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Liu was about to shoot one of his most challenging moments, in which his titular character confesses to his best friend, Katy (Awkwafina), that he killed a man at the behest of his father, and now was prepared to end his father’s life.
“We knew a lot of the movie hinged on that moment,” says Liu, who marked the day on his calendar and workshopped it countless times with writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton.
When the day came, Cretton got the wide shot he needed and then asked Liu to go off by himself. The filmmaker cleared the crew from a corner of the set depicting the mythical realm of Ta Lo and left his leading man to be alone with his thoughts.
“Nobody bothered me during that time. Everything was very quiet,” says Liu. “When the time came, one of the ADs came up and quietly said, ‘Hey, we are ready for you.’ I remember putting my head down. Not making eye contact with anyone.”
Whatever Liu did during that time, worked, notes Cretton.
“Whatever he was thinking about, using that silence to prep for it, the performance shift between the wide shot and the closeups were pretty dramatic,” says Cretton, who gave Liu a big hug afterward. “A scene like that, it’s always such a gratifying thing to experience as a director, particularly when you are shooting on a huge action movie like this.”
Three months after Shang-Chi opened in theaters, it stands as the highest-grossing domestic release of the year ($224.5 million in North America) and has both a sequel and a Disney+ series in development from Cretton. The film, Marvel’s first to star an Asian lead, turned a little-known comic book character into a cultural icon and turned Liu into a star. Up next, it hopes to emerge as an awards contender.
Films inspired by comic books have historically had an uphill battle at the Academy Awards, dating back to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) being snubbed for a best picture nomination. But three years ago, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther broke ground as the first superhero movie to earn a best picture nomination and went on to win in three categories.
Looking back at Black Panther‘s accolades, Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige notes that Oscar wins for composer Ludwig Göransson, costume designer Ruth E. Carter and production designers Hannah Beachler and Jay Hart meant a lot to the Marvel team. Yet he acknowledges such Academy recognition can be a challenge.
“I think we are always at a deficit because of the Marvel logo and because of a genre bias that certainly exists. I just loved that for a shining moment there with Black Panther that was put aside and the work was recognized for the achievement that it was,” says Feige, who would like to see Shang-Chi recognized as well, pointing to the work of team members such as screenwriter Dave Callaham, production designer Sue Chan, composer Joel P. West, costume designer Kym Barrett and cinematographer William Pope, among others.
“There are a lot of comic fans that didn’t know who Shang-Chi was. And yet the work that Destin did and Dave did and Sue did and Joel did, created something new that connected with audiences,” says Feige. “We recognized it, the audience recognized it, and I sure would love the hard work of all of these people who are telling their story to get recognized.”
Before Marvel hired Cretton in 2019, the director acknowledges he struggled to imagine the kind of pitch that might win him the job. Since nothing was clicking with him, he instead decided to pitch the type of story he wished he’d seen as a kid.
“I didn’t think it necessarily was going to be something that Marvel wanted,” says Cretton. “It was a very intimate pitch about a relationship between a father and a son and a family learning how to come together again with their pain.”
As it turns out, Marvel very much was interested in that kind of story. Cretton also longed to see Asian American people hanging out, doing ordinary things in a film. He brought in imagery from Good Will Hunting because he couldn’t find a representative scene that featured Asian Americans in film.
“It said, ‘Like this! But with Asian people,'” Feige recalls of Cretton’s presentation use of Good Will Hunting.
Shang-Chi ultimately included two bookend scenes with Shang, Katy and two friends at a restaurant, fulfilling Cretton’s dream.
Liu, meanwhile, was best known as the star of the Canadian sitcom Kim’s Convenience. Much has been made about a December 2018 tweet in which the actor put it into the universe that he wanted to play Shang-Chi, but he never really believed he’d get it.
“I would literally go through IMDb and see all these other actors who were taller, who were more handsome, who I thought were better martial artists,” Liu recalls. “I was just like, ‘There’s no way. Why would it be me?'”
Liu sent off a tape anyway, thinking nothing would come of it. Then he met with Cretton, who was interested in casting an actor to play a human being rather than a superhero.
“At no point did he bring up the martial arts. At no point did he bring up the need to be anything other than human,” recalls Liu. “He was looking for somebody who really exemplified the uncomfortable, insecure, anxiety of what it means to be a human being.”
Suddenly, Liu had hope.
“I came out of the casting office literally feeling like I was going to throw up because I never thought that I had a chance before that moment,” recalls Liu. “After meeting him, I was, ‘Oh, I think I nailed this thing.'”
As part of their process, Liu and Cretton stripped away the trappings and mannerisms that might come with being a superhero.
“I remember specifically going through scenes with him, really feeling this sense of looseness and wanting to play the most natural version of every scene, not doing the superhero version of it,” says Liu. “Not puffing your chest out.”
When it came to the superhero suits worn by Liu and his onscreen sister, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), Cretton saw them as a tangible way to connect his actors to the film’s family theme, as their late on-screen mother, Ying Li (Fala Chen), gifted the suits to them.
“There’s a piece of her literally touching their body,” says Cretton. “That in itself gave so much to the performances of the actors, to remember that even though they are in a battle and they are having these larger-than-life Marvel moments, all of this is still watching these characters deal with the loss of this very important person in their lives.”
Screen legend Tony Leung boarded to play Shang-Chi’s father, Wenwu, and proved to be a grounding force for Liu, who was learning how to be a movie star on the fly.
“I was so desperate and eager to prove myself, showing people I could do things,” says Liu. “There is such a stillness and a comfort and ease with the way Tony conducts himself. I felt like that was the perfect complement to all of the anxiety that I was bringing in.”
Liu counts Shang-Chi’s final scene with Wenwu as his favorite moment, even over the much-praised bus fight early in the film. As Wenwu’s final act, he sacrifices himself for his son. Part of the sequence includes flashbacks to Shang as a boy and then a baby.
“We literally cut to that baby three times over the course of the movie, and every time it’s an emotional hit in a wonderful way,” says Feige, who says the team debated how much of the storytelling should be told in flashbacks.
Cretton notes the flashbacks weren’t initially part of the plan in that scene at all.
“We weren’t totally getting into Wenwu’s head like we wanted to,” recalls Cretton. “The idea of those flashbacks came late in the game. When we put it in and showed it to Kevin and the team and did a test with it — finally people were feeling the emotions that we wanted them to feel.”
During awards season two years ago, Parasite Oscar winner Bong Joon Ho famously encouraged audiences to get over a fear of subtitles, referring to the new worlds international films could offer.
In a new move for a big-budget American movie, Shang-Chi includes subtitled sections in Mandarin, including an eight-minute opening. When it came time to test screen the film, the team was curious how audiences would react to the opening, in particular.
“Frankly, we were always ready to see if the audience would reject it in our test screenings and to see, ‘OK, are we going to have to pull a ripcord here in any way?’ Which was not our first instinct,” says Feige. “Destin very much believed in the fact that audiences would go with it, and sure enough they did. It wasn’t even a question. It wasn’t even a concern. On the contrary, I think it added to the authenticity in the way the movie started.”
On Dec. 6, Disney announced that Cretton would return to direct a Shang-Chi sequel and develop a related series for Disney+. The post-credits scene for the film teases more to come from the Ten Rings, the organization now run by Xialing.
When presented with the notion that Xialing’s Ten Rings sounds like an intriguing Disney+ show, Feige responds with a laugh, “I can’t wait for people to discover what it really is that we are working on for Disney+ with Destin.”
Though it’s never a foregone conclusion a filmmaker will return to Marvel, Cretton had a sense while making Shang-Chi there was more work for him to do.
Says the filmmaker: “While we were on set, we were already throwing ideas around of what other things we could do in another movie.”
Liu, who has a long journey ahead of him as Shang-Chi, was not surprised his filmmaker is back for more.
“It confirms what I already believed, which was that he was very emotionally invested in this character and this world,” says Liu, who hopes many people from the team will return for the sequel. “Also, I was very relieved, because we need him.”
For Cretton, who came up via the festival circuit with Short Term 12 before graduating to The Glass Castle and Just Mercy, Shang-Chi was particularly fulfilling, as he got to work with artists with similar backgrounds to him. That includes production designer Chan, whom he notes is the daughter of parents who owned a Chinese restaurant on the East Coast.
“It was such a poignant and moving experience for the first time in my career to be surrounded by people who have a similar upbringing as me,” says Cretton, who is half Japanese, half white and grew up in Hawaii. “To share stories and share experiences with other artists like that, it was really emotional for me and very fulfilling.”
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The Harder They Fall