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How an action designer and an actor fell in love on the set of Shang-Chi

“Simu Liu and Awkwafina set up a surprise wedding reception for us”

How an action designer and an actor fell in love on the set of Shang-Chi

In 2019, while filming Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Toronto-raised action designer Yung Lee fell in love with Chinese actor Meng’er Zhang, who plays Xu Xialing in the film. The two got married in May of 2021 in L.A., celebrating with cast members like Simu Liu and Awkwafina. Here’s how their romance evolved.

As told to Andrea Yu

Yung: I was born in Malaysia, and my family immigrated to Scarborough when I was two years old. After high school, I studied kinesiology at York University, then I got a job at an orthotics company. The work was unfulfilling. I had always been a creative person, and without the ability to express it, I felt a hole in my life. So I quit in 2009. At the time I was seeing all these people making videos on YouTube for a living, so I thought I’d try that. I’ve practised wushu, or Chinese martial arts, and MMA for most of my life. So I made fighting videos inspired by video games like Street Fighter and Dragon Ball Z and added sound effects and graphics. As I shot more fighting videos, I learned how to plan out action sequences. Then I started working with a Toronto-based martial arts and stunts group called Team2X. Through the group, I met Brad Allan, who was part of Jackie Chan’s stunt team. He became my mentor and together we worked on films like Solo: A Star Wars Story and the upcoming Kingsman: The Golden Circle. I’m an action designer, which means I work with the stunt team. An action designer collaborates with the director on his or her vision, planning, shooting, directing and editing rough versions of the action sequences with the stunt team until we get the scene to a place where the director is happy.

If we do our job right in pre-production, this will allow the director to be purely focused on the story and performance of his cast instead of logic flaws or technical issues of the fighting scenes. It takes roughly two weeks to plan out one scene. We use digital cameras and editing and visual effects software, and lean on the expertise of the stunt team.

Meng’er: I was born in Nanjing, China. My mom is an actor and my dad was a stage designer, so I was basically born in theatre. I studied theatre in Nanjing and got two master’s degrees—one in Nanjing and one in London. I joined the same theatre company that my parents used to work for in Nanjing, and I booked gigs in contemporary, classic and musical theatre. I was also part of a WeChat group of 500 Chinese and international theatre students, where we’d share audition calls. In mid-2019, I saw an audition call for a movie that needed a girl who could speak Chinese and English. I thought to myself, well, I could be that girl, so I sent in my self-tapes.

I had no idea I was auditioning for a Marvel film until they flew me to Sydney for a screen test. After doing a screen test with Simu Liu, I got the role of Shang-Chi’s sister, Xu Xialing. It was my first film. I was so excited, like I won the biggest prize in the world, but I couldn’t tell anyone about it. I just told myself, “Don’t mess it up.” We started training and pre-production in November of 2019, and that’s when I met Yung.

Yung: That fall, I went to Sydney with Brad Allan’s team to start work on Shang-Chi. As a Chinese-Canadian, I was so excited to work on Marvel’s first Asian superhero movie. It’s such an important film. Meng’er and I have totally different recollections of our first time meeting each other. The way I remember it, we bumped into each other in the lunchroom while we were heating up our meals. She was wearing Adidas shorts and a tank top and was leaning against the wall, holding onto a stuffed animal that she brought with her to training. I said, “What’s the little guy’s name?” And she said, “Sherbert.” I thought, this girl is cool, and sort of weird, and I like it.

Meng’er: In my memory, we didn’t talk to each other until a week later, when there was a Thanksgiving barbecue with the cast and crew on the lot. We sat across from each other, and he was the only one who talked to me. He told me about North American culture and Thanksgiving traditions. I’m introverted and English isn’t my first language, so I was still struggling to express myself. But Yung is easy to talk to, so I always felt comfortable around him.

Yung: We had a pretty tight squad with Simu and the crew at that point. I wanted to make Meng’er feel included, so I asked some questions about her life and her background. A few days later, the group organized a movie night to see Ford v. Ferrari. Meng’er and I were the only ones that showed up. Everyone else bailed, so it was just the two of us. We watched the movie, then we had dinner and got to know each other. It was still a friendly vibe at this point, though. It was technically a date but it didn’t feel like it.

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Meng’er: A week after that, the cast and crew went out together. We did an all-you-can-eat kobe-wagyu barbecue dinner, then we hung out at Simu’s place and played board games and video games.,I left my phone in an Uber on my way home. The next day, Yung helped me track down my phone. We knocked on over 20 doors in different apartment buildings trying to find it, based on the location of the phone-tracking app. It wasn’t until Yung played a detective and asked me to describe the Uber driver. He was a middle-aged Chinese man, Yung said then he must have several children because no middle-aged man would work so hard late at night unless he had children to feed. So we listened out for sounds of children playing at each door until we found one. Yung was right—it was the Uber driver’s home, and we got the phone back.

Yung: Our friendship really evolved after that day. We started hanging out after work every night. There was a cup-a-noodle vending machine in the basement of the serviced apartment building where we were all staying, so I’d grab some instant noodles and we’d eat and talk, sometimes staying up as late as 5 a.m. People in the crew started asking if anything was going on between us, but I said no. Because there wasn’t. We were just close friends.

Meng’er: Yung is really a good listener, and I don’t have to put in a lot of effort for him to understand what I’m trying to say. It feels so natural. I was very comfortable around him and knew I could trust him.

Yung: We talked a lot about movies and characters. Meng’er has a really creative way of describing things. One time, she was talking about Tony Leung, who plays the villain in Shang-Chi, and said his acting was deep like the ocean. It’s so vast. And even though on the surface that it may look very simple, there’s so much going on underneath. I thought it was such a beautiful insight into the world, the way she looks at things. I really fell hard for her at that point.

Meng’er: In early February of 2020, after we’d been hanging out together for a few months, Yung said to me, “I think I’m in love with a girl on our production.” I was like, “Whoa, that’s great! Don’t tell me. Let me guess.” So for two weeks, every day, I would come up with a name to ask him: “Is it her?" And he said no every time. I couldn’t guess who that girl was.

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Yung: After two weeks, on Valentine’s Day, I impulsively went and bought all the Japanese snacks at this store nearby because I know Meng’er loves Japanese snacks. The bill came to $1,000. There were so many snacks that I had to turn my bed sheet into a sack to carry them up the elevator to her room. I wasn’t thinking straight. I wasn’t thinking about rejection. I had no fear. I got to her room, and told her, “It’s you, dammit! The girl I’m in love with is you.”

Meng’er: It was totally a surprise. I felt happy. So many thoughts were going through my head. I liked him, for sure, but I didn’t know what would be next for us after the film wrapped. He’s from Toronto and I’m from China. How would we make it work? Soon I realized that I did like him. And if we both liked each other, then we could make it work. We could make a plan together. We decided that we would never separate, no matter what, because we didn’t want to do long distance.

Yung: There were three months of production left at that point. So we moved in together. It didn’t take any time to get adjusted to each other. Because we were best friends already, we knew each other so well. Then a couple weeks after that, Covid hit and production shut down. We were stuck together for another three months. It was pretty great.

Meng’er: We built Lego together, which is my hobby. We watched a lot of movies. Yung introduced me to video games and Star Wars. And he did a lot of cooking.

Yung: Despite the craziness in the world, we were lucky to have that time together.

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Meng’er: Production started up again in July of 2020. We also made our relationship public to the crew, but we promised to each other to be super-professional. No flirting, no messing around on set. Except for one time that I slapped Yung’s ass when we were setting up a scene.

Yung: After filming wrapped in September, we went to Singapore for four months. Because of Covid restrictions preventing foreigners from entering China and Canada, it was one of the only places near our homes where we could be together. Near the end of 2020, we woke up one morning and thought, we should get married. There was no proposal, no engagement—just love, because that’s all that matters. But we couldn’t get married in Singapore because we were foreigners. So we waited. Then, in May of 2021, we went to L.A. to wrap up shooting for Shang-Chi. So we decided to get married there with a small group of friends. May 10 was the earliest date we could get our marriage licence from L.A. County. We didn’t plan any of it. The day before, I picked up suspenders and a tie.

Meng’er: The morning of the wedding, I went to a shop near our hotel and picked out a white lace dress with short sleeves. I remember the lady said, “Oh, that’s a nice dress. What is it for?" And I said “It’s for my marriage.” She asked when the wedding was, and I said “Like, two hours from now.”

Yung: Our hotel let us use their rooftop for free. Five of our friends came out. One of them surprised us with a flower crown and a bouquet for Meng’er. We had no plans for after the wedding, but the crew set up a surprise reception for us, with a wedding cake and a photo booth. There were about 30 of us and the party went on for five or six hours. Simu and Awkwafina were there, as well as the actor Benedict Wong, our director, Destin Daniel Cretton, and producers and friends from the crew, wardrobe and stunt departments.

The next day, Simu wanted to surprise Meng’er with a trip to Disneyland to celebrate our wedding. She had no clue. She thought we were going on a morning hike and she didn’t want to get up. Eventually, we had this amazing Disneyland VIP experience. The day after that, Awkwafina held another reception for 10 of us. She booked out a karaoke venue and we sang our hearts out.

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Meng’er: I sang “Mamma Mia” and “If I Ain’t Got You” by Alicia Keys.

Yung: We did a few months of press tours, then I brought Meng’er back with me to Toronto in the fall. I wanted her to spend time with my family.

Meng’er: It’s my first time in Toronto. The air is so fresh and crispy, and everyone is so friendly, nice and chill. We went to the Distillery District recently and enjoyed the Christmas atmosphere. Yung introduced me to poutine, which I’ve never had before. I love it! And I love street meat too! It’s so satisfying to have a bite of hot dog in the cold.

Yung: We haven’t figured out where to settle yet. Toronto will be one of our bases for sure. I’m currently writing and developing a few films and shows right now. And Meng’er’s career has just started. The most important thing for me is to support her during this time. I’m her biggest fan. She’s gonna do incredible things.

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