Hollywood has always had a slightly strange relationship with Asian cinema.
When Akira Kurosawa made the masterpiece that was Seven Samurai in 1954, widely cited to this day as one of the greatest non-English-language films made, did Tinseltown embrace its artistry and offer it a major distribution deal to share the legendary director's vision with as wide an audience as possible?
No, it drafted in Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson et al, moved the action to the Wild West and gave us The Magnificent Seven six years later – a film that copied many of Kurosawa's scenes shot by shot, which the Japanese director described as “disappointing”.
From the sterile remake of the terrifying Japanese horror Ring to numerous takes on Godzilla, and even the revelation that the usually impeccable Spike Lee couldn't successfully sprinkle Hollywood stardust on the Korean classic Old Boy, it's hard to think of any film steeped in Asian culture that has benefited from the Hollywood treatment.
Then, in 2018, Hollywood did something no one had expected. It made Crazy Rich Asians, a film about Asians, directed by a Chinese-American filmmaker, adapted from a novel by a Singaporean-American writer, Kevin Kwan, and featuring a cast almost entirely made up of ethnic Asian actors and actresses. It was a smash hit.
Asian friends at the time spoke of their delight at finally seeing themselves portrayed on the big screen as normal people rather than math geeks or quirky sidekicks and, combined with movements such as #OscarsSoWhite and #MeToo, it looked like Hollywood was finally waking up to the idea that not only white males can write, direct or star in a successful blockbuster.
If there were any doubts remaining, we can surely rely on the cinematic behemoth that is Marvel to blow them out of the water this week, when we finally get to see its first Asian superhero and supporting cast on-screen in Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
Catching up with the film's director Destin Daniel Cretton, who was raised in Hawaii but is of Japanese, American, Slovak and Irish descent, we ask why it's taken so long to finally see a bona fide Asian superhero in cinemas and, more importantly, how it feels to be the man charged with bringing the story to audiences.
“I don't know why it takes this long for anything to happen, but I'm very excited to be in this time in history; that a character like this can be out there for a new generation of not just Asian-American kids, or Chinese-American kids, or mainland Chinese kids, but for all kids to see,” he says.
“I think it's important for all kids to see somebody who may not look like them, who may represent a different culture than them, but say, 'oh, that person is cool enough to be a superhero. He's also funny, reminds me of my friends, and he's struggling and he's going through emotional pain that I go through.'
"So all of those things are aspects of this film that I'm really excited to watch an audience experience.”
Although the director is looking forward to sharing his vision with audiences, he admits that when he first approached Marvel, he wasn't entirely convinced he'd ever get the chance.
“My initial pitch was actually something that was really, really close to me and very intimate and personal,” he explains. “I honestly did not think Marvel would go for it. I was pitching a family drama, but wrapped up in a martial arts movie.”
Fortunately for him, he could barely have been more wrong.
“What was really wonderful was that throughout this process, the producers at Marvel, Jonathan [Schwartz] and Kevin [Feige], were constantly reminding you of the pitch and the heart of the story,” he recalls. “Of the intimacy and the characters and the relationships between them, and the human struggles that they're going through.
"It did evolve, but I think the heart of the movie really did stay pretty consistent since the pitch until the finished product happened, which was a really fun process.”
In fact, at the heart of the film is one particular relationship, between Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and his best friend Katy (Awkwafina).
Intriguingly, in a further break with Hollywood tradition, this is a relationship that is portrayed as unapologetically platonic. with no romantic subtext. Does Cretton think audiences can deal with two giant strides outside of superhero movie norms in one film?
“When [co-writer] Dave Callahan and I were creating this relationship, we actually have a lot of friends who are not the same gender as us,” he explains.
“It's strictly platonic, but also very intimate and caring. We haven’t seen a lot of that on-screen, and we’re really excited to create that relationship between Shang-Chi and Katy. It also just naturally felt like the only way to go with this movie because Shang-Chi is so deep in his own inner struggle. I don’t think there’s emotional space for anything else.”
There may not be emotional space for anything else, but viewers can rest assured that Shang-Chi does have plenty of space for less “emotional” things, such as breathtaking set pieces, high-octane martial arts action, Eastern fantasy folklore and, of course, a dash of Marvel universe-building as the MCU marches on into its post-Endgame world.
Fans are going to love this film, and not because it's “Asian,” but because it seems to offer yet more evidence that when it comes to making films, Marvel can seemingly do no wrong, and in Shang-Chi they have given us one of the most down-to-earth and likeable superheroes since Deadpool.
Parents will be relieved to hear he's a lot less foul-mouthed, however.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings will be released in the UAE on Thursday, September 2