Shang-Chi Star Fala Chen On What It's Like To Be Gazed Upon By Tony Leung [Interview]

"The dead mother" has always been a rather thankless role. Eternally graceful in death and lovely in memory, the dead mother is less a character than she is a plot device — lending a depth to a lead character's trauma and angst, and gone long before the events of a movie even start.

But Fala Chen plays more than just the dead mother in "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings." Her character Ying Li is a warrior and a mystical figure in her own right — who instills goodness in a young Shang-Chi, yes, but can hold her own in a fight against Tony Leung's ageless Wenwu, and win.

That's how we first meet her in "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings," as a mysterious woman from an ancient hidden village that Wenwu's Ten Rings organization is trying to uncover. She immediately attacks Wenwu, and they twirl and leap around each other in the film's most dazzling wuxia-inspired fight. Each punch and kick they trade is a breathtaking piece of fight choreography by the late Brad Allan, but even more breathtaking are the long looks and loaded glances they share in this first encounter.

"That is how I met your father," Ying Li tells a young Shang-Chi (Jayden Zhang) as part of a bedtime fairy tale.

It's the kind of meet-cute that befits grand, epic romances, and one that Chen and Leung play with an unruffled serenity — a serenity that Chen admits she did not feel when she was shooting it. This was her first scene she shot, and she had to fight and fall in love with Hong Kong legend Tony Leung, whose eyes have been the subject of many an academic essay (or a raving blog post).

"I forgot all my moves. I was blushing and it was like my heart was racing. I mean, it's impossible to just stay calm and cool," Chen told me over Zoom ahead of the release of "Shang-Chi." She added, "And I asked the production to have someone to basically calm me down."

I chatted with Chen about learning tai chi for the role, how she made her mark on a character with only a handful of scenes, and — most importantly —what it was like to be gazed upon by Tony Leung.

"I felt like I was very much present in the whole story."

To prepare for the role, I think it was said that you practiced tai chi. How else did you prepare to play Ying Li?

My personal training prior to the shoot was about a month, and it was a full-time, 9-to-5 schedule every day. And they schedule it so well that we had different classes, different training sessions throughout the day. Initially, it was a lot, physically. I was sore right after the first day. I almost couldn't walk. But then we got into it and then I really enjoyed learning the form of tai chi, which is a beautiful, very elegant type of the style.

But once I got to know tai chi a little bit more, because I was training with a world champion of tai chi, and I learned more about the philosophy behind it, and also how hard it is to perfectly keeping everything in balance. It's always round. Everything is in motion. There's never a static moment at all. So it was really, really hard.

It looks so easy. It probably looks like the softest and easiest movements, but it's so particular. It takes years and years of practice. And we got a crash course of a couple weeks. And so I had to use my actor's imagination to really fake it, to make it look very easy and smooth. But it was a lot of fun.

And then the actual shoot, we spent a lot of time on set being hoisted up on the rigs. That was my first time being on a, they call it a lollipop, where you're hoisted on a ring. But it's a ring inside a ring, so that I can spin 360 in air. And also, not only 360 horizontally, but vertically. But it was really hard to control. They use a lot of core power to control your bearings. So that took quite some time for me to figure that out and to be safe.

But yeah, it was a lot of first times for me as well, and I really, really enjoyed it. And I'm so glad to see the final product, because we didn't get to see it for the longest time. But seeing it all put together, it looks so amazing. Even more so than when we first shot it.

This was one of the first martial arts-forward roles that you've taken. Were you nervous going into that — with other people in the cast having a lot of background in martial arts — coming into such a large production and taking on a very martial arts-heavy role?

No, I wasn't really nervous, because I felt like I had some backgrounds in it, and I also was trained in drama school with stage combat and all of that. But because I think all of us were relatively new to martial arts, besides Tony who has done "The Grandmaster" and all of that. So he's very experienced.

But Tony, in a way, he's always so humble. He made us feel like he's also one of us too. So we're complaining like, "Ah, this stretch is so painful and hard." And Tony is like, "Yeah, I don't know how to do it either." He was just being so humble, because he learned the same fight it took me a couple of weeks to learn. He learned it in two days.


So we're like, "Tony, you say you didn't know how to do this." And he's like, "Well, I'm trying to figure it out." And I was like, "Oh my God, we got to catch up. We got to practice harder." But me, Simu, and Meng'er [Zhang] were just... Sometimes we had meal plans, we had to eat certain meals that they planned for us. We were little comrades, trying to escape those rules. So we're like, "Let's go out to have lunch, have sushi today. There's the farmer's market, let's go get salad."

And so we were literally training together. But at the same time, we're having a lot of fun together, and learning from each other too, and helping each other. It's a lot of fun to stretch Simu, because he screams. He screams really loudly. It's kind of fun. I'm like, "Simu, sit down." And I would just push his legs and he goes, "Ah!" So I had a lot of fun doing that.

"It's impossible to just stay calm and cool."

So can we talk about that first scene with you and Tony Leung, where your characters meet for the first time, and you have that wonderful fight scene? First, I just want to ask, what is it like to be gazed upon by Tony Leung?

What do you imagine it feels like?

I imagine my heart racing, my mouth drying, everything.

Exactly. I forgot all my moves. I was blushing and it was like my heart was racing. I mean, it's impossible to just stay calm and cool. I remember that my first day on set was already that scene with Tony. And I asked the production to have someone to basically calm me down. I had a teacher on set to relax me, to ground me, basically. And I was training with her as well, because she really helped me to release a lot of muscle tensions.

But I specifically asked her to be on set, on that day. She practices form of relaxation called Alexander Technique, so it really releases all your tension and really grounds you. And I'm so glad I had that, because that was really, really helpful, because I was so nervous and I was blushing. And I was just watching him nonstop, like a stalker. And I was like, "I need to get into my character, and I need somebody to put her hands on me." And that all worked out.

But then by day two, Tony being Tony, so easy and calm, he brought such a calm energy to the set. He's always so focused and prepared. That really helped me also to get into that space as well.

And that fight that you guys perform, the choreography is beautiful. The scene itself is very gorgeous. It's very wuxia-inspired. How much of it was the choreography, and how much of it was digitally enhanced, in addition to the lollipop that you used to make you basically fly for a lot of the sequence?

Right. This scene, we really tried to stay true to the wuxia spirit. And how it was shot, you can see there are a lot of long camera movement, longer length. Actually, with the edit, you only see the special effects with the leaves around us and all of that. But most of the hand-to-hand combat was mostly done by us. There's no special effects to it.

But I thought that's the beauty, and also that vulnerability and that falling in love, that scene. That's what that scene is about. So I'm really thankful for Destin for his direction, for that scene.

So you don't get that many scenes in the film, but your character's importance to the rest of the characters is established early on. How do you go about playing a character who casts such a big shadow over the film, with so few scenes?

That's a very good question. I think I had such rich backstory that was given to me, that I felt like I was very much present in the whole story in that way, like you said. And it was very easy to just piece out the timelines of everything.

But I also got to spend a lot of time with the cast, who you don't see scenes between us, but I got to know a lot of the cast very, very well. We became best friends. Simu and Meng'er especially, even though they play my kids later on in life, but I got to know them very intimately. We would almost hang out every day, especially during that training period. So it felt like I already had all of those backstories in my mind, in my body, and I was ready to play.

And I have to ask this, but there's probably no chance of you appearing in future Marvel productions. Is there, perhaps?

I'm not sure. Because I very much hope I would come back, because you never know. With the Marvel Universe, you can travel time, you can travel space. You can become different shape and form. There's so much magic in this world that I think anything can happen.

"Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" hits theaters on September 3, 2021.