September 7, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

There have now been 25 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it’s getting to the point where they are making films about superheroes that are incredibly niche, from way deep down in comic book lore. Such is the case with their latest film, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton. The film stars Chinese-Canadian actor Simu Liu as the eponymous Shang-Chi; Shang is the son of Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), a fearsome warrior who has been granted immortality due to his possession of the legendary Ten Rings, and now controls a powerful army of assassins and fighters who have been loyal to him for centuries. However, Shang has been estranged from his father for years, and now lives now an intentionally uneventful life in San Francisco’s Chinatown, working as a parking valet, and hanging out with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina). Everything changes for Shang when his father’s minions come looking for him, and he is reluctantly drawn back into his old life when he learns that his father is searching for the gateway to the mythical realm of Ta Lo – and that, if he finds it, the entire Earth could be in jeopardy.

The plot gets much more dense and complicated from there on out, bringing in aspects of ancient Chinese philosophy and mythology, as well as links to the plots of the original Iron Man, Iron Man 3, and Doctor Strange. I had never heard of the character before, but I definitely want to see more, because the film is great. I want to focus on two of the things I found most impressive; first, the fight sequences are beyond almost anything I have seen in western cinema before. Director Cretton blends the traditions of Chinese wuxia cinema – which was first introduced to American audiences with Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon in 2000 – with some of the fast-paced and occasionally comedic stunt work of Jackie Chan in his prime, resulting in some truly remarkable action sequences. The speed, intricacy, and physical strength of the actors and stunt performers is truly staggering. The second is the beauty of the film. Cretton, cinematographer William Pope, and production designer Sue Chan have made Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings a visual masterpiece; from the opening fight between Wenwu and Ying Li in a lush bamboo forest, to the neon-lit encounter between Shang and the Ten Rings fighters on a skyscraper in Macau, everything about the film has a gorgeous style that is not often present in films of this type, and it really struck me as something worth celebrating.

For the score, Marvel did something they don’t often do, and turned to a virtual unknown. Most Marvel movies up to this point have had composers who are at least reasonably established film music veterans: Alan Silvestri, Brian Tyler, Michael Giacchino, and so on. Ludwig Göransson was an outlier when he was hired to score Black Panther, and Pinar Toprak certainly was when she was hired for Captain Marvel, but Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings has the most out-of-left field composer ever in the shape of Joel P. West. San Diego-born West has been director Cretton’s composer-of-choice for all his previous films, including Short Term 12 in 2013, The Glass Castle in 2017, and Just Mercy in 2019, so I can only assume that West being hired for this film was part of Cretton’s contract stipulations. Nothing in West’s past work indicates that he was capable of marshaling the forces required for a Marvel superhero score – his work has been of the small-scale, indie movie type – but the music he has ultimately written for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is impressive in its scope.

The score was recorded with a 70-piece orchestra at Abbey Road studios in London, and features a traditional Chinese music ensemble including an erhu, xiao and dizi bamboo flutes, a guzheng zither, a pipa lute, a yangqin hammered dulcimer, and tanggu drums. This blending of eastern and western musical sensibilities is a perfect representation of the film’s culture clash, in which the modern world of Sheng and Katy collides head on with the very ancient mythology at the heart of the story. It also helps that the western orchestra/Chinese instrument blend is one of my all-time favorite film music mash-ups, as per terrific scores like Chris Young’s The Monkey King, Klaus Badelt’s The Promise, and several works by Rachel Portman.

The heart of the story of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is the notion of family, and how those bonds cause both friction and healing across the passage of time. As such, the film is anchored by four recurring themes related to the four central family members – Shang-Chi, his warlord father Wenwu, his mother Ying Li, and his sister Xialing. Shang-Chi’s theme anchors the opening cue, “Xu Shang-Chi,” a six note fanfare for brass surrounded by a massive amount of orchestral grandeur and clattering Chinese percussion, which emerges into a stately theme that speaks to the character’s heroism and noble destiny. There are some hints of Silvestri’s original theme for Captain America in some of the chord structure and phrasing – Captain China? – which might have been intentional, and grounds the sound in the Marvel musical universe.

Wenwu’s theme is introduced in “Your Father,” and is a slightly more mysterious and moody variation on the same six-note idea, re-orchestrated for deep, booming cellos, linking father and son together through music. The motif is surrounded by martial and war-like orchestrations for tremolo strings and snare drums, and these sounds tend to re-occur during moments where Wenwu is at the center of attention, or the Ten Rings army is on the attack, as in subsequent cues such as the massively impressive “Don’t Look Down,” and the more subdued and ominous “My Son is Home,” which uses a lamenting cello to show that Shang-Chi’s homecoming is not especially a cause for celebration.

The Chinese ensemble is at the forefront of “The Bamboo Spring,” which is the cue that underscores the gorgeously-filmed initial encounter between Wenwu and Ying Li, that starts as a fight but eventually turns into an unexpected courtship ritual. The fluttering metallic textures and rhythmic tapped percussion capture the gracefulness and elegance of Ying Li’s movements, while the underlying erhu melody leads directly into the subsequent “Your Mother,” which is the score’s first major statement of Ying Li’s theme. The erhu has always had a haunting quality to it, one part string instrument, one part voice, and that sound is a perfect encapsulation of the character’s charm – a woman who gave up her powers and her multi-dimensional home among the creatures of Chinese mythology for love. It’s a beautiful piece, tender and elegant, with some especially lovely interplay between erhu and cello.

There is another variation of Shang-Chi’s theme in “Training,” which blends his melody with the war-like percussion of his father’s theme, and then the subsequent “Brother and Sister” features a powerful clatter of tanggu drums and various other struck and hammered Chinese percussion instruments. The final recurring theme – for Shang-Chi’s sister Xialing – eventually emerges in “Three Days,” a warm but somewhat bittersweet cello motif that hints at the damaged and lonely soul hidden beneath a ruthless exterior.

Everything thereafter is built out of these four main themes; sometimes themes play in counterpoint as different family members face off against each other in physical or verbal combat, while elsewhere they play alone, often when one of the characters does something especially noble or important. Mostly, however, they feature as binding elements within the score’s numerous large-scale action sequences, which range from a gymnastic fight on some scaffolding high on the side of a skyscraper, to an enormous battle between spectacular flying dragons from Chinese mythology during the film’s finale.

“Revenge” is a terrific rampage of orchestral inventiveness, with metallic Chinese percussion ideas built directly into the rhythmic core of the piece. “Stay in the Pocket” increases in intensity and velocity as Shang-Chi, Katy, and their allies race through a magical haunted bamboo forest towards an enchanted waterfall… in a BMW? Shang Chi’s secondary theme gets a superb front-and-center statement in the stirring and emotional “The Waterfall,” resulting in a poignant meeting with his “Ancestors” in the mythical land of Ta Lo. To capture the verdant splendor of this land of mountains, forests, lakes, and dense foliage, West uses warm string ideas, cascading harp glissandi, and gorgeous Chinese colors, all to excellent effect.

“Who You Are” and “Is This What You Wanted?” are additional celebrations of tanggu drums and Chinese percussion instruments, similar to “Brother and Sister from earlier in the score, with the latter containing a more intense and vibrant statement of Wenwu’s theme offset against more reflective statements of Shang-Chi’s six-note motif. “Grief” has the emotional kick one would expect from a track with that title. After the imposing build-up and dramatic climax of “The Deep,” “Inheritance” underscores the scene where the power of the ten rings passes from father to son and Shang-Chi embraces his destiny; the rhythmic strength of Wenwu’s theme rages, and transfers to underpin Shang-Chi’s six-note motif, initiating the final battle between Shang-Chi and the Great Protector, and their fearsome adversary in the shape of the Dweller-in-Darkness. The final action sequences which underscore this battle, comprising “I Won’t Leave You Again” and “The Light and the Dark,” are the most expansive things West has composed in his career to date, and contain several statements of Shang-Chi’s six note motif, his heroic theme, and a more rousing version of Xialing’s theme, all surrounded by richly-orchestrated battle music.

The conclusive pair, “Qingming Jie” and “Family,” return to the more intimate sounds of Ying Li’s theme, and provide an appropriate coda to the carnage – brother and sister have been reconciled, father’s honor has been (partially) restored, and peace has returned to Ta Lo thanks to the Dweller-in-Darkness being vanquished. There are some lovely passages for erhu, flute, harp, and even a solo piano, which allow the score to end on a more tender note than one would expect.

If one was to make one criticism of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings it would be the fact that – despite all my preceding prose stating that the themes are all over the score – these themes are, in fact, somewhat tenuous unless you’re really, really listening. The six-note Shang-Chi motif is the most prominent and recognizable, and is likely to stand out, but the other four never really establish themselves as unique identities, and you could be forgiven for not really realizing they are there at all. Xialing’s theme is easily overlooked, Ying Li’s theme is really only noticeable when performed as an erhu solo, and Wenwu’s theme sometimes gets lost among the more ‘generic’ clattering percussion. It’s a shame, because the potential for musical conflict and thematic juxtaposition is strong, as the story allows the various relationships to shift alliances as priorities and enemies change.

Despite this, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings remains an enjoyable and creative score. The way West blends the western orchestra with the Chinese musical ensemble is impressive, and will especially appeal to anyone with an affinity for that type of musical cross-pollination. Some of the action is extremely engaging, especially when the tanggu drums get to take center stage, and some of his lyrical textures in the more romantic sequences, and in the scenes relating to Chinese mysticism, are really lovely. I doubt whether the score will have the longevity or public awareness that several of the other Marvel scores have achieved, but considering that this is Joel P. West’s first real foray into this kind of scoring, there are still plenty of positives to take away.

Buy the Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Xu Shang-Chi (2:56)
  • Your Father (3:14)
  • The Bamboo Spring (3:19)
  • Your Mother (2:06)
  • Training (1:56)
  • Brother and Sister (1:39)
  • Three Days (1:25)
  • Don’t Look Down (4:09)
  • Revenge (1:36)
  • My Son Is Home (2:20)
  • Zhe Zhi (2:56)
  • Together Soon (1:15)
  • Stay in the Pocket (1:46)
  • The Waterfall (2:29)
  • Ancestors (4:13)
  • Who You Are (2:40)
  • A Blood Debt (6:17)
  • Grief (2:06)
  • Is This What You Wanted? (3:18)
  • The Deep (2:36)
  • Inheritance (4:30)
  • I Won’t Leave You Again (4:14)
  • The Light and the Dark (1:47)
  • Qingming Jie (2:18)
  • Family (1:36)

Running Time: 68 minutes 29 seconds

Hollywood Records/Marvel Music (2021)

Music composed by Joel P. West. Conducted by Gavin Greenaway. Orchestrations by Mark Graham. Recorded and mixed by Peter Cobbin and Kirsty Whalley. Edited by Ramiro Belgardt. Album produced by Joel P. West.

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