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Meng’er Zhang Talks About Learning Martial Arts From Scratch For Marvel’s Shang-Chi! This Film And Its Badass Women!

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I’m aware that not everyone in the country has had a chance to watch Marvel’s latest superhero outing, Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings yet. And if you’e someone who has been able to dodge spoilers like Shang-Chi dodged Razor Fist’s machete arm, then you can rest assured, we’re going to keep this spoiler free as well. But what I cannot contain anymore is my sheer, unadulterated love for the women of Shang-Chi, Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen and Michelle Yeoh, who both on and off the screen are total badasses. I mean sure, there’s plenty to drool, with both Simu Liu and Tony Leung (and his arms!) doing some killer martial arts action, but these ladies get to kick some bad guy ass too, and let me tell you, in some scenes, they look a shade better than the guys doing it!

But here’s something that I didn’t know when I watched the movie, found out later, and was even more blown away by it. Meng’er Zhang, who plays Xu Xialing, Shang-Chi’s sister with such flair and aplomb, had not had any martial arts training before the movie!

Below are excerpts from a transcript, where Zhang talks at length about landing her MCU gig, the martial arts she learnt for the role and more. There’s even this one bit, which makes me think playing a hero was always in her destiny!

Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) in Marvel Studios’ SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

Meng’er Zhang On finding out she had gotten the role….

“Five days after my screen-test, I got a very long message from my lawyer, I didn’t read the whole thing, I scrolled down to the bottom and saw ‘Welcome to the Marvel Universe!’ I couldn’t stop smiling! It felt so right because I felt very strongly connected to the character of Xialing, and I felt all my hard work had paid off.”

“[I was] not scared once I got the part, but I definitely told myself a thousand times ‘don’t mess up’. And actually I didn’t have time to be nervous or scared, because they immediately got me into intense training for the role.”

About her training to play Xialing and the different kinds of martial arts she had to learn….

“It was intense. I remember how excited I was on my first training day. We had a personal trainer, we had stunt trainers, we had a medical team on standby, we had a diet plan prepared, and we got paid! It’s the best thing ever! And after one week, I didn’t even have the energy to have a conversation, and I craved fast food so bad!”

“[I learnt] MMA, Tai Chi, and rope dart. I didn’t have any martial arts background before, but when I got to learn them, I really enjoyed, and fully understood why they call them arts. MMA helped me build awareness of my surroundings. Tai Chi taught me the best and easiest ways to clear my mind and breath. Rope dart was really hard for me at the beginning. I tried so hard to hit the target and ended up hitting myself instead. Master Tang, my rope dart trainer, told me not to try to control it, but rather feel it. When I moved through feeling, only then, I found the connection.”

Meng’er Zhang on Simu Liu and their real-life bond….

“He’s like a real brother to me. We are both the only child in our families. We fight like siblings, and we care for each other like siblings. He’s ruthless to me in every VR game, but he always fills my plate with food, so I don’t complain. We celebrated birthdays together too. I think it really makes our on-screen chemistry very believable.”

If you’ve seen the trailer, Zhang’s Xialing definitely kinda sorta kicks her brother’s arse! Xialing actually ties in for my second favourite character in the film, along with her brother, Shang-Chi (first is Wenwu/The Mandarin!) because she really is a character with so much potential! She has a rich backstory—she’s a woman who had a troubled childhood but instead of letting it sink her, she swam across the tide and emerged on the other side. We see her martial arts skills rival her brother and father’s, or even the Ten Rings’. And if the ending is any indication, she’s all set to become a key player in the game, like she always was meant to be.

On whether she ever saw herself as an action hero….

“Yes, I have a very strong sense of justice, and I would stand up for kids who got bullied. So, I think I could see it.”

Also Read: ‘Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings’ Review: A Marvel Origin Story That Looks Stunning, Is True To Its Asian Heart, And Has Action That Kicks Ass

(L-R): Wenwu (Tony Leung) and Ying Li (Fala Chen) in Marvel Studios’ SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

Before we see Meng’er Zhang in all her fighting glory, we see Fala Chen as her Li goes up against Tony Leung’s Mandarin. And to call it a ‘fight sequence’ would be underplaying just beautiful and fluid this ‘dance’ between the two is. It’s choreographed, shot and performed in such a mesmerising way that you’ll probably feel your jaw drop. I know I did mine.

For Wuxia fans, Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is quite the gold standard. And Shang-Chi director Destin Daniel Cretton has cited it as one of the films that heavily inspired the martial arts sequences (supervised by the late Brad Allan) in the film. The film also stars Michelle Yeoh (Ying Nan) who starred in CTHD as well, and as expected, her action too is just as graceful and deadly. Clearly, Shang-Chi gets to learn from the best in the business! However, I’d like to think the similarity between both films doesn’t just end with action inspiration and a shared star. Just like Crouching Tiger, Shang-Chi too has strong underlying themes that tackle gender bias which eventually gets shattered in the end when the women prove to be just as worthy warriors, maybe even better, than the men.

(L-R): Ying Nan (Michelle Yeoh) and Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) in Marvel Studios’ SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

And while on one side of the story, we had these two female characters who were self-actualised and who knew who they were, what they were, there are also two other female characters who may seem okay but are actually plagued by tremendous self-doubt, either from being told they’re not good enough because of being women, or because there’s just too much pressure to excel.

Also Read: Here’s Why Marvel’s Eternals, Directed By Chloé Zhao, Is A Pretty Big Deal For Women In Comic Book Movies

Awkwafina, who plays Shang-Chi’s BFF Katy, is an incredibly fun character, which is usually played in superhero movies by a guy, as the hero’s sidekick of sorts who goes on to accomplish a few missions of their own. And that’s that. Fortunately, Katy gets a lot more layers, one of which involved her confused sense of self-identity, which she actually shares with our hero. As a descendent of Asian immigrants in America, she has a lot of pressure to make something out of her life, so that her parents and grandparents’ hard work and sacrifices aren’t in vain. It takes her a while to find her bearings, and requires someone to really push her to do it, but once she does find her target, she shoots her shot and hits bullseye! And despite her own perceived ‘shortcomings’, she goes on ahead to make Xu Xialing realise that she is amazing to have accomplished what she has at such a young age. Katy is *heart sign*!

(L-R): Katy (Awkwafina) and Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) in Marvel Studios’ SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

Evidently, what I particularly love about this MCU blockbuster that is currently breaking records worldwide is that its female characters aren’t just sidekicks or around to further the hero’s journey of self-discovery. They’re three-dimensional characters who have their own arcs that progress organically and satisfactorily, without seeming too forced, like a certain women empowerment ‘girl power’ moment in Avengers: Endgame that though appreciated in the sentiment of the moment, received criticism for being obviously token and unnecessary in hindsight. Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings, then, does a splendid job of putting its point about gender equality and women empowerment forward without sounding too preachy or obvious about it.

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