Just days after Marvel announced details of its first Asian-led superhero movie Shang-Chi — with Simu Liu set to portray the titular Chinese kung fu master, and Awkwafina and Tony Leung confirmed in the cast — a backlash against the film has broken out in some corners of China’s internet.
The apparent anger centers around two main “controversies”: the casting choices and the background of the main villain. The outrage is such that some have even suggested petitioning the government to ban screenings of Shang-Chi — which is due out on Chinese New Year’s Day 2021 — to “protect national integrity”. So what’s going on?
Marvel Announce Simu Liu and Awkwafina as Stars of Chinese Superhero Movie “Shang-Chi”
One issue that has irked some netizens is that Marvel’s casting for the movie deliberately distorts Asian beauty standards, with a number of commenters denouncing Simu Liu and Awkwafina as “very ugly.” The cast of Shang-Chi is being compared with that of the forthcoming live-action Mulan. “How come they could choose Liu Yifei in Mulan, who is widely recognized as a representation of Asian beauty, yet not [get it right for] Shang-Chi?” writes one netizen, accusing Marvel of purposely trying to make Chinese people look ugly.
Of course, the casting of Liu as Mulan‘s lead also enraged some Chinese netizens, who cast similar aspersions about her looks and claimed Hollywood just didn’t understand Chinese beauty, making it clear that you really can’t please everyone with these things.
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And it’s worth remembering that it’s not just big money American movie studios that have to deal with such conversations. Vogue‘s use of London-based model Gao Qizhen on their Instagram in March sparked a wide-ranging debate about beauty standards, while Zara faced all kinds of accusations after featuring a be-freckled Chinese model.
Thankfully, there are some Chinese netizens arguing that casting suitability should be based on the individuality that actors have to offer rather than focusing on looks alone. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but in recent years Hollywood studios have exerted increasing efforts to expand diversity in mainstream films. This includes creating opportunities for new narratives to replace traditional Eurocentric beauty standards, the cast of Shang-Chi hopefully being one example.
“Whether Shang-Chi is racist is worth discussion, but Awkwafina is a very talented actress. She recently starred in an acclaimed film. There’s no need to attack her,” reads one comment on Douban.
The history of the character Dr. Fu Manchu, seen as Shang-Chi’s father, has also become the center of some heated debate.
Fu Manchu poster (image from Weibo)
Created in 1913, Fu Manchu represents a dark product of vile stereotypes against people of Asian descent in the US during the period of so-called “Asian Perils.” He reappeared in Marvel’s comic series Shang-Chi not too long after Nixon started to shape more amiable diplomatic relations with China, but has long been seen as a racist caricature. So surely Marvel wouldn’t be so stupid as to bring the character back and risk ill will in one of their most valuable markets?
Part of the Shang-Chi announcement at San Diego’s Comic-Con this past weekend was that acclaimed Hong Kong actor Tony Leung would join the cast as main villain The Mandarin (presumably the real one this time, not the fake one we got in Iron Man 3). Yet many netizens in China have argued that The Mandarin and Fu Manchu are the same character (an argument that others have taken issue with).
As one commenter on microblogging site Weibo puts it: “In Europe and the US, it is a known fact that Fu Manchu equals The Mandarin. You can’t trick anyone with this cover-up.” He also points to the title of a speculative article in The Times to back up his argument –– “Shang-Chi: Marvel Risks Chinese Anger from Bringing Back Fu Manchu.”
Some have suggested a novel way of sidestepping the controversy: “If Marvel doesn’t want to insult China, change The Mandarin to The English, it’s that simple.”
The online arguments demonstrate the careful path Marvel will have to navigate to ensure a film about a Chinese superhero is well received in China, the world’s second biggest movie market, and show that simply inserting some Chinese elements into a story do not make it a guaranteed hit in the country. But we’re still cautiously hopeful that Shang-Chi will have a positive impact overall — and at the very least, the new narrative should be given a chance.
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