Shang-Chi interviews: Simu Liu on his 'we are not an experiment' tweet to Marvel, Destin Cretton on Indian influence
- In conversations with Hindustan Times, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings actors Simu Liu and Michelle Yeoh, and director Destin Daniel Cretton, spoke about creating the MCU's first Asian superhero.
Most people aren’t trained to be assassins, director Destin Daniel Cretton admitted, but ‘most of us do understand a certain amount of pain’. Cretton and his stars Michelle Yeoh and Simu Liu— one a veteran and the other on the cusp of stardom — spoke to Hindustan Times about Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the first Marvel Cinematic Universe project with an Asian lead, ahead of the film’s release on Friday.
Capturing the character’s relatability seemed to be top priority for all three. Even though Shang-Chi is a massive superhero movie, with all the requisite action and special effects, the actors and the director felt personally invested in the themes that it addresses; ideas of family and parenthood, legacy and trauma.
Liu said that he was ‘fired-up’ when he shot off an ‘emotionally-driven’ tweet recently, which appeared to be a response to a statement made by Disney CEO Bob Chapek, in which he described Shang-Chi's release strategy as an experiment.
“It absolutely was an emotionally driven decision. I was fired-up, I was excited,” Liu told HT. “I wanted to share with the world how excited I was for this movie, and regardless of what kind of box office was projected and what kind of theatrical window… I personally felt all that was secondary to the core messaging of what I think this movie is, which is a celebration. And it’s such a watershed moment for so many people, and that’s the thing I wanted to communicate more than anything else.”
The MCU is now over a decade old, but the franchise has never had an Asian superhero front-and-centre. The studio is making conscious efforts to diversify both in front of and behind the camera. After Shang-Chi, it'll release Eternals, directed by Oscar-winner Chloe Zhao and starring a culturally diverse ensemble of actors.
Cretton, whose great grandparents moved to Hawaii from Japan to work at sugarcane plantations, said that what fascinated him the most about this story was ‘this idea of legacy, and the idea of looking into your past and looking into the pain and the darkness of your past and redefining them in a way that allows you to move forward in life’. He said, “A lot of us have been bullied, a lot of us have insecurities and a lot of us know what it feels like to feel very small. To be able to have a hero who can look in at all those things, the hard parts that you often avoid, and face them and turn them into his superpower was something that I found very relatable.”
The filmmaker, who is best known for his Sundance hit Short Term 12, said that he put together ‘a very personal pitch’ to land the Marvel gig. He ‘had a lot of clips and photos’ from not just his ‘favourite martial arts films’ but also ‘movies that were dramas’. One of his biggest influences, he said, was Mira Nair’s Golden Lion-winning Indian film Monsoon Wedding, which he mined for its ‘family dynamics’. He said, “My pitch at its core was an intimate family drama. I wanted to make sure that the heart of our story would be relatable to anybody. And that was the core of my concern, to make sure that this story was something that would break a lot of stereotypes connected to Asian characters in the past.”
But one of the biggest influences on Shang-Chi, at least visually, is director Ang Lee’s wuxia epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Michelle Yeoh, who played Yu Shu Lien in the Oscar-winning film, said that she always ‘welcomes’ questions about it, because they bring back such fond memories. “Crouching Tiger has been such an incredible journey and movie for so many people, especially myself, on a personal note. So yes, I always welcome questions about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, simply because I have so many memories,” said the actor, who plays Shang-Chi’s aunt in the MCU film.
To replicate that film’s fluid action, Cretton enlisted cinematographer Bill Pope, best known for his work on the Matrix trilogy. “Bill has this unique ability to shoot action beautifully. He has such an eye for lighting, along with camera movement. To be able to have somebody like him by my side was really important,” he said. But action aside, what Cretton kept coming back to was his original pitch to Marvel — ‘an intimate family drama’.
Liu concurred: "I think we set out to tell a relatable story and one that will be deeply resonant across all families regardless of what their race was or where they came from. But that being said, it has a very special significance of people of Asian descent. It’s so important to see representation in this way."