From dragon scales to the five elements of Chinese philosophy, production designer Sue Chan worked to incorporate numerous element into the set details of Marvel’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.”
From ancient worlds to San Francisco and a magical village protected by dragons, Chan and her team were faced with the mammoth task of striking a variety of moods as Simu Liu’s Shang Chi and the audience travel through these scenes.
A monotone palette was used for Wenwu’s (Tony Leung) world, forboding and devoid of art. The village was filled with saturated greens and nature, and Chan wove in red and gold, “which in Chinese culture are ubiquitous.”
Chan breaks down the magical world of “Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.”
What did it mean to you to be building this world of “Shang Chi?”
Being Chinese American, I was excited to do a movie that spoke to my culture, but also growing up with kung fu movies, I was over the moon about this idea of designing sets that would be used not just for stunts but kung fu.
We started to dig into the research, and it was interesting from the perspective of having this internalized understanding of Chinese culture and the things that I was exposed to as a Chinese American growing up in the Northeast. But synthesizing that with the specific details that are part of ancient Chinese culture. There’s so much richness to it and it’s a long history, and we couldn’t use everything, so it was about integrating certain things while honoring the specific story that Marvel and Destin were trying to tell.
How did you incorporate the research and influences into the production design?
We wanted to weave in certain motifs that would recur, and knowing that the movie was going to end at Ta Lo village. Li (Fala Chen) was the connection between Wenwu, that world and the real world. We wanted to make sure we connected those things.
The set was Wenwu’s compound which undergoes three transformations. There’s the compound in ancient times when he gathers the rings and becomes the powerful man that he is. He uses that compound not as his home, but as a training ground for his army. The courtyard was centered around the logo for the 10 rings, and you see it embedded in the ground in an ancient script.
When he meets Li in the bamboo forest, you see the 10 rings, versus her style of kung fu. We wanted blue to bring her world into their home, and what she does to transform that cold fortress into a home. We replaced the logo in the courtyard with a beautiful garden, and the garden was filled with plant life that you would, later on, see in the village. Four flowers were representing each of the four cardinal directions. If you look closely at the carvings in the doors, each side is represented and those plants turn up again in Ta Lo. We replaced the logo in the courtyard with a beautiful mosaic of a phoenix, and again, that’s just another clue.
The story also features Li giving her children pendants that fit into the carved dragon’s eyes. He is the protector watching over this cave by the mountain and it’s carved into this mosaic tile which again later represents the magical village.
There’s so much in the world of the Ta Lo village, what was it like building that set?
We had to find a sizable place where we could have some privacy because we didn’t want anything leaking out. So, we found this reservoir just outside of Sydney. It had a big open space on this slightly hilly spot so we took it over.
We built the village and centered the ancestral temple around everything. The ancestral village was surrounded by different buildings that had different functions. There’s an armory, a potter house and a schoolroom. Those details were important to understand that this was a place for real people.
We used a lot of very traditional Chinese architectural motifs. We looked at the Tang and Song dynasties for style guidance because decoratively speaking, we liked the symbolism, the styles and colors. But we used a lot from everywhere because it’s not a particular era of China and not specific to a dynasty. We used a lot of bamboo, a lot of it was real as well as some artificial.
We worked the five elements into the design of fire, water, wood, stone and metal. Those elements in harmony are supposed to produce perfect synthesis and balanced life, so the villagers would have course adhere to these notions. Everything that looks like stone was made out of foam. There’s a lot of steel and a lot of foam.
We replaced the metal with the dragon scale which you see in the weapons and the costumes. It was just fun to take some really great strong fundamental concepts that were rooted in Chinese culture and then run with them.
Were there clichés that you wanted to avoid in the visual motifs?
We were very cognizant of being respectful and responsible about the way we conveyed Chinese culture because there’s so much to it. It’s about the details. If you are legitimate and honest and how you show the way people live, and that there’s a grounding in reality, you’re going to succeed. We never said, ‘Oh, we can’t do this or that because that means that.’
We had the luxury and tolerability of it not being rooted in a specific time and the story doesn’t tell you exactly when that happens. We were going back a thousand years when he gained his powers, and that’s where we started. His home is a traditional courtyard that turns into this fortress. It’s brutalist architecture, and we added to it.
As long as you’re showing things the way they should be shown, and that the characters are realistic, while still being superheroes, I think you’ll do fine.