Shaun (Simu Liu) and his best friend Katy (Awkwafina) are parking attendants in San Francisco. They spend their days parking rich peoples’ fancy cars until one day Katy and Shaun find themselves being pursued by his father’s men while taking one of said fancy cars for a joyride.
The chaos of the pursuit results in a bus crash where the assassins come after Shaun and end up getting away with the pendant he wears around his neck. When Shaun remembers the post card he got earlier that day from his sister, he realizes that she could be in danger. The only thing Shaun can do to protect her is return home to China and confront the painful past he’d been running away from for so long.
The movie begins with a bit of family history. Shaun – whose Chinese name is Shang-Chi – and his sister, Xialing (Men’ger Zhang), grow up learning the legend of the Ten Rings from their mother. They’ve been in Shaun’s family for as long as his father has had them, which is essentially forever, since the Rings grant whoever wears them eternal life. However, it’s not clear how the Rings came to be. Are they a family heirloom, passed down from father to son, did his father make them somehow?
The origin of the Rings notwithstanding, at first, Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung, in his first English-speaking role) only uses them to gain power. He changes his attitude, however, when he meets Shaun and Xialing’s mother. He finally found something – someone – to let his guard down for.
When his wife dies, Xu Wenwu doesn’t take it well at all. He throws himself into rebuilding his army, which also happens to be called The Ten Rings. He abandons his children, only paying attention to them in order to critique their fighting style. In essence, Shaun comes home to a giant family feud, minus Steve Harvey and with the addition that people have superpowers.
Chinese language and culture are prevalent in this movie. It actually begins with part of the legend of the Ten Rings being told in Chinese. Of course, there are subtitles for this as well as the other Chinese dialogue that’s sprinkled throughout the movie. And as far as the fighting sequences go, Kung Fu seems is a dance. That is, it’s not as much about flinging fists as it is about getting up close and personal with the opponent and looking good while catching them off guard.
Last but not least, the comedic relief. Awkwafina is always solid and sassy; it’s impossible to laugh quietly. And Ben Kingsley returns as the struggling actor Trevor Slattery, who Xu Wenwu and his men kept around because he could make them laugh. Trevor Slattery’s appearance also indicates a link to Iron Man 3, but it’s not clear how it overlaps with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Maybe an explanation is on the horizon.