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Shang-Chi director says it's more than a movie

Destin Daniel Cretton hopes the movie can build bridges amid a rise in anti-AAPI hate.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, a splashy entry in the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, grabs you with its heady cocktail of different martial arts, big-budget special effects and Chinese mythological and fantasy elements. But it's a quieter scene early in the film, featuring the family of Shang-Chi's friend Katy (Akwafina), that is one of the most critical. 

Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) is picking up Katy at her home, and while she gets ready, we see an intergenerational back-and-forth between them and her mother, grandmother and younger brother. It's a simple scene, one that could be overlooked as the movie sprints to the next action set piece. It's also a window into a side of Asian American culture that few have been exposed to. 

"Hopefully, after seeing a movie like this and hanging out with Shang-Chi and Katy ... you will have a connection to these faces that you may not have otherwise," Shang-Chi director Destin Daniel Cretton, who is of Japanese, Irish and Slovak descent, said in an interview last week. "When you see that old woman on the street, she's not just a stereotypical old Asian person. You will hopefully see them as a grandmother, and somebody's mother, as somebody you can actually relate to. I hope that's one of the byproducts of the movie."

That's an important comment given the rise in attacks against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, assaults that have largely targeted older females. Between March 19, 2020, and Sept. 30, nearly 10,400 hate incidents against AAPI individuals were reported, according to stopaapihate.org, an initiative created to track and shine a light on these attacks. While the issue made national headlines after shootings at three Atlanta-area spas led to eight deaths, six of whom were Asian women, the attacks continue even if the attention has dissipated. 

Which is why Shang-Chi, the first MCU film featuring a cast that is predominantly Asian, holds so much significance. The film doesn't carry a political message or even directly address the rise of AAPI hate, but it serves as an important form of representation that Cretton hopes will allow a broader audience to connect to or even relate to this community. 

"If that does happen, that to me is one of the greatest successes of our movie," he said. 

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Shang-Chi director Destin Daniel Cretton.

Getty Images

Cretton, who Marvel confirmed has signed on to write and direct Shang-Chi 2, as well as various other Disney Plus and Hulu projects, joined me on Zoom to talk about the cultural importance of the film and what it was like to direct during a pandemic and to answer the burning question of whether Shang-Chi could take Dragonball Z's Goku. 

The movie, which is now available on all major digital platforms and on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray and DVID, is also available on Disney Plus with a subscription. 

The following is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation. 

Congrats on the success of Shang-Chi and officially signing up for the sequel. I know it's still early days, but what themes or ideas do you want to tackle there?
Cretton: The truth is I have no idea. 

I do think we'll probably explore certain extensions of themes that we have already touched on and answer some of the questions that were posed by the end of the movie. In terms of any kind of detail, we're beginning the process right now, so I'm really excited about what's ahead. 

Your deal also includes shows for Disney Plus and Hulu. Anything you can say about what those projects might be? Are we going to see a series of Morris shorts?
[Smiles] I can't really disclose what we're working on on the TV side. It is a combination of things with Marvel and some other stories that are outside of the MCU. All very exciting things to be working on. I could not be happier. 

One of the reasons the film was so effective, at least to me, was how it broke from expectations and stereotypes, especially if you know anything about Shang-Chi comic book roots. What was it like constructing the story out of Shang-Chi's, well, problematic history?
That was our No. 1 goal from the very beginning. It was to create a Shang-Chi that anyone could relate to. We wanted to create characters who felt like my friends that I grew up with in the Asian American community in Hawaii. That felt like friends of Dave Callaham, my co-writer, who grew up as a Chinese American growing up in the Bay Area. 

shang-chi-comics

Shang-Chi has gone through a number of revisions due to his problematic origins in the comics. 

Marvel Comics

But we also wanted these characters to be dealing with emotions and themes and goals that anybody could relate to. Family relationships and family dynamics are very universal. I would hope that not only people in the Asian American community would be able to relate to these characters, whether you have never experienced anything from this culture, I think it would be hopefully surprising to some people how much they can identify with Shang-Chi, Xialing and even Wenwu by the end of the movie. If that does happen, that to me is one of the greatest successes of our movie. 

This film debuted in the wake of a few very bad years for the Asian American community. What was it like making the movie amid the headlines of these gruesome attacks?
When we were getting the headlines of the violence that was happening, it was really hard for us. The images we were seeing, that could be our grandma or grandpa. 

But it also made us feel like we are doing the right thing right now. This is the time for this movie to come out. Not because the movie itself is political or trying to make a big point. But I do think movies like this, exposure like this, to a culture you have never been exposed to and characters, if you have never hung out with an Asian dude or girl, it's so easy to have a preconceived notion about them. But hopefully after seeing a movie like this and hanging out with Shang-Chi and Katy and Xialing (Meng'er Zhang) and Wenwu (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) and Jiang Li (Fala Chen), you will have a connection to these faces that you may not have otherwise. 

When you see that old woman on the street, she's not just a stereotypical old Asian person. You will hopefully see them as a grandmother, and somebody's mother, as somebody you can actually relate to. I hope that's one of the byproducts of the movie. 

One of the scenes that hit me was an early one featuring Katy, her grandmother, mother and brother and that intergenerational dynamic. I appreciated it because it was a lens into a culture that you could probably find close to you, but you may not be exposed to.
The specifics of different cultures are so important to get right and to show there are clear differences. But what I loved growing up in Hawaii is finding the similarities between cultures. The similarities between familial relationships. How my culture as a Japanese American and my relationship with my grandma is very similar to Simu's relationship with his grandma and to Dave Callaham, who's Chinese American. Understanding what those similarities are is very important. 

Can you talk about what it was like shooting during a pandemic and in different locations like Australia and San Francisco?
The pandemic hit the entire world and our industry pretty hard. I personally never stopped working. Our production shut down, but I continued to edit. I had a good quarter of the movie shot when it shut down, so we continued in post production. I used the time to plan out the rest of the shoot, so it was very helpful. 

Speaking of San Francisco, one of the highlights of the film was that bus scene. But did you see the Twitter thread from a San Francisco bus driver pointing out the inaccuracies of the scene?
I loved that thread. It was really cool to have somebody call us out on all the movie tricks we were doing. There's no place in the world where you can have a bus careening downhill for six minutes. We definitely had to create some cheats on the route that the bus was moving on. 

Tony Leung's gravitas made him among the MCU's most compelling villains. He came to a pretty definitive end, but is there a chance we see Wenwu or Tony Leung in some capacity in future MCU projects?
There's always a chance in the MCU that anybody you think is dead can come back. 

In the context of our story it made sense for Wen Wu, who lived as long as he did, to have some peace. It made sense for the character and story to give him an ending. 

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Shang-Chi holds more significance than just being the latest MCU film.

Marvel

Do you see Shang-Chi as a kung fu movie? Is that even a thing anymore since Hollywood has so absorbed martial arts?
From the very beginning, we looked at it as a kung fu movie, as a superhero movie and as a family drama. We wanted to capture all of those things and wrap it in one aesthetic. 

We wanted this movie to pay respect to all of the great kung fu movies that I grew up on. When we hired Brad Allen, who trained under Jackie Chan and came out of that camp, he was really, really stressed out in the best way about getting it right and making sure that the kung fu and the martial arts in the movie paid respect to the artform and the movies before us. I feel very very proud of that team and what they did because it was all created out of a deep love and respect for the artform. 

I loved that it wasn't just one style. It changed up to fit the needs of the story.
The style of fighting and not only the style of the actual choreography, but the style of the camera moves were really connected to the story that we're trying to tell and the development of the characters throughout the movie. You see the chaotic style of Jackie Chan with gags and payoffs in the fight during the bus fight sequence. You also find a more elegant, beautiful style that you see in the father-mother fight that happens in the first act. 

All of it was really designed for the characters and for their relationships to grow throughout each fight. That was something that was really important from the beginning. 

As an anime fan, I loved the Dragonball references, especially in the third act. Who do you think would win in a fight: Shang-Chi or Goku?
At this point in Shang-Chi's life, I would say he would have a hard time with Goku. Goku's mastered a few things. But give Shang-Chi another couple of movies and we'll see.