Who is Xialing from Shang-Chi the Legend of Ten Rings? Meet MCU's new star, Meng'er Zhang
Meng’er is part of this historic movie which, for the first time, gives the Asian community its very own Marvel hero
With the worldwide release of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the Marvel Cinematic Universe gets another new superhero. While Chinese-Canadian actor Simu Liu plays the titular character, a new face — Meng’er Zhang — makes her debut in the much-anticipated Marvel production. There’s little information available about the Chinese actress on the Internet, but her Instagram account is slowly heating up with interviews and pictures from publicity shoots. Meng’er is part of this historic movie which, for the first time, gives the Asian community its very own Marvel hero. While American actors have always ruled the roost, Shang-Chi comes as a breath of fresh air.
With the movie, Shang-Chi’s origin story is being set up before he is inducted into the big league. The narrative follows Shaun, an Asian-American working-class professional and his journey to becoming the superhero Shang-Chi. The role of his character’s sister Xialing, who runs an underground fight club in Macau, is portrayed by Meng’er. The actress delivers an impactful performance as the complex Xialing who is an equally capable martial artiste and fighter like her brother. “Xialing is someone you don’t want to mess with because she can kick some butt. She is very complex and has many layers to her. Although she has a cold and unapproachable exterior, she also has a sincere and vulnerable part deep down inside of her. She knows how to stand her ground and really use it. I love her. I felt strongly connected to her since the beginning of my journey,” explains Meng’er in our Zoom interview.
Bagging this role was sheer serendipity for Meng’er. An audition call message on a WhatsApp group conveyed the requirement for a girl who could speak in Chinese and English. Out of curiosity the actress sent her tapes. “I didn’t know I was auditioning for a Marvel film. Only when they called me for a screen test with Simu, I realised I was auditioning for Shang-Chi. I was very excited! After five days, I got a really long message from my lawyer. I didn’t read through it, I just scrolled down to the bottom, and saw, ‘Welcome to the Marvel Universe,’ I was like ‘wow!’” she enthuses.
The actress could not reveal this big news to anyone, not even her parents because she had signed an NDA. But when she finally had to board the plane for America, she broke the news to them. “They couldn’t believe me but they were so excited! Later, they bought everything from the toy store – all the Lego set of Shang-Chi and all the other action figures – they literally cleaned up the store. These toys are all over our home now. They are big fans!” she says.
Packing a punch
The narrative, like all other Marvel movies, has some high-octane action scenes, and in addition to this, Shang-Chi puts Eastern martial arts in the spotlight. Though Meng’er isn’t a trained martial artiste, the actress has aced the scenes with her skilled moves. “I was flown in four months before the shoot began, for the preparation. It was intense but fun. You can actually hear Simu and I screaming in the movie, on the stunt stage, when we were being pulled from both ends during an action sequence. This was the most painful part! But I am a lot more flexible now. I trained in MMA, tai chi and rope dart. I learnt a lot, now I understand why they are called arts,” says the actress who is continuing her martial arts training because she was happy with the progress she had made and didn’t want to let go of it.
While most Marvel narratives explore romantic relationships between the protagonists, Shang-Chi highlights the importance of family life, which reflects Asian values. Xialing’s equation with her brother is complicated. “Simu and I are both only children. However, the brothersister chemistry on screen came naturally to us. He is like my big brother and he really took good care of me. I still remember the first day of my training, I was so excited. He came to have lunch with me, and I told him, ‘We have our own personal trainers, we have multiple stunt trainers, and we have a meal plan prepared every day for us and we get paid as well. It’s the best thing!’ Simu had already trained for a month, so he looked at me, and said, ‘It’s your first day and I will ask you again after a week.’ At the end of the week, I had no energy to talk to anyone, I really craved fried chicken. So that night he took me for a meal and these cheat meals became a tradition,” she recollects. The first scene bet-ween the two actors in the movie is explosive. The duo face each other in a fight ring. Meng’er says, “I really punched him in the face. It was an accident, I didn’t mean to do it. But I felt good,” she says with a laugh.
The movie features a predominantly East Asian cast and has names like Michelle Yeoh, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Awkwafina and Fela Chen in pivotal roles. Sir Ben Kingsley plays a hilarious role and adds his golden touch to this highly entertaining movie. For a newcomer, there couldn’t have been a better film set to be on, and Meng’er says she learnt something new from all of them. “It was like a masterclass every day. I had watched Michelle’s movies and I thought she is a serious person. But actually she can be pretty goofy. Tony’s work ethic is amazing. He would never go back to his trailer and he never had any demands. He never brought his phone to set and would always be ready for the shot. I feel I can watch his performance under a microscope to learn more. All those details in his acting just made me go ‘wow.’ And Sir Ben, I literally took notes every time I spoke with him,” says the actress.
The movie is all the more special for Meng’er because when she started shooting, little did she know that she would find the love of her life. The actress got married to one of the movie’s action designers. “I met my husband Yung Lee on this movie. Yeah, it just happened. We didn’t plan anything for our wedding but the production team threw a really big party for us. Simu took us on a Disney Land trip to surprise us, and Awkwafina booked a whole venue and hosted a big karaoke party. We all sang at the top of our voices and the next day, we lost our voices. We had a lot of fun. It was like a really loving family.”
With this movie, the Asian community is in the spotlight. While there are scenes in the film that make fun of the West’s perception of the East, it’s all done in jest. Meng’er understands the importance of her role, and a movie like this that is targeted at a young audience. “Asian representation is very important and I take it as a serious responsibility. Asian kids who grow up in Western countries now have a superhero whom they can look up to and say, ‘He looks like me.’ It’s amazing. I feel super proud. I am very lucky to be a part of this movie,” she says.
The actress also reveals how she was keen to breakaway from the Asian female stereotype that’s often portrayed in Hollywood movies. “Originally, my character had red extensions under my natural black hair, and we had shot with it for a month. One day, I read an article in a teen magazine that spoke about how Asian female characters in Hollywood films always have some colour in their hair to show that they are rebels, that they are tough and can fight. I didn’t want my character to follow that. So, I called our director Destin (Daniel Cretton), and asked him if we could take that out. The next day, we got rid of the extensions and the entire team was very supportive of this decision and it felt like they really cared,” says Meng’er.
In conclusion, the actress says she learnt a lot from Xialing and a part of her character will always remain in her heart.
Releases in theatres today