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Shang-Chi star Simu Liu on playing Marvel’s first Asian superhero: ‘Feels like a moment in culture’

Chinese-Canadian star Simu Liu says he is aware that being the first Asian to headline a Marvel film comes with huge responsibility and hopes his work in Shang-Chi will speak to an audience that has rarely found “aspirational, heroic” representation on screen.

Liu has headlined Marvel Studios’ martial arts superhero film Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, scheduled to be released in the country on September 3.

The 32-year-old actor said he realises that his work in the film isn’t just any “role” as it comes with the responsibility of representation. “It feels like an incredible honour, like we are giving the world something that I never had as a kid, which is the ability to see myself reflected on screen, in a meaningful, aspirational, heroic way. There is a certain responsibility that comes with that as well.

“I don’t want to call it pressure, but there is a sense that this is more than just a role that you take, go to work, say lines and go home. This is a moment in culture, a moment in history and hopefully, it will be followed by many more just like it.”

For the China-born actor, who migrated to Canada at the age of five, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings serves as a testimony that dreams come true, especially for those who may have struggled to see themselves represented in pop culture.

But as much as Liu tries not to take any pressure, there are days when he feels anxious about people’s expectations from him. “Sometimes it gives me a little bit of anxiety knowing that there is this kind of stuff resting on my shoulders. Other times, it feels incredibly empowering because I would have given anything to have had somebody, when I was younger, to look up to and show me what was possible.

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“My hope is that it doesn’t matter if you are six years old or 16 or 26… Shang-Chi will be a movie that people will be able to watch and understand that anything is possible for them,” he said.

Directed by Daniel Destin Cretton, the film is set after the events of Avengers: Endgame (2019) and follows Shang-Chi who is drawn into the clandestine Ten Rings organisation, and is forced to confront the past he thought he left behind.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is Liu’s first major feature film, after his work as an extra in filmmaker Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 sci-fi actioner Pacific Rim and later his lead role in popular Canadian sitcom Kim’s Convenience.

In a crucial scene in the superhero movie, which will be released in India in English, Hindi, Telugu and Kannada, Liu’s character is told that the trajectory of his life is just about to change.

The actor said that statement holds true even for him, as everything will turn around once the film is seen by the world.

“We don’t want to give too much away for our viewers but it meant a lot to me to film that (sequence). It was a very momentous day not only because of what was being said but also who was saying it. I felt that, as that person was speaking to me in character, those words sent a chill down my spine because they not only spoke to Shang Chi but also to Simu.

“Recently, I walked the red carpet at Hollywood boulevard. As we premiered the movie to the world, it really just felt like, ‘Oh my goodness, life is never going to be the same after this moment.’”

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Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings also stars Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen, Florian Munteanu, Benedict Wong and Michelle Yeoh.

Hong Kong star Tony Leung, known for his collaborations with director Wong Kar-wai in international classics such as In the Mood for Love, Chungking Express and 2046, is playing Wenwu, Shang-Chi’s father and the main villain in the movie.

Liu said the most challenging aspect of the film was getting the physicality of the superhero right and it required him to train for months.

While Shang Chi is the master of kung fu, Liu quipped he only came with the experience of doing gymnastics in his backyard with friends and “almost breaking his neck” while performing backflips.

“So, that was the level I was at and the level I knew I had to rise to, in order to convincingly play somebody who is that good at martial arts and proficient at hand-to-hand combats. Pretty much from the day I got cast, I started working,” he said.

Liu said he worked hard with his trainers in Toronto and had an entire stunt team at his disposal when he landed in Sydney in October 2019, just three months before the film’s shooting.

“I would train for hours every day, not only on fight choreography but also on the theory of martial arts, the fundamentals and most importantly, the stretching,” he added.

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