Yvonne Chapman on Zhilan’s Hero Journey This Season on ‘Kung Fu’

With Kung Fu’s season finale approaching, we are slowly getting closer to the mystery of Xiao (Vanessa Kai) and what her plans are for the Guardian-Warrior bloodline. As Xiao grows stronger, she has taken over Pei-Ling’s body, which leaves Zhilan (Yvonne Chapman) at a loss. 

“For Zhilan, her main focus and purpose right now is to save Pei-Ling,” Chapman told The Nerds of Color on Tuesday. “That’s all she can think about.”

Fortunately, Pei-Ling is still in there fighting to hold on. Zhilan and Nicky (Olivia Liang) must come up with a way to stop Xiao and somehow bring Pei-Ling back. But, will bringing back Pei-Ling fix it all for the former villain? It seems like we’re seeing a new side of Zhilan – one that doesn’t kill and is willing to work with Nicky and the Shooby. But Chapman says the endgame goal is to save Pei-Ling, even if it means working with her frienemy, Nicky. 

“I think for [Zhilan], saving her sister is a way of redeeming herself because she still hasn’t forgiven herself for everything she’s done in the past,” says Chapman. 

The Nerds of Color got to chat with Chapman about Zhilan’s journey this season, what her relationship is now with Nicky and the rest of the Shooby gang, and if she considers Zhilan a villain or the hero. 

The Nerds of Color: Zhilan has been through a lot of trials and tribulations. Does she now know what her purpose is?

Yvonne Chapman: In season 1 and 2, Zhilan has a very focused – very obsessive – mindset and [saving her sister] is what she’s focused and obsessed with right now. She really can’t think of anything else. Zhilan tends to have tunnel vision and when she gets her mind set on something, that is all she can see. All she can hope for right now is to save Pei-Ling. That’s where all her energy and focus is. I don’t know if she’s really thought about what happens after. [The tension] between her and her sister was resolved when they got to talk to each other. However, everything else that she’s done, she’s still reckoning with it. But, at this moment, her focus is to save Pei-Ling. 

Even with saving Pei-Ling, is Zhilan really ready to move forward with her life?

I think that really scared her. I don’t think she knows what that looks like yet. I don’t think she understands what moving forward looks like for her and her life. For her, she’s like, “okay, this is what I have to do right now.” It’s such a daunting task because they don’t know where [Pei-Ling] is. They don’t know what Xiao’s plan is and what Xiao intends to do with Pei-Ling. So for Zhilan, it’s one thing at a time. [She’s] not going to focus on herself and what her life is gonna look like after this. I don’t even know if she has the capacity for it right now. I think she right now she just wants to save Pei-Ling. 

I’ve mentioned this many times with the cast regarding their characters because each has gone through so much. Zhilan has gone through even more. And, as Asian people, we don’t really talk about it. We never talk about our mental health. Zhilan has been through so much – losing so many people in her life and her sister TWICE. How is she holding up?

The way that she holds up is taking attention away from it, which is not healthy. She likes to focus on something else that takes away the focus from the demons that she really has to contend with. She really does need to deal with all of that because I think she’s been skirting the issue and putting the attention on other things so that she doesn’t have to face them herself quite yet. I don’t think she’s done that introspective reflection to really understand what her life looks like outside of saving Pei-Ling. I don’t think that she has been in a space yet to be able to contend with that. So you’re absolutely right. Mental health is such an important thing that isn’t really spoken about – and she’s an example of that. What we need to see from her is, hopefully down the line is okay, what does she do in order to be healthy again.

lKung Fu — “The Scepter” — Pictured (L – R): Olivia Liang as Nicky Shen and Yvonne Chapman as Zhilan Zhang — Photo: The CW — © 2023 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

What’s her relationship with Nicky now? I know there is mutual respect but is there anything else?

It’s a very complicated relationship. Unlike the conversation that Zhilan had with Pei-Ling where they actually got to sit down and [talk about what they did wrong]. Zhilan and Nicky never really did. But, again, the whole contention began with Pei-Ling. It’s one of those situations where if me and Pei-Ling are good, then me and Nicky are good. Both of us have that common interest in saving her. We have become unlikely allies in this pursuit of saving Pei-Ling and with respect and understanding of each other about what happened in the past. Now we’ve got to move forward because this is what we’re dealing with now – an adopted relationship. There’s more to explore there of what that is going to end up being. Zhilan is very much on the path of trying to save rather than destroy now. She’s trying to still figure out what that looks like for her through Nicky. Nicky has taught her a lot in that respect. It’s still a relationship that is complicated. It’s still being figured out as we go episode by episode. They get into situations together and have to contend with each other and tend to deal with it. 

Zhilan is starting to really get to know the Shooby gang. Do you feel like she is part of the Shooby gang or is just a lurker for now until she finds her sister?

She’s starting to feel a lot more like she’s a part of it rather than lurker, especially now that they’ve invited her into her home. Actually seeing that visual and being there physically says a lot because a home is something that’s sacred. When you invite somebody into your home, you’re really inviting them into your life. It’s a personal space. For her to be allowed in there with everybody else and being trusted to be there says it all. She feels that she’s not part of the gang. It’s still a weird feeling for her because she’s been by herself doing it all by herself. She still goes into her bad habits of doing that. We saw when she left in episode 9. She was just going to try to do this on her own – research on her own, but then she comes back to the Shen family household [wanting to work together with them again]. She’s realizing the value of having people to rely on and to work with. The Shooby gang represents the community that she’s never had.

Speaking of Shooby gang, Zhilan and Henry (Eddie Liu) have hilarious exchanges and moments this season. I’m sensing chemistry between the two – or are we still holding on to the theory that “he’s her son”.

[laughs] Oh God! [That theory] has to die. They are the same [age]. Let’s not do that! That was one of the most hilarious takes any of us have ever heard. It was all in good humor. We think it’s so funny. But, in terms of their dynamic, I have a great time working with Eddie and doing that kind of banter because that presented that unique opportunity. These are two characters that can go there and take the mickey out of each other and still reluctantly have to work together. I think they secretly don’t mind. That’s where you’re seeing that chemistry because they see the value of each other’s perspective. She makes fun of him for being a research guy but she’s impressed by how much he’s been able to unearth that she couldn’t. It’s just her stubbornness that she can’t [praise his work]. You’re going to see more of that dynamic play out. That’s the chemistry you’re sensing. It’s a good work team like a buddy cop system. 

I know a lot of people are nervous that the series is trying to ship them together. Is this something that we should be concerned about?

No. Zhilan is Team Hicky. You will see snippets of it later on. She’s understanding of the dynamic of the two of them. She’s there to not interfere with that. She’s there to work with them to save Pei-Ling. That’s the chemistry you’re seeing with them. She’s understanding the value of all of them. Collectively, we can make this happen. We could save my sister. I think it’s in that gratefulness that Zhilan can’t just say ‘this is great. I appreciate everything.’ She still has that bit of animosity because she was a lone wolf. She’s coming in and is still a bit awkward. But the chemistry that you’re seeing is just her [and Henry] being a really good work team. Zhilan is Team Hicky. 

Kung Fu — “Alias” — Pictured: Yvonne Chapman as Zhilan Zhang — Photo: Justine Yeung/The CW — © 2023 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

We have to talk about Mia. Last time Zhilan saw Mia was when Zhilan served as Mia’s mentor in the vengeance against Russell Tan and then Zhilan sacrificed herself to save her and Nicky. What’s going on with them now? How is Zhilan feeling about Mia?

Zhilan feels guilty for setting Mia on a path of vengeance. She saw so much of herself in Mia and thought she would take on the role of a mentor for her. They were both going after the same thing – so why not pursue it together? She sees so much of herself in this young woman. Zhilan understands perfectly why [Mia would] want to kill Russell Tan. So let me guide you in this because Zhilan knew the power that Mia had as well. And, helping Mia would also bring Zhilan to what her ultimate goal was as well. So having seen all that play out though, especially at the end of season 2, that’s why Zhilan sacrificed herself because she felt like it was her fault. Mia could have what Zhilan wanted to have – a family around her – so let me do this for both Mia and Nicky. For Mia coming back into the season, Zhilan feels a lot of remorse and regret of what path she led Mia on. We’ll see an interaction and how it plays out.

What I like about Zhilan is that she’s not necessarily a villain in my eyes. She’s did the things she did as a means to an end. I imagine her more of an anti-hero like the Punisher and Black Adam. Killing is necessary to get the job done. As we’ve seen, Zhilan has stopped killing people. Is this only because she’s working with Nicky now or are we going to see this antihero killing machine return because it’s a necessary means to an end. 

I don’t think she’s holding back because of Nicky. She’s holding back because she wants to be on a new path. She’s really trying not to revert back to who she was in the past because that hasn’t served her. She wants to have a life that isn’t filled with anger, vengeance, and death. She’s seen so much death in her life and for a very, very long time. She justified those killings as a means to an end to get certain results but she never got that result. Season 1 saw her going to prison in the end. In season 2, it didn’t work out for her as well. She still had that mindset. Why would she go back to that? But there are moments we saw, even in episode 10, she’s holding the gun to one of the guards and it would have been so easy to just pull that trigger, but she stopped herself because that was the old her. She has to do something different now. Right now, she’s really trying to be different. I don’t really know if it’s necessarily because of Nicky, but I think Nicky did show her that there’s a different way of doing things. 

Okay… last one. Where does Zhilan get her money? She just went online and bought a last minute ticket to China. Do you know how expensive those are?

TBD.  That would be a fun thing to explore and to show. Hopefully call someone or knock on wood if we get a season 4. I don’t want to spoil anything.

Kung Fu airs on Wednesdays on The CW.