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‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ isn't the origin of strong Asian protagonists

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was not predicted to be a box office hit in the wake of movies releasing simultaneously in theaters and onto streaming services. Furthermore, it features a lesser-known Marvel protagonist that had a lot of people doubting the movie’s potential. Despite this speculation, Shang-Chi was a smash hit. Bringing in $94 million over Labor Day weekend, it was even breaking Marvel records. There could be a great deal of reasons for its success, but taking into account the fact that nearly 60 percent of the world is Asian and this is the first Marvel film to boast a cast that is as high as 98 percent Asian, that is a win for representation. The numbers in the United States were boosted in cities with a larger Asian population such as San Francisco and New York City. It has grossed over $257 million despite not being released in China, where Simu Liu is from.

While this is incredibly encouraging given the film has a strong Asian protagonist and supporting cast, I can’t help but be a little irked by people acting as though this is a first for Asian representation in the form of a strong protagonist. Just because Liu as Shang-Chi is the first time you have noticed a strong Asian protagonist, it does not mean they haven’t been present in the film industry. My goal is to bring attention to and highlight a graspable list of movies that also have a strong Asian protagonist and have been around since before the commercial success of Shang-Chi. Some of these films are more recent and some are decades old, and not all these movies will be for everyone, but they each have their merits. I’m here singing praises for Shang-Chi as much as the next guy, but I am also here to champion the incredible work of films that have come before it.

Enter the Dragon

Photo from IMDb

Enter the Dragon stars the late, great Bruce Lee, and it holds up surprisingly well, given its release in 1973. With a Rotten Tomatoes score of 95 percent and an audience score of 91 percent, it’s hard to argue with those numbers. Bruce Lee plays a young martial artist who is hellbent on capturing the narcotics dealer responsible for the death of his sister. He is forced to enter a Kung Fu competition in an attempt to infiltrate the dealer’s headquarters. Oh, and Enter the Dragon has the iconic fight between Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris, but I won’t spoil who wins. The movie’s focus on martial arts serves as a template for other martial arts-focused movies (i.e., Bloodsport featuring Jean-Claude Van Damme and the Mortal Kombat films and video games). Enter the Dragon’s B plot also features Jim Kelly, the first black martial arts film star, early in his career. As amazing as this movie is, it brings up the conversation of Asian protagonists being expected to do martial arts. It is an annoying stereotype, but exists for a reason. From Bruce Lee to Mulan to Shang-Chi, the precedent has been set. That is also why I attempted to include movies that do not contain martial arts on this list. 

Rumble in the Bronx

Photo from IMDb

Rumble in the Bronx features Jackie Chan in arguably his most stunt-worthy performance. Chan’s character is a man on vacation who forgoes his time off after local gangs threaten the way of life of the people around him, and takes it upon himself to bring down a crime syndicate. While there are purists who find Chan’s approach to comedy with martial arts silly or emasculating, in this movie he is an epic hero. He blends comedy with the seriousness he clearly takes with his martial arts training, making this a role only Chan could play. While the production value isn’t the highest quality and the plot follows the books too closely, the action sequences, stunts, and martial arts prowess of Chan really makes it worth a watch.

A Better Tomorrow

Photo from IMDb

Alright, I’m going to step away from martial arts films for a moment even though I’ve always had a soft spot for them. For A Better Tomorrow, the Rotten Tomatoes score of 93 percent with an 89 percent audience score really shows off how much people like it when they give it a chance. This is more of an action film and one that is a must-see. The protagonist is an ex-gang member who is attempting to reconnect with his estranged brother who happens to be a police officer, but his past isn’t as easy to outrun as he would like…dun dun dunnnn. It arguably started the careers of director John Woo and Chow Yun-fat. This movie had a huge impact on action movies and the culture around them. A lot of tropes, including “Hand Cannon”, “I Am What I Am”, and “Reformed, but Rejected”, that became staples in the action genre were introduced by this movie. 

Ark Exitus

Photo from IMDb

The next is a bit more recent, but also a bit more obscure. Ark Exitus is a sci-fi action short film with an estimated budget of $30,000. Despite the low budget, this indie film brought in plenty of awards in 2020. The director and star, Johnny Yong Bosch, who is likely a better known anime voice actor and in his youth, the black power ranger, brings alive incredible action scenes as well as a great story. Doppelgangers from a parallel universe are taking over the lives of their counterparts, and it is up to Bosch’s character to stop these invaders from overtaking our world. The protagonist is tasked with a seemingly impossible goal, yet triumphs in the end, resulting in a  thrilling watch. I personally think the best part about this film is that the cast and crew spent all of preproduction preparing for an entirely different film, but due to last-second budget cuts, a new script was thrown together less than a week prior to filming. After each day  wrapped, the producers would meet to prepare for what the next day of production would include. Even with all of those production headaches, the story did not suffer.

Better Luck Tomorrow

Photo from IMDb

Now, I hesitate to recommend this next movie for fear that you will start it and not finish it without giving it a fair chance, even though it boasts a pretty impressive 81 percent on Rotten Tomatoes with a slightly lower 79 percent audience score. But, while Better Luck Tomorrow helped launch the careers of Justin Lin, the famed Fast and Furious director, as well as John Cho, an American actor known for the Harold and Kumar series of films as well as his work in the Star Trek reboot series, the beginning of the movie leans into rather stereotypical Asian male tropes as well as the classic “Asian student excelling at school”. However, if you bear with it, the film does a great job flipping those tropes on their heads, developing them into legitimate characters who challenge the aforementioned stereotypes. The story follows an incredibly accomplished high school student who wants nothing more than to win the favor of his crush. His attempts bring him into bad company and petty crime that escalates. He then struggles with his new posse returning to normalcy. As for the film’s authenticity in representation, the original sponsor funding the movie wanted an all Caucasian cast. Instead, Lin chose to fund the project himself with his own credit cards until his resources were depleted and they almost canceled production right before they got new sponsors.

I hope you will take any excitement you have after Shang-Chi and go watch some, if not all, of these films. I think it is more than worth your time and will give you a greater perspective on past Asian represented protagonists. While representation in popular culture still has a ways to go, I think after the success of Shang-Chi, the movies on this list, and others that I neglected to mention, we can take solace in the words of Bruce Lee, “Be happy, but never satisfied.”

Featured Image from IMDb

Sources: IMBd, A.V.Club, The Verge, IndieWire, The Atlantic, Screen Rant, Statista, FSR, Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette, Forbes, The New York Times, IMBd, Rotten Tomatoes, IMBd, IMBd, Rotten Tomatoes, IMBd, IMBd, IMBd, Anime Voice-Over Wiki, Power Ranger Wiki, Rotten Tomatoes, IMBd