Believe it or not, worldwide box office has only been a major factor in Hollywood accounting for the last ten to fifteen years. But in the last five years international dollars have become a significant cornerstone to buoy domestic grosses and, in many cases, outstrip them entirely. China has been a white whale of their desperate plea to invade the overseas marketplace. And for a few years, the whale had been slain, with many big-budget films made to appeal across the Pacific pond making oodles of money. Now, as Hollywood begins producing fare explicitly for such audiences in Asia, pictures designed to appeal to them above all else, the plan is completely backfiring. As it turns out, be it due to governmental censorship or genuine aversion to pandering, the Chinese and others will not simply gobble up what is served to them on a golden dragon platter, Chinese New Year symbols and all (note: in case you’re offended, the golden dragon platter is a metaphor for the industry’s embarrassing efforts). Pictures such as Disney’s live-action reimagining of Mulan or the animated Raya and the Last Dragon, well-made or not, only serve to offend their sensibilities. With July’s G.I. Joe spinoff Snake Eyes and Marvel’s Shang Chi in theaters, American studios continue to yield mixed results in understanding what works on screen and what doesn’t for Asian audiences, or any audience for that matter. Even worse, they’re not even getting the opportunity to find out, what with China’s communist regime banning most of their output this summer.
Snake Eyes (PARAMOUNT PLUS)
A mediocre attempt at fostering a new cinematic universe, Snake Eyes is the equivalent of an American tourist playing Tokyo dress-up, or a poser making a perfunctory Jackie Chan/Jet Li reference in 2021. The film is obviously desperate to convince us G.I. Joe is a legitimate franchise worth caring about, and it reeks of American opportunism vis a vis Hollywood’s desire for Asia domination. Despite fight choreography that borders on greatness, and a refreshing commitment to sword fights in a time of frivolous super powers and gratuitous firepower, the narrative never fully coalesces into anything remotely intriguing. Henry Golding’s Snake Eyes enjoys a bond with Andrew Koji’s Storm Shadow that could’ve made for a beating heart, and instead it’s used for bleating from both as they carefully step around one another’s opaque and angry feelings on respective family histories. Samara Weaving, such a screen presence in Ready or Not and Guns Akimbo, is relegating to women-can-be-badass-too window dressing, as well as a garish, extended Easter egg for the increasingly small G.I. Joe “fanbase.” Like many tentpoles, the plot revolves around a lazy MacGuffin, this time an ancient, fiery gem that grants any carrier the power of fire-starter. Visual FX somehow carry more clarity and color than the best of Marvel, yet it’s not enough when Robert Schwentke’s directorial eye is so inconsistent and Martin Todsharow’s score so unmemorable. Great fight choreography or photography can overcome a middling script if command of style and atmosphere are in excess. They can overpower the mind to the point of feeling over thinking. That’s the beauty of cinema, a visual art form above all else. With the exception of a single exciting duel in the rain across a series of foreboding Tokyo rooftops, style and atmosphere are in short supply here, often taking a backseat to a rudimentary revenge saga that simply fails to pique any interest.
Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (IN THEATERS)
Currently banned for reasons mysterious to even folks in the China know, Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a sensational martial arts action romp for two-thirds of its running time. I’m talking the kind that gets your heart pumping and your face smiling a particular smile, the one that says you can’t believe how fun, how impressively staged the fisticuffs and hard-hitting wushu. Mixing Crouching-Tiger-style wirework, supernatural heroics, a dash of Raid-style brutality, and modern-day mixed martial arts, the fight choreography is a standout, further proving after Black Widow that Marvel Studios has come a long way since The First Avenger in crafting top-tier action sequences. Simu Liu is a natural, and a wonderful catch as Shang, the man of the hour. He’s believable in both everyman street clothes, hiding his true self whilst parking cars for a living, and donning blood-red, dragon skin chainmail to battle his father for the fate of the world. He’s assisted with snappy humor and her own brand of pathos by Awkwafina as best friend Katy, a woman listless in life, just trying to enjoy it whilst missing out on what might be her greatest talent. Naturally, best in show belongs to Hong Kong sensation Tony Leung, who is by turns charismatic, empathetic, and intimidating as a man who runs one side of the world but will never forget the one person who made him stop, until her heart stopped: Shang’s late mother.
Alongside his younger sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), Shang is thrust back into the life he abandoned as a youngster, when his father trained them both to kill, then asked him to avenge his mother in cold blood. They encounter a Romanian bruiser with a machete for an arm, a gaggle of black-clad ninjas and a single, deadly blue-clad assassin, and eventually even cross paths with Wong (Benedict Wong), Queen Michelle Yeoh, and a funny name I won’t utter for fear of spoiling. It’s all a grand adventure and an incredibly good time until Marvel’s ugly third act foibles rear their dragon heads, quite literally. Once giant dragons appear, juxtaposed against brown on the ground and grey in the sky, Bill Pope’s wonderfully colorful photography is jettisoned for hideous computer-generated slop, muddy, fuzzy, and frequently horribly rendered. The heart of the picture remains as long as the father-son conflict remains in focus. As soon as such matters are resolved and there are still kaijus to kill, the film loses its way and fast. Fortunately, it only amounts to fifteen to twenty minutes of movie, but it makes you wonder how many true masterpieces Marvel might have under its belt were it not for knee-jerk finales that prioritize “big” over “badass.” Father and son and more engaging in beautiful, dramatic hand-to-hand fisticuffs? That’s badass. Dragons and other assorted creatures muddying a film about international criminals with its far-flung fantasy and ugly green-screen cinematography? That may be big, but it’s far from badass. Marvel Studios are clearly under a delusion they must deliver finales large in scope and spectacle in order to satisfy the layman viewer. They seemingly forget the relatively small finale that accompanied the film that started it all, 2008’s Iron Man, still one of their best offerings. Perhaps they believe, in the aftermath of Endgame, that simple mano-o-mano heroics are passé. I’m still waiting for a filmmaker or hopefully Kevin Feige himself, if he knows any better, to shake them of this delusion.
Fifteen to twenty minutes are easily forgiven, however, when the heart of the picture is so poignant and all-encompassing. Stories about motherless families are a dime a dozen, and Shang-Chi manages to avoid typical pitfalls and somehow render this particular story heartbreaking anyway. Perhaps it’s losing my own mother only two years ago, but such loss is readily visible in Leung’s performance, his charisma and easy eyes belying a sense of forlorn and melancholy that becomes overwhelming in the face of his wife’s voice calling out to him from beyond. That such voices are merely the manipulative guise of a perilous dragon nearly ruins the film’s emotional stakes. Nevertheless, until its final stanza, Shang-Chi never loses a sense of wonder, be it the stunning reveal of Sean as Shang as he defends a bus-full of people from evildoing assassins in quite possibly the most thrilling set piece ever put to Marvel film, or the classic reveal of a legendary locale, a land behind a curtain as Shang and co. discover the mystical realm of Ta Lo. Before the storm clouds come foreboding, it’s a vivid depiction of lush living that recalls images of Shangri-La or what we hear of K’un L’un in Iron Fist. Among the gorgeous greenage there are cuddly “chicken pigs,” scaly, rainbowed horses, and gargantuan foo dog lions, creatures often associated with Chinese Buddhism, all of them looking like a million bucks each compared to a certain garish dragon that comes later. The same can be said for the movie itself, a stunning adventure film that is so entertaining and occasionally soul-stirring the typical Marvel finale sins nearly don’t matter. Nearly.
P.S. Marvel’s writing is getting lazier and lazier in these post-credit scenes. If you want ’em to count, write ’em like they count.