Marvel blockbuster “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” has not yet been released in China, despite starring Hong Kong megastar Tony Leung and featuring extensive Mandarin dialogue. It is unclear why the movie has not been approved, but there are no shortage of hypotheses. One holds that the stories’ racist origins have turned off Chinese audiences. Another relates to an interview that Leung’s co-star, Canadian actor Simu Liu (whose family emigrated from China when he was five), gave to a Canadian news outlet in 2017. Yet another holds that superhero movies, especially Western ones, are incompatible with the “profound transformation” underway in China’s cultural sphere. At The New York Times, Jin Yu Young, Amy Chang Chien and Azi Paybarah wrote about the racist 1970s comic the movie is based on (it has subsequently undergone serious revisions):
The movie is a retelling of the story of a little-known Marvel character created in 1973 — 16 years before Mr. Liu was born — and updated for today’s audiences. It centers on Shang-Chi, a young man working as a valet who is reluctantly drawn into his father’s deadly criminal organization, known as the Ten Rings.
[…] Readers of Shang-Chi comic books in the 1970s saw Asian faces colored in unnatural oranges and yellows. They saw the main character shirtless and shoeless, spouting “fortune-cookie platitudes in stilted English,” The New York Times noted recently. And then there was Shang-Chi’s father in the comics: He was named Fu Manchu and caricatured as a power-hungry Asian man, an image that harks back to the stereotypes first pressed upon Asian immigrants a century ago.
“How can Chinese people be insulted like this,” the Global Times commentary asked, “while at the same time we let you take our money?”[Source]
Chinese audiences that managed to see the movie either abroad or through streaming sites left differing opinions on the movie’s page on Douban, a Chinese review site. Some were touched: “I cried watching it.” Others were less impressed: “This movie didn’t humiliate China, but the story is so lame…” Another commented that “the costumes and set design are really ugly.” Some also criticized the actors’ Mandarin pronunciation: “If you can’t speak Mandarin, then don’t 👊.” The state-run tabloid Global Times opined that the movie may fail in the Chinese market due to “stereotypes and aesthetic differences between the East and West.”
When Simu Liu was cast as Shang-Chi, some in China criticized him as being “too ugly” for the role. Serious commentators and online trolls alike have invoked differing beauty standards to police casting choices and accuse corporations of anti-China sentiment. In 2019, the same year Liu was cast, Vogue and Zara were accused of racism for using Chinese models who did not conform to mainstream beauty standards in the People’s Republic of China. Liu’s looks are only a tangential issue: more germane are his comments on PRC history, always a sensitive subject. At Variety, Rebecca Davis wrote about nationalist criticism of Simu Liu’s supposedly “anti-China” beverage preferences and historical comments:
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.” [Source]
Some nationalists in China are slamming Simu Liu, a Canadian, for regarding himself as a Canadian, citing a 2017 interview where Liu said that his parents immigrated to Canada from "the Third World"/"Communist China" because people used to starve to death there. pic.twitter.com/6Yrht5uZdO
— Wenhao 文灏 (@ThisIsWenhao) September 8, 2021
The controversy echoes one that engulfed Oscar-winner Chloé Zhao earlier this year. Online nationalists uncovered a 2013 interview in which Zhao said there were “lies everywhere” in China. This spurred Baidu and Sogou to limit search results for Zhao’s “Nomadland,” and Weibo to block hashtags related to the film. Netizens subverted the ban by inverting the film’s title, instead calling it “Settled Sky.” Zhao’s acceptance speech was not shown on the mainland either, but intrepid internet users circumnavigated the ban: one commenter wrote that “with its own actions, China has proved that what Chloé Zhao said was true.”
With billions of dollars in revenue at stake, Hollywood studios (and some actors) are desperate to avoid Chinese bans incurred by political commentary. John Cena’s awkward apology for referring to Taiwan as a country during an interview promoting his film “Fast & Furious 9” is but the latest ignominious example. A 2020 PEN America report, contextualized and excerpted by CDT, found that the opacity of China’s censorship regime is “a feature, not a bug. When people do not know where the lines of censorship lie, they will be extra cautious in self-censoring for fear of crossing an invisible line.” The same dynamic invites pre-emptive apologies for otherwise factual statements.
It is also possible that Shang-Chi does not align with Chinese officials’ vision for cultural products. Major Chinese state media sites recently republished an essay demanding that those in the film industry “go down to the grassroots, and allow ordinary workers and citizens to become the protagonists, to play the leading roles in our literature and art.” American blockbusters do not fit such a proletarianized vision, although they may adhere to the hyper-masculine, anti-androgyny tone of recent state propaganda. The essay criticizing the film industry coincides with a celebrity “clean up” campaign that has also targeted obstreperous fan groups. The Marvel fandom is a prominent but relatively quiescent component of Chinese fan culture. In a People’s Daily piece published on September 2, first reported by Fortune but here rendered in an original CDT translation, Zhang Hong, a vice-chairman of the Chinese Film Association, wrote that the film industry must use Xi Jinping Thought as its guide:
Our nation’s film industry must promote mainstream values; take Xi Jinping Thought as its guide; study and implement the spirit of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s important July 1st speech [commemorating the centenary of the CCP]; ensure that ideological purpose is deeply rooted, ideological convictions strong, and ideological beliefs staunch; pass on “red genes”; and continue to deepen film industry workers’ sense of political, ideological, theoretical and emotional identity, in order to marshal the boundless power of unified struggle. [Chinese]
China’s film censorship regime has now been extended to Hong Kong. At The Los Angeles Times, Alice Su and Rachel Cheung wrote about the forcible imposition of censorship on Hong Kong filmmakers and audiences:
[Kiwi Chow’s] new work was an apolitical tale about a schizophrenic man who falls in love with a psychological counselor. Hardly a storyline that would provoke dissent or violate a national security law. But the audience took note when two dozen police officers arrived. Chow, undeterred, went on with his talk.
By midnight, police had shut down the screening, fining each attendee HK$5,000 for violating social distancing rules. If the screening had featured Chow’s protest documentary, they could have been fined HK$1 million and imprisoned for up to three years, according to a law proposed by the Hong Kong government in August.
[…] “Facing a government that tells lies after lies, an entire society living under lies … I want to tell honest stories,” Chow said. [Source]