Asian Representations in Films

The summer release, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings has brought a Marvel frenzy around the world. With the appearance of Wong from Doctor Strange, the increasing amount of Asian representation in Marvel Studios has reformed perspectives on Hollywood. 

Shang-Chi is directed by the Asian-American filmmaker, Destin Daniel Cretton, who directed The Glass Castle and Just Mercy. With the film’s East-Asian dominated cast, the film narrates an ancient tale of a Chinese warlord named Xu Wenwu, also known as the Mandarin. He inherits ten magical rings and the protagonist, Shang-Chi who is Wenwu’s son, fights against this legacy. 

The dynamics of a father and son relationship is demonstrated with multiple martial arts scenes, presenting and enriching Asian culture. The hip-hop soundtrack is infused with traditional Chinese folklore, immersing the audience into a crossover realm of the Western and the Asian.

A sense of nostalgia and familiarity found its way through my experience of watching the film. This is because of the inclusion of over-dramatic special effects, which reminds me of other Asian films such as Ip Man and Stephen Chow’s series of comedies. Another familiar factor is the narrative, where the beginning of Shang-Chi is fully narrated in Mandarin. This was unexpected because Marvel Studios usually directs towards a Western audience. Shang-Chi has finally represented the Asian community and its culture, “it does well and I hope that it opens the door for the future,” said Dr Nancy Wang Yuen, the sociologist and author of Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism.

Before Shang-Chi, other Asian films have tried to re-establish Hollywood stereotypes. Including Crazy Rich Asians, the first Hollywood story featuring an all-Asian cast and an Asian-American lead in 25 years. Based on Kevin Kwan’s comedy novel, he says the level of interest in his work was a global phenomenon, it “just speaks to the universality of the story.” 

Another film is Parasite, the first foreign film to win the Best Pictures Oscar award. A notable achievement since Asian actors only made up to 1% of the Oscar nominations in 89 years. Choi Woo Shik, the Korean actor who plays Ki-woo in Parasite, hopes more foreign legends will make it to the Oscars and so “we can see more foreign-language films and Asian films.”

The upcoming Marvel film Eternals is directed by Chloe Zhao, a Chinese filmmaker with an Oscar on Nomadland. The film includes foreign cast members namely Kumail Nanjiani, a Pakistani-American actor, who is the first South Asian hero in the Marvel Series. As well as Gemma Chan, a British-Asian actress who previously starred as Astrid in Crazy Rich Asians. 

The Asian inclusivity in films mirrors the need for acceptance in the world today, especially when reports on anti-Asian hate crimes skyrocketed by 70% in America in 2020. These Asian directors, actresses and actors would be representatives and role models for Asian kids to look up to. Grace Han, journalist and Asian Movie Pulse reviewer, claims Eternals would need to “[define] what exactly is ‘Asian’ and when it comes to representation who exactly [does Hollywood] want to represent.” This is because the right definition can change perspectives, forever.

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Melody Chan

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June 2022
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