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Title [Martial Arts Globe] Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and the Impact of Cinema on Martial Arts in the East and W
IMAGE: Poster from Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, courtesy of Marvel Studios ©2021
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and the Impact of Cinema on Martial Arts in the East and West
When a martial arts-based movie like Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings gets global attention, its impact it has upon the popularization of the martial arts is immeasurable. Not only does it serve to introduce martial arts into communities where martial arts are scarce, it can inspire more people to become practitioners, consequently boosting the economy for martial arts schools and suppliers.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was the biggest martial arts film in many years. It earned over $432 million worldwide (Box Office Mojo, 2022) placing it ninth on the list of the world’s highest-grossing movie in 2021 (IMDb 2022). If it had been distributed in China, it might have done even better. Several scenes in the film were in Mandarin, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) performed well in China with its Avengers franchise.
Now the largest moviegoing market in the world, China has surpassed the previous leader North America (Variety, 2020). However, the film was not shown in PRC theaters, mostly due to political reasons (NBC, 2021).
In the Western world, film trends have had a profound impact by introducing Asian martial arts to countries that had not yet been exposed them. Dennis Brown, a noted American Wushu master and tournament promoter, categorized the 70s and 80s North American martial arts scene by what was happening in film at the time. “We had our time in the '70s,” claims Brown referring to his own Chinese-based teachings. “That was the time of Bruce Lee, David Carradine and Curtis Mayfield singing, 'Everybody was Kung Fu fighting.” This was also when Hong Kong filmmakers like Golden Harvest and Shaw Brothers Studios were churning out countless Kung Fu movies. It introduced Chinese martial arts to the world.
Subsequently, the 80s were “the time of the ninja” according to Brown. Ninja films proliferated Hollywood. The spotlight helped schools to flourish, and many adapted their marketing to accommodate new aspirants “Even the Japanese schools weren't Japanese anymore,” reflects Brown. “Everybody was ninja.” (Ching, 2010, p.43).
Blockbuster movies have a different impact in Asia where martial arts are a part of everyday life. To the Western world, martial arts were exotic imports, so Hollywood films introduced martial arts to a naïve audience. In Asia, audiences are already familiar with martial culture, so instead of introducing, blockbusters can be inspiring. China’s 1982 film Shaolin Temple was pivotal. Shaolin Temple became China’s highest-grossing film of its time. Shot on location in Henan Province, the film impelled the reconstruction and redevelopment of the original Shaolin Temple and surrounding community, inspiring generations of practitioners to study and promulgate Shaolin Kung Fu (Ching, 2010, pp. 33-36).
2021: An Unusual Year for Cinema
Three major Hollywood martial arts films came out in 2021: Mortal Kombat in April, Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins in July and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings in September. Having three such films in a year was unprecedented. While Asia has a constant stream of martial arts films coming from China, Korea, Japan, India and many of the surrounding countries, Hollywood might only produce one major martial arts film per year, if that. If not for the pandemic’s diminishing effect upon theater attendance, the impact of these three films might have been much greater (Kung Fu Magazine, 2021).
Shang-Chi is known as the ‘Master of Kung Fu’ in the original graphic novels. For Destin Daniel Cretton, director of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, it was critical for the Kung Fu to be well represented even though it was a fantasy film. “We knew the martial arts had to be authentic,” said Cretton. “In order for that to feel real, we worked with people who understood Chinese Kung Fu.” Choregraphing the action were two veteran proteges of Jackie Chan, Brad Allen and Andy Cheng. Shockingly, Allen died about a month prior to the film’s release. The film is dedicated to him in the end credits and is a testament to Allen’s skill at a stunt choreographer (Den of Geek, 2021).
In an ordinary year, Kung Fu interest would surge in the wake of Shang-Chi. Sales of Kung Fu related products serves as a measure of the martial industry’s health. But 2021 was complicated. “It’s hard to quantify because of Covid,” states Jonny Oh, President of Tiger Claw, one of the leading martial arts supply companies in North America. “Our recent sales spike is more from supply chain crisis subsiding. We saw a stronger effect from Kung Fu Panda.” According to Oh, Kung Fu Panda film franchise generated significant interest in the martial arts particularly from the youth, which led to an uptick in martial product sales, especially for Wushu schools.
Perhaps Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings would have had more impact if it was shown. In 2020, another Hollywood film built upon Chinese martial arts made into China, Disney’s live-action reboot Mulan. It grossed $40.7 million in PRC. However, in contrast, it was not released to theaters in the United States due to the pandemic; it went straight to streaming so it only grossed $66.8 million worldwide.
While the pandemic confounded the impact of these Hollywood martial arts films from having a measurable impact on the martial arts, they were all a source of great cultural pride for the Asian diaspora. Hollywood seldom produces films with Asians in lead roles, even less so films with largely Asian casts. In the west where attacks against Asians have been on the rise, these inclusive Asian-led films inspired hope that the martial arts will help bring more peace into the world. Even 14 years later, Kung Fu Panda continues to resonate with the Asian diaspora (Daily Trojan, 2022). Time will tell if Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings enjoys similar longevity.
Box Office Mojo (1998) Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Available at https://www.boxofficemojo.com/title/tt9376612 (Accessed 20 February 2022)
Ching, G. (2010). Shaolin Trips. Fremont, CA: TC Media International
Ching, G. (2010). That Kung Fu Guy. Kung Fu Tai Chi. September-October, pp. 43.
Daily Trojan (2002) Animated: ‘Kung Fu Panda’ kicks Chinese culture into action Available at https://dailytrojan.com/2022/02/04/animated-kung-fu-panda-kicks-chinese-culture-into-action/ (Accessed 24 February 2022)
Den of Geek (2007) The Real Martial Arts Behind Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings Available at https://www.denofgeek.com/movies/real-martial-arts-behind-shang-chi-and-the-legend-of-the-ten-rings/ (Accessed 20 February 2022)
IMDb (1990) Highest-Grossing Movies of 2021. Available at https://www.imdb.com/list/ls574710501/ (Accessed 20 February 2022)
Kung Fu Magazine (2001) The 2021 Martial Movie Trilogy: Shang-Chi, Snake Eyes and Mortal Kombat Available at https://www.kungfumagazine.com/ezine/article.php?article=1614 (Accessed 20 February 2022)
Kung Fu Panda (2008) Directed by John Stevenson and Mark Osborne [Film]. United States: Paramount Pictures
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton [Film]. United States: Walt Disney Studios
Shaolin Temple (1982) Directed by Hsin-Yen Chang [Film]. China: Chung Yuen Motion Picture Company
Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins (2021) Directed by Robert Schwentke [Film]. United States: Paramount Pictures
Mortal Kombat (2021) Directed by Simon McQuoid [Film]. United States: Warner Bros.
Mulan (2020) Directed by Niko Caro [Film]. United States: Walt Disney Studios
NBC (2000) Marvel's 'Shang-Chi' was made with China in mind. Here's why Beijing doesn't like it. Available at https://www.nbcnews.com/news/china/marvel-s-shang-chi-was-made-china-mind-here-s-n1280571 (Accessed 20 February 2022)
Oh, J. (2022) Interviewed by Gene Ching, 18 February.
Variety (1998) China Box Office Poised to Surpass U.S. as World’s Largest Moviegoing Market Amid Pandemic Available at https://variety.com/2020/film/news/china-box-office-surpass-us-my-people-my-homeland-1234801700/ (Accessed 20 February 2022)