Mortal Kombat and Liu Kang’s Dead Brother
You aren't going to find a better analysis of Chan Kang's influence on Liu Kang in the Mortal Kombat movie anywhere else, believe us.
I keep forgetting about Liu Kang’s dead brother.
It is literally the first scene of the movie after that awesome intro; a pretty brutal scene of his death and a threat about the fate of our hero before what some would call a bit of ugly CGI.
Referring to Liu Kang as the hero of Mortal Kombat has always felt a bit wrong, because he isn’t the most classically minded champion of good, but at a closer look, he does fit into Joseph Campbell’s script of how the proposed journey should go. I love this movie, but he’s by far not one of my favorite characters and I have to understand when people say they find him a bit boring. The reason he’s in the tournament is to avenge his brother, who, from everything we hear, was much better at this whole, “being the chosen one” thing than Liu, except for that dying part.
“Despair is the most dangerous fear of all.”
Revenge as a motivation works well in some movies, especially in a good 80s action film, but I want Liu Kang to be more focused on saving Earth instead of his own selfish goals, and when he isn’t, I find myself yelling internally at him. Besides, Sonya Blade has the revenge angle down pat for this ensemble. Liu knows so much about what is going on, the gods, the tournament, how important it is to Earthrealm, but he doesn’t want to believe, and even after the fighting has begun it takes a while for him to accept being the chosen one. To be fair to Liu’s lack of true calling, Raiden almost has to be there as the protector of the realm, and caring for his precious mortals, as well, Johnny Cage has one of the best journey’s, with the motivation of proving himself to be a legit fighter, but those motivations are better than a dead nameless brother.
Wait, what was his brother’s name? Chan!
Let’s break Liu Kang’s journey down a bit more though, keeping Campbell’s qualifications in mind.
Our Shaolin warrior starts off in the ordinary world, an apartment bathed in green after a nightmare, far away from his people and brother, making his death even harder. Liu blames himself, thinking he should have been there, and this becomes the motivation to return home and figure out what really happened. The ordinary world isn’t shown much here, but viewers know what that is like without much explanation, and the tension when he reaches the Temple of Light helps to show how different his former life was. This is something that Liu has fought against since he rebelled in his youth, leaving the temple, but this scene explains all of the stakes surrounding Mortal Kombat. After Raiden has to prove to Liu that what is happening is real and people do have lightning powers, he and Grandfather Kang also try to convince the hero that vengeance can’t be his only reason for going or he’ll fail. This call to arms opens up the conflict at a good pace and sets the stage for adventure.
“Spare him, my Lord Raiden, American life has enfeebled his mind. Too much television.”
Every hero must attempt to refuse the call though, and for Liu this happened mostly when he was young and the audience doesn’t directly see the rebellious child who didn’t believe the crazy stories about other realms and fighting tournaments that decide the fate of the universe, but it is mentioned enough. I can see where he was coming from. Kang still doesn’t believe though, even after the lightning show, not until later. Raiden sheds some light on this, accusing Liu of fearing the responsibility that comes with being the hero, worried that he will die. Everyone in this type of situation needs a mentor, which is obviously supposed to be Raiden, but I don’t think that really hits until the group is on Shang Tsung’s boat; a vessel to leave the normal and ordinary behind.
Here they have just seen a man freeze and break Sonya’s gun and then their mentor drops a good bit of exposition before all of Earthrealm’s fighters have to face that this is real, even if it takes a bit to sink in. Liu knows some of this already from the stories though and he is quicker to pick things up, like telling Sonya on the island that her radio isn’t damaged, by mentioning the compass. Kitana also acts as a mentor, the mysterious woman on the enemy side who secretly wants to help, and acts as the love interest. She isn’t just a damsel in distress though or a future paramour for Liu, as her instructions on how to kill Sub-Zero is some of the most valuable advice he’s given through the whole journey. She looks good for an older woman.
After his acceptance on the boat, it feels like reaching Shang Tsung’s island is when Liu crosses the threshold. It’s a strange place, but also the point of no return. The events on the island will start off by establishing allies and enemies. Here, Liu Kang, Sonya Blade, and Johnny Cage pal around and realize they work well together after trying to follow Tsung, getting lost, and then jumped by a group of goons, where Raiden has to save them, which is their first test before the individual fights. All of that was after one of the most memorable scenes in the film when Sub-Zero shows off by freezing one of the henchmen, setting the dangerous and magical tone. Flawless victory indeed.
The heroes doing their individual fights for the beginning of the tournament is the approach, testing the waters and preparing for those real challenges that lie ahead. Think of it as a warm-up. Every journey has the ordeal, that moment where the hero faces the threat of real danger or even comes nearer to death. For Liu that was the fight with Sub-Zero, where he got hurt by, those supernatural powers, and needed help to win, and this was hammered home by seeing Art Lean viciously dismantled at the four hands of Goro.
“How very foolish, the true sign of a hero.”
The characters are each rewarded at different times, Sonya earlier with her revenge on Kano, Cage by conquering Goro and proving himself as a legit fighter, and for Liu it comes not just in the evil sorcerer’s defeat, but the forgiveness of his brother, who tells him to go in peace. In a way he is released from the pain that initially drove him here, and I guess with that whole saving the world thing out of the way, he could get back to selfish personal goals. Raiden had to give another little pep talk where he told the defenders of Earth why they would fail, but that seemed to light the fire they each needed to succeed. Normally the journey would send them back to the ordinary world at this time, but the deal that Johnny makes to fight Goro allowed the plot to leave Earth completely and see two of the heroes chasing our villain and his prisoner off to Outworld.
“I am the chosen one, alright!”
It’s a pretty epic final battle, one befitting a true hero, or someone motivated by something else enough to get the job done at least. Shang Tsung is a lethal opponent in this one-on-one battle, even taking the form of Liu’s dead brother, Chan, to try and throw him off, making that opening scene even more potent. I may not know his name still when he lets Liu off the hook for his death, but it does feel important, like a resurrection for the hero as he truly accepts being the chosen one. The movie ends pretty quickly after that. Campbell calls it the return with the elixir, where as in this case that magical bit is winning the tournament so Earth can be safe for the next generation and the hero’s welcome is the celebration back at the Temple of Light.
It’s peaceful, whole, and almost feels full circle, other than the fact that I doubt anyone there celebrating remembers Liu Kang has a dead brother, either. The hero and his allies were triumphant, each one has a sense of peace and accomplishment, and our main character admits that he was the one prophesied to do it all, returning the world as close to ordinary as he can get it. There is even a drop in cameo from Shao Kahn to show that new adventures are on the horizon. It’s really just too bad the second movie ruins all of that, though it helps lift this one as a true classic.
“To save the world is not nonsense.”
I’ve often wondered how much better Mortal Kombat would be if it centered on Sonya Blade, Johnny Cage, or even Art, following their achievements and how they would accept being the savior of Earthrealm versus what we got. Liu Kang is a capable but selfish hero, who doesn’t appreciate the game or how to play it. Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, for as horrible as it truly is, even attempts to show this, as he fights against his mentors, allies, and that horrible CGI animality. The movie even tries to make him a little less conventional by having someone who is non-white, not focusing on the love story, and have you seen the way he dresses with that weird hair?
Two of those things are illustrated well when Cage mistakes him for a dock worker and asks Liu to load his luggage. But it still doesn’t fit right to me though, because there is no true moment where he shines as a pure hero or transcends his own shortcomings. Perhaps Liu has a bit of an anti-hero flair in him, maybe there doesn’t need to be a true moment of selfless heroism, or perhaps I’m just the asshole who doesn’t understand and keeps forgetting about his dead brother.