In July 2019, Simu Liu stepped out on the stage in Hall H at Comic-Con as Kevin Feige announced him as the titular star of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. This was a huge moment for Marvel Studios as it was their first Asian-led comic book movie to be folded into the vast Marvel Cinematic Universe, but more than that, it was epic moment for the Asian and Asian American community because they were actually going to see somebody who represented them on screen.
Needless to say, Liu’s life changed as soon as he set foot on the stage with the likes of Kumail Nanjiani, Taika Waititi, Tessa Thompson, Brian Tyree Henry, Chris Hemsworth, Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie, Natalie Portman, Florence Pugh, Benedict Cumberbatch and the ragtag group from the MCU. The crowd erupted. There was wild fanfare. It was an event in history in which Liu joked, “It was a wonderful moment where all of Asian Hollywood collectively said, ‘Him?'”
OH MY GOD HE’S TOUCHING ME
OH MY GOD HE’S TOUCHING ME
OH MY GOD HE’S TOUCHING ME
OH MY GOD HE’S TOUCHING ME
OH MY GOD HE’S TOUCHING ME pic.twitter.com/9D5l6VTyI6
— Simu Liu (刘思慕) (@SimuLiu) July 25, 2019
Liu’s most known for his role in the series Kim’s Convenience, a family comedy about a Korean family running a convenience store in Toronto. The series, based on a play of the same name by Ins Choi, debuted in Canada before hitting Netflix and expanding its audience stateside (although the Asian community been knowing about it before it was on Netflix). Even before Shang-Chi, Liu appeared in the indie Women Is Losers which debuted in March 2021 at SXSW and also appeared TV series including Orphan Black, The Expanse, Fresh Off The Boat and appeared his Shang-Chi partner in crime Awkwafina’s Comedy Central series Nora From Queens.
That said, his “him?” joke about being cast as the lead of Shang-Chi may be funny, but Liu has been putting in the work as an actor — it’s just that the world was never formally introduced to him. Come September 3, that will all change. He will be thrown to the shark-infested waters of Hollywood and when Diaspora talked to him, he was fresh off a Reddit AMA, a barrage of interviews on his first press tour, three different premieres across the world, a debilitating case of jet lag and very little sleep — all in a day’s work for the MCU’s first Asian Avenger.
Shang-Chi is a huge boost for Asian representation, but the production of the film was done during a global pandemic and on top of that, there were the surge of Asian hate crimes, a racial reckoning, the Black Lives Matter movement, a changing America and as the film comes debuts, news headlines suggest that the world is on fire, flooding and deteriorating all at once.
On top of all that, there is this glaring spotlight on Liu as he becomes the poster child for Asian representation in Hollywood, leading a cast that includes the aforementioned Awkwafina, Tony Leung, Michelle Yeoh, Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen, Benedict Wong, and Ronny Chieng.
There is little to no Asian representation in film so as soon a project like Shang-Chi comes out, everyone — especially the Asian community — will dissect and pick it apart like vultures. I mean, with the release of this film in the midst of all these worldly events, I had to ask Liu: “Are you OK?”
“I’m doing OK,” Liu laughed. “I will say this: the week leading up to the premiere definitely threw me for a loop. That anticipation of that moment of finally introducing the film to the world and finally having the film reacted to and responded to, that I think gave me a lot of anxiety.”
He continued, “Not because I didn’t believe in our movie, but because I think it’s a natural state of mind for people who have been just nurturing and coddling this baby for the better part of a year and a half, and then finally being in a position where you have to give it away to the world.”
There is no way around it…Liu is a touchstone for the Asian and Asian American community with this groundbreaking film that opens the door even wider for Asian narratives. In it, the titular character must confront the past he thought he left behind when he is drawn into the web of the mysterious Ten Rings organization led by his father, the legendary Leung.
He, along with director Destin Daniel Cretton and screenwriter Dave Callaham (both of Asian descent by the way) met multiple times just talking about how important it was to make this film right for the community. They were aware of the source material and how it was a martial arts comic book that was written by white people in the 1970s. We won’t get into the specifics of it all, but at the end of the day, the comic was filled with stereotypes and, to put it bluntly, it was racist.
Liu said it was imperative that they modernize the character of Shang-Chi and that discard anything that didn’t work so that they could have a film that the community could finally rally behind and be proud of watching.
Everyone is still talking about the actor manifesting this role through a tweet he sent out in 2018 (a tweet that journalists have asked Liu about endlessly), but when he got the role, many people really did question “Him?” in a non-joking way — specifically in the Asian community. This potentially could have added more weight to this load of responsibility that Liu was facing, but he took it in stride.
“I have felt every single word of what everyone has said about me in terms of my looks, or my ability, or my qualifications — that’s all insecurity,” he said. “No one has said anything new to me that I have not already questioned in myself. I am an endless well of insecurity and anxiety.”
He went on to wax poetic stating that working with Cretton made him realize is that “embracing that imperfection and vulnerability is what makes us compelling…what makes us watchable.” He admitted that from the very beginning he was not cast for his insanely good looks or world-class martial arts ability. “I was being cast for my ability to play a character,” he said.
Liu added, “I think that runs counter to the thinking of a lot of us in the [Asian] community that, well, if we’re going to have an Asian superhero, he needs to be perfect in every single way. He cannot have a character flaw. He must be the tallest, the most handsome. He must embody the very best of all of us and we need to be able to hold him on that pedestal so that he can represent for each and every one of us.”
“I think what this character is is a celebration of humanity, imperfection, and is a character that embraces flaws, and embraces this kind of normality of everyday problems, and these struggles that we all have to find ourselves, and to come out of the shadows of our parents’ expectations.”
The cast and the spectacle of Shang-Chi clearly is a marker of Asian representation, but for Liu, its the smaller moments that made him realize that this movie was really something special for the Asian community. He refers to the moments between two Asian friends — him and Awkwafina’s character Katy — when they are both having a normal conversation about something other than bringing honor to your family, or having conversations about something other than the ancient, hidden secret technique of martial arts.
“It was just two people hanging out — and it sounds insane, but it’s like groundbreaking in a way,” said Liu. He also refers to a brief moment in the film it focuses on taking off their shoes before entering each other’s homes. “It was in just those tiny, little inflections of ‘Asianisms’ sprinkled throughout the movie that is almost blink and you miss it moment”
“I realized that these things do not happen without Asian-American storytellers at the helm,” he said. “These things cannot possibly be written by somebody who doesn’t understand the lived experiences and the subtleties. It’s in those moments that I just realized we’re doing something that’s going to be a net positive for the community. We’re not going to get a bunch of Asian people together and then make a movie that ultimately doesn’t serve our interest or doesn’t help us in any way.”