Michelle Yeoh

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

14/09/21

Cineworld, Edinburgh

I’m somewhat late to this but the word is that Shang-Chi has been one of cinema’s biggest hitters – though the three other people in the audience for my showing doesn’t exactly suggest that Cineworld is being overrun.

This film is an important addition to the Marvel Universe in the same way that Black Panther was – and those like me, who are old enough to remember the impact made by the original Bruce Lee films, will understand how important it is that American Asians have their own superhero to root for. So here he is, played by the extremely likeable Simu Liu as ‘Shaun,’ an unassuming lad working in a valet at a hotel in San Francisco, parking the cars of rich customers, ably assisted by his best friend Katy (Awkwafina).

But Shaun has a secret. He isn’t quite as unassuming as he appears. He is, in fact, Shang Chi, the son of the ruthless – and immortal- Xu Wenwu (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung), the possessor of ten mystical golden rings that give him the power of a thousand men, enabling him to vanquish entire armies single-handedly. Always a useful thing. But when Shaun is attacked by a bunch of armed warriors on a bus, who have been sent by Xu to steal the fancy green amulet that Shaun has worn since he was a little boy, he begins to realise that his toxic dad is seeking to renew their acquaintance – and that Shaun’s sister, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), is probably going to be drawn into his father’s orbit too. It’s time to stop pretending and step up to face the consequences.

The film opens well (once we’re past a rather po-faced introduction) and the aforementioned bus punch-up is nicely done, with Awkwafina providing some much-needed comic relief as the put-upon-friend in a difficult situation, but it isn’t very long before Shaun and Katy are off on a mission to the mystical village of Ta Lo, where an ancient community lives surrounded by mystical creatures and a helpful water dragon. They also meet Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley), a former actor, who can somehow talk to mystical creatures. (Again, file this one in the comic relief section.)

From this point, the story seems to ramp up the pomposity, as Xu Wenwu, who believes he’s being summoned by his late wife, arrives with an army of warriors in tow, intent on setting free an ancient evil dragon who has been locked away in some forbidden cavern… and a massive cosmic punch-up dutifully ensues.

I have to say that, in the film’s latter stages, it loses me somewhat. The stodgy, leaden feel of the story makes two hours seem like three and I feel sorry for the wonderful Michelle Yeoh, who is saddled with a ‘wise auntie’ role and is therefore required to say something profound every time she opens her mouth. While it’s clear that much money has been lavished on the CGI budget and it’s certainly a handsome film, but the final dragon-on-dragon conflict just seems cumbersome and goes on and on, until I’m reduced to checking my watch at regular intervals.

A final coda, with Benedict Wong summoning Shaun and Katy into the extended Marvel Universe, doesn’t feel remotely enticing and I’m unlikely to watch whatever comes next.

In the end, Shang Chi‘s main failing is that it can’t seem to make up its mind what it wants to be. As a kung fu kick- about, it works well enough, but director Destin Daniel Cretton seems intent on making it more than that, overburdening the film with meaning in order to cover all the bases and – for my money at least – he doesn’t really succeed.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Last Christmas

23/11/19

Last Christmas is a strange film, with an identity crisis every bit as troublesome as the one its protagonist is dealing with.

Said protagonist is Kate (Emilia Clarke) – formerly known as Katarina, but currently in the process of rejecting her Yugoslavian parents and heritage. She’s been critically ill and is recovering from surgery, but she’s struggling to accept the new version of herself, refusing to follow her doctor’s orders, desperate to pursue her singing dreams but unable to perform as well as she used to. It’s a lot for a young woman to cope with, and she’s worn her friends’ patience thin. Her boss (Michelle Yeoh) is wearying of her too: Kate is lazy, inattentive and unreliable, not qualities Santa needs from an elf-assistant in her Covent Garden Christmas shop.

Just as things seem to be spiralling out of control, up pops Tom (Henry Golding), a charming but mysterious stranger, who helps Kate to negotiate her way through the thorny issues she’s entangled in. He’s elusive, though, not relationship material, he tells her. But will her heart heed what he says?

I quite like the schmaltzy plot, but the telling (writing by Emma Thompson and Bryony Kimmings; direction by Paul Feig) is pretty artless, with huge signposts to the so-called twist, which you can spot from about the twenty-minute mark. And so many interesting ideas are set up and then abandoned, the running time taken up instead with not-quite-there comedic sequences, and characters interacting in ways that don’t convince.

For example, what about George Michael? Kate has a sticker on her suitcase and posters on her bedroom wall; she says she ‘loves’ his music, and it makes a decent backing track. But – so what? Her relationship with her idol is never explored; we don’t learn a single thing about what he means to her. Except, of course, for a queasily literal interpretation of the titular song. And, um, why no gay men – not a solitary one! – in a movie supposedly inspired by Michael? That seems a shocking omission, given his outspoken views on gay rights and representation.

I’m interested in Kate’s rejection of her roots in the former Yugoslavia too. This is a tantalising thread, her frustration with her mother (Emma Thompson) tied up with her desire not to be an outsider, not to worry like her mum about Brexit and hate crimes. But it’s not taken anywhere. True, as she begins to get herself together, we see her speaking her parents’ language to help some strangers on a bus, but there’s a lot more to unravel here.

It’s not all bad. It’s good to see a London rom-com where the characters’ accommodation is credible, for example: all sweet-but-very-cramped apartments or long-commute-away-small-terraces. This makes a change from the usual run of things, where we’re often expected to suspend our disbelief and accept that ordinary working people can live in mansions in zones 1 and 2.

But that’s not enough, is it? Last Christmas can’t quite decide what it wants to be: a knockabout comedy, a heartwarming tale of redemption, or a political satire.┬áSadly, it misses all three targets. This is an over-stuffed turkey of a film, all promise and no prize.

2.4 stars

Susan Singfield