As the days stretch on without any word of a China release for “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” there are increasingly slim odds that residents of the world’s largest film market will get to see Marvel’s first Asian superhero on the big screen.
Those odds have grown slimmer still after jingoistic social media users unearthed content featuring “Shang-Chi” star Simu Liu that they say “insults China.” In the country’s current political climate, the accusations could potentially lead to the ban of the star, the expensive blockbuster he anchors, and even future franchise films in which his character appears.
The lack of a mainland release will be a sad result for Disney, which has so actively courted China for this film and paid tribute to aspects of its rich culture. The particular irony is that most Chinese viewers who have managed to actually see the film abroad or otherwise have deemed it “unexpectedly good” in post-show online reflections, with some going so far as to call it the most respectful treatment of Chinese culture coming from a Western production they’ve seen in years.
“I didn’t see any insulting of China — I saw kissing up to China,” one quipped.
Many Chinese viewers discussed their appreciation that there had been so much Chinese dialogue.
“‘Shang-Chi’s’ take on Chinese elements is so much better than that of ‘Mulan,’” one wrote. “Although the Chinese accents of the American-born Chinese and Hong Kong stars was a bit hard to get through, they were done with sincerity.”
“Shang-Chi” has so far grossed $146 million in North America and will likely become the first domestic release to cross the $200 million mark since the pandemic began.
As China’s box office hits new lows, numerous Chinese industry players and fans have watched bitterly while the film rakes in ticket sales and acclaim abroad, criticizing the hypocrisy of knee-jerk nationalist denunciations that have left China without a piece of the action.
Pointing out a “Shang-Chi” fight scene prominently featuring a giant digital billboard ad for major Chinese e-commerce company Jingdong, one exasperated blogger asked: “If ‘Shang-Chi’ is insulting China, why don’t you boycott Jingdong next?”
Anti-China Asian Snacks
Unfortunately for Marvel and Chinese exhibitors alike, “Shang-Chi” hits at a time when China-born stars with foreign passports are under fire for profiting in the country while holding foreign citizenship.
Though Canadian, Liu was born in Harbin and speaks nearly accent-less Mandarin. Seeing him more as one of China’s own, nationalist detractors have been quick to label him a “traitor” to the motherland — accusations that China-born director Chloe Zhao also faced earlier this year.
For such critics, even a light-hearted GQ video about Liu’s favorite Asian snacks is evidence of his offensive politics.
In the clip, Liu praises a lemon tea drink made by Hong Kong beverage firm Vitasoy. He likely didn’t know that two months ago, millions of outraged mainland consumers had called for a boycott of the company for being “anti-China.” Against the backdrop of recent pro-democracy protests, the company had expressed condolences to the family of a Hong Kong employee who stabbed a policed officer and then died by suicide.
More problematic still for nationalists is a 2017 interview in which Liu discusses his family’s immigrant background in a video celebrating Canada’s 150th anniversary, which began circulating on Chinese social media last week.
“When I was young, my parents would tell me these stories about growing up in Communist China where you had people dying of starvation,” he said in footage seen by Variety. “They lived in the third world. They thought of Canada as this pipe dream, as this place where they could go to be free and to create a better life for their kid.”
Even fans still crossing their fingers for a “Shang-Chi” theatrical release have mostly admitted defeat after these comments resurfaced, and fear a broader ban on the star.
Yet in May, top Chinese officials and state media outlets themselves spoke and wrote extensively about China’s past periods of hunger as they eulogized the Chinese scientist Yuan Longping, who famously developed strains of high-yield rice that helped the country overcome years of famine
While Liu’s references to China’s past poverty are decried as slander, official references are encouraged as part of the narrative of how Communist Party leadership has brought the country prosperity.
For his part, however, Liu has taken any blowback in stride and reached out to viewers across the Pacific undeterred.
On Instagram, he wrote in both English and Chinese “Thanks to all the Marvel fans in China!,” adding in English: “We love you!!”
“What Western news often fails to report on is the absolute groundswell of support that we’ve received from all parts of the world — including people from China!” he wrote, critiquing “polarizing” media narratives that blind us to “the kindness and the empathy” of others.
He concluded: “Whether you seek positivity or toxicity on social media, you will find it.”