic books saw Asian faces colored in unnatural oranges and yellows. According to The New York Times, they saw the main character shirtless and shoeless, spouting “fortune-cookie platitudes in stilted English.” Then there was Shang-father Chi’s in the comics, Fu Manchu, who was caricatured as a power-hungry Asian man, echoing stereotypes imposed on Asian immigrants a century ago.

“How can Chinese people be insulted like this while we let you take our money?” asked the Global Times commentary.

Some Chinese critics have also pointed to Mr. Liu’s previous remarks about China. One nationalist account on Weibo, China’s popular social media platform, shared several screenshots from a previous interview with Mr. Liu in which he discussed how his parents fled “Third World” China, where people “died of starvation.” (The video is no longer available online.) A Disney spokesperson declined to comment on the remarks.)

Mr. Liu has previously criticized China. When he was starring in the TV show “Kim’s Convenience” in 2016, he tweeted, “I think countries that try to censor and cover up dissenting ideas rather than face them and deal with them are out of touch with reality.” Mr. Liu responded to a Twitter user who said, “sounds like America,” saying, “I was referring to Chinese government censorship.” It’s immature and out of touch.”

Others, including some who claimed to have seen the film, defended it.

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

Nonetheless, the film has found some resonance with Chinese audiences who have seen it. Jin Yang, a 33-year-old Beijing-based Chinese film producer, praised the film after seeing it in a Hong Kong theater, which, despite its own rising censorship, operates under different rules.

“It’s a shame the film hasn’t been released in mainland China,” Ms. Yang said. “It would be fantastic if Chinese audiences could see this film that so successfully blends Chinese and Western cultures.”

The debate over “Shang-Chi” predated the film’s release, with China’s vociferous online audience debating Mr. Liu’s appearance, an argument that the actor himself noted with amusement. Some claimed to see a passing resemblance to a young Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, resulting in Photoshopped images that others predicted would hurt the film’s chances with Chinese film regulators.

The upheaval in China may have unintentionally boosted sales in other Asian markets, where Beijing’s increasing bellicosity with its neighbors has harmed public perceptions of the country.

“I was worried that the movie would not be well received in South Korea because the protagonist is Chinese,” said Kim Hanseul, 31, a Marvel fan in Seoul. However, he claims that the film’s absence in China has resulted in “more Koreans watching the film.”

Fans of the film expressed hope that it would eventually be available to Chinese audiences.

“It’s amusing,” Ms. Yang, the film’s producer, said, “that it’s now America’s turn to read subtitles in a Marvel film.”

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Why 'Shang-Chi' Isn't a Hit in China