Why ‘Shang-Chi’ Isn’t a Hit in China
Marvel released “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” with China in mind. Simu Liu, the film’s Canadian lead actor, was born in China. Much of its dialogue is in Mandarin. The cast includes Tony Leung, one of the biggest Chinese-speaking movie stars in history.
The studio’s first Asian superhero movie is a hit, drawing praise and ticket sales in East Asia and other global markets. Perhaps the only place where the movie has not been well received — in fact, it has not been received there at all — is mainland China.
Disney, which owns Marvel, has yet to receive clearance from Beijing’s regulators to show the film in the vast but heavily censored movie market. While the reasons aren’t clear, “Shang-Chi” may be a victim of the low point in U.S.-China relations.
China is also pushing back against Western influence, with increasingly vocal nationalists denouncing foreign books and movies and the teaching of English. They have even criticized Mr. Liu for his previous comments about China, which he left in the mid-1990s, when he was a small child.
Lack of access to the world’s largest movie market could limit how much money the film makes. But in other parts of Asia, the movie has been greeted warmly by audiences for how it depicts a Chinese superhero burdened by a racist back story.
“I was really expecting the movie to be racist,” said David Shin, a Marvel fan in Seoul. “I was surprised at how well they touched upon Asian culture.”
Worldwide, the movie has earned more than $250 million, all but guaranteeing audiences will be seeing more of Shang-Chi, the title character. Big sales in Asia helped: “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 for a September weekend debut in Hong Kong.
The movie is a retelling of the story of a little-known Marvel character created in 1973 — 16 years before Mr. Liu was born — and updated for today’s audiences. It centers 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 is named after the magical rings that Shang-Chi’s father, Xu Wenwu, wears on his wrists and that give him destructive power that have helped him destroy and conquer empires.
Xu Wenwu is played by Mr. Leung, a legend in Hong Kong cinema. His role in the film was pivotal in attracting Hong Kong audiences to the theaters, said Kevin Ma, a film industry observer and writer from Hong Kong.
“It’s hard to imagine anyone who watches Hong Kong films to not know who he is,” Mr. Ma said, adding that Mr. Leung was used as the central figure in advertisements for the film in the Chinese city.
To reshape the comic-book character to appeal to Asian and Asian American audiences, Marvel put the movie in the hands of Destin Daniel Cretton, a Japanese American director. In addition to Mr. Liu and Mr. Leung, the cast includes Michelle Yeoh, another major star in Asia, and Awkwafina, the Asian American actor and comedian.
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The strong showing by “Shang-Chi” comes after a wave of financial and critical success for recent films with Asian casts and production crews, like “Crazy Rich Asians,” “Parasite” and “The Farewell.”
But for blockbusters, mainland China is the major market to win. So far this year, its theaters have reaped $5.2 billion in ticket sales, according to Maoyan, which tracks Chinese box office results. Disney, has submitted the movie for release there.
Despite its absence, the film has generated spirited debate on the Chinese internet. Global Times, a nationalist tabloid controlled by the Communist Party, published commentary that cited the racist origin of the character.
Readers of Shang-Chi comic books in the 1970s saw Asian faces colored in unnatural oranges and yellows. They saw the main character shirtless and shoeless, spouting “fortune-cookie platitudes in stilted English,” The New York Times noted recently. And then there was Shang-Chi’s father in the comics: He was named Fu Manchu and caricatured as a power-hungry Asian man that hark back to the stereotypes first pressed upon Asian immigrants a century ago.
“How can Chinese people be insulted like this,” the Global Times commentary asked, “while at the same time we let you take our money?”
Some critics in China have also pointed to Mr. Liu’s previous comments about China. One nationalist account on Weibo, the popular social media platform, posted several screenshots from a previous interview with Mr. Liu in which he talked about how his parents left “Third World” China where people “were dying of starvation.” (The video is no longer online. A spokeswoman for Disney declined to comment on the remarks.)
Mr. Liu has been critical of China before. In 2016, when he was starring in the television show “Kim’s Convenience,” he wrote on Twitter, “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.” When a Twitter user replied, “sounds like America,” Mr. Liu responded: “I was referring to Chinese gov’t censorship. It’s really immature and out of touch.”
Others, including some who said they had seen the movie, leapt to its defense.
“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 movie has found some resonance with Chinese audiences who have managed to see the film. Jin Yang, 33, a Chinese film producer based in Beijing, praised the film after watching it in a theater in Hong Kong, which despite its own rising censorship operates under different rules.
“It’s a bit regretful that the film has not been released in mainland China,” Ms. Yang said. “It’d be great if Chinese audiences could see this film that combines Chinese and Western cultures so well.”
Debate about “Shang-Chi” predated the movie’s release, as China’s voluble online audience debated Mr. Liu’s looks, 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, leading to Photoshopped images that others predicted might hurt its chances to pass muster with Chinese film regulators.
The trouble in China may have unintentionally helped sales in other markets in Asia, where Beijing’s increasing bellicosity with its neighbors has hurt public perceptions of the country.
“I thought that the movie might not be well received in South Korea because of the protagonist being Chinese,” Kim Hanseul, 31, a Marvel fan in Seoul, said. But, he said, the movie’s absence in China “has actually led to more Koreans watching the film.”
The movie’s fans said they hoped Chinese audiences would be able to see it eventually.
“It’s amusing,” said Ms. Yang, the film producer, “that it’s Americans’ turn to read subtitles in a Marvel film.”