TORONTO — Simu Liu says “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is a watershed moment for Asian representation in Hollywood.
The Chinese-Canadian actor stars as the titular kung fu master — the first Asian-American superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — in the epic superhero story opening Friday.
“I kind of love being a superhero,” Liu, who was born in China and largely grew up in the Greater Toronto Area, said in a recent video interview.
“Forty years from now if they want to do another one, I can’t honestly say that I would say no. I think I would just limber up and try to do it.”
But “there are so many things that need to happen” to ensure the milestone moment isn’t the last, added the star of the recently ended CBC sitcom “Kim’s Convenience.”
Studios must pay attention to the quality and success of the Asian-led “Shang-Chi” he said, noting audiences who’ve caught early screenings have responded “so passionately.”
Movie executives also need to “understand that great things can happen when you allow these stories to be told, and when you feature voices that have not traditionally been heard.”
“It’s also a responsibility on the part of the consumers to continue to support content that is diverse and challenges the status quo,” Liu said.
“It’s also a call to action for every creative, every actor, director, screenwriter of colour watching this movie. This is a watershed moment. Now it’s our time to step into the light and to work really, really hard, because we have to be good above all else. None of this would work if the movie weren’t of the quality that it was.”
Indeed, Liu put in the work, which included four months of physical pre-training, and another month in Sydney, Australia where the film was shot during the pandemic.
Hawaiian-born filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton, whose previous credits include “Just Mercy,” directed and co-wrote the story.
Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham also co-wrote the screenplay, which changes some of the origin story of Shang-Chi, who first appeared in Marvel Comics in the 1970s.
As in the comics, Shang-Chi in the film is the son of a Chinese criminal mastermind. But this time his estranged father is a more nuanced and complex character named Xu Wenwu, rather than the comic’s Fu Manchu, a deeply problematic character that perpetuated racist Asian stereotypes.
Hong Kong star Tony Leung plays Xu Wenwu, a.k.a. the Mandarin, leader of the Ten Rings Organization who trained his son to be a deadly martial arts great before Shang-Chi moved to San Francisco to start a new life.
The cast includes Chinese-American comedy star Awkwafina as Shang-Chi’s best friend, Chinese theatre actor Meng’er Zhang as his sister, and Malaysian film veteran Michelle Yeoh as his aunt.
Its Asian-American storytellers give the film an “advantage of authenticity,” said Liu, crediting Cretton with capturing “the subtleties of being Asian-American.”
Among the cultural elements in the film: characters speaking Mandarin.
“I think there is A: such a beauty in seeing that portrayed in this film. And then B: of course it’s so empowering just to hear the beauty and the melodiousness of that language,” said Liu.
“It’s a language that I grew up speaking, so it has a special significance for me and for so many people watching.”
Born in Harbin in northeast China, Liu was initially raised by his grandparents while his parents pursued graduate studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. When he was five, his father brought him to Canada and the family lived in Etobicoke and Mississauga, Ont.
To appease his parents, he attended the Ivey School of Business at Western University and got a job in accounting.
But he started pursuing his true passion of acting when he was laid off.
Liu recalled breaking the news to his parents when he booked a national Bell cellular plan commercial.
“As immigrants with no support system, with no fallback plan, no Plan B — uncertainty was the one thing that scared them the most and the one thing they wanted to mitigate by having a good career that paid enough to put food on the table and afford a stable lifestyle,” he said.
“That’s really all they ever wanted to pass on to their child — I’m an only child — was this idea of stability. And so of course, when their only son then goes on to be like, ‘I want to be an actor,’ they’re understandably very shocked.”
Liu gained acclaim on the OMNI crime drama “Blood and Water” and then “Kim’s Convenience” as Jung, the charismatic son in a Korean-Canadian family who run a corner store in Toronto.
Landing “Shang-Chi” is the icing on the cake.
“I had a little ‘I told you so’ moment with them but it was all in jest,” Liu said with a laugh as he discussed his parents attending “Shang-Chi“‘s Hollywood premiere with him last week.
“They were just beaming the whole time. They looked so cute. They were like the stars of the premiere.”