A new superhero film is coming to town, but not everyone seems pleased. After Marvel announced the casting of its first Chinese superhero movie, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (set for release on Chinese New Year 2021), many netizens took to the keyboards to express their distaste for new super-villain The Mandarin, with many speculating the character is a cover-up for the comic's original, Fu Manchu, a xenophobic symbol of 'Yellow Peril' in the United States.
The actor who has been cast to play the titular superhero is 30-year-old Chinese-Canadian Simu Liu, the first Asian actor to have a lead role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He’s joined by co-stars Awkwafina of Crazy Rich Asians and Hong Kong actor Tony Leung, who is set to play Shang-Chi's nemesis The Mandarin.
Photograph: @simuliu via Instagram
While Shang-Chi is an original character from the comics, The Mandarin is not. The role of Shang-Chi's arch-nemesis originally belonged to Fu Manchu, but due to the character's history, it was ultimately replaced for the upcoming film. The Mandarin is meant to be a separate character entirely from Fu Manchu, but many Chinese netizens are not convinced the differences are obvious enough.
Photograph: courtesy Bona Entertainment via IMDB (Tony Leung in The Great Magician (2011))
One netizen's (傲娇的Doraemon) Zhihu post reads, '[Fu Manchu] was born during a period of Chinese scorn, ridicule and abuse. From peasants to nobles, from miners to scholars, everyone regarded the "yellow race" as inferior...'
Photograph: courtesy Hallam Productions via IMDB (Fu Manchu in The Face of Fu Manchu (1965)
Then there are netizens bemoaning the ‘contrast’ between the casting of Awkwafina and that of another ethnically Chinese actress, Liu Yifei, who is set to play Mulan in the forthcoming live-action film, with some noting that Liu is a 'better representation of Chinese beauty standards'. One popular article on Weibo describes the social and cultural implications a country's on-screen image can have: 'Watching American blockbusters from a young age creates the perception of Americans as smart, strong and brave. But because the development of Chinese films is much slower in comparison, there are few internationally-known Chinese movie stars, so the impression other countries have of Chinese people is vague.'
Photograph: @awkwafina via Instagram
The article then goes on to summarize, 'So far, the impression of Chinese people on the screen is ugly at worst and nonexistent at best.'
However, it's interesting to note that among some Chinese Americans (and Asian Americans in general), the sentiment is different. Many Asian Americans see Marvel's casting as an attempt at making amends for decades of racism and discrimination in Hollywood by taking direct steps towards more Asian American visibility and representation. Simu Liu himself has been outspoken about stereotypical portrayals of Asians in Hollywood, particularly of Asian masculinity, and isn't afraid to call out whitewashing in Hollywood.
Photograph: @yifei_cc via Instagram
In an appearance on the Canadian daytime talk show The Social
, Liu speaks candidly
about some of the racist stereotypes Asian men face: 'Imagine being a kid, growing up, and first of all having none of the girls want to date you, and hearing more than anything that people are just not into Asian guys... because of what's been put on us by the media, because of how we're portrayed, which is not as sexy men who like to take their shirts off, but as, you know, dorky, nerdy sidekicks. Not the main character of the story.'
In a recent Instagram post, Liu wrote that he hopes films like Shang-Chi can 'bring [East and West-raised Asians] closer together by opening a dialogue through which [they] can share culture with each other, and with the whole world'.