It has been almost 50 years since the premiere of 1972’s western martial arts series Kung Fu, which starred white actor David Carradine yellowfacing as a mixed Asian Shaolin monk. Back then, that was the norm for Asian character roles. But now, Kung Fu is getting a complete reboot/retelling of the story and righting the wrongs that were made from the original. Developed by Greg Berlanti and Wendy Mericle, the new series centers around a Chinese American woman, Nicky Shen (Olivia Liang), who returns home to San Francisco, after spending three years at a Shaolin Monastery in China to escape the familial pressure to be successful and marry into a nice Chinese family. Her time at the Monastery is cut short when her mentor/teacher, Pei-Ling (Vanessa Kai) is murdered by a mysterious assassin. With nowhere else to turn to, Nicky returns home to face the family she abandoned and somehow find Pei-Ling’s killer.
Back at home in San Francisco, Nicky returns to a lot of changes to her family and community. Chinatown is being controlled by the triads and everyone is afraid to talk, including Nicky’s parents who owe a lot of money to the local loan shark. It doesn’t take long for Nicky, who uses her fighting skills, to stand up against the bullies that run that town.
With only the pilot accessible for press, it does pack a lot of information in one episode. It sets up the storylines for the rest of the season, which deals with individual character backstories and relationships. That doesn’t make it a bad thing. The pilot is actually really entertaining in terms of action and interpersonal relationships, leaving viewers anticipating for more.
With Asian-centered martial arts shows like Cinemax’s Warrior and AMC’s Into the Badlands showcasing martial arts, there is, unfortunately, an added pressure to live up to the intensity of those fight scenes. For Kung Fu, the fight choreography is really good, especially the techniques and types of Kung Fu presented — Wing Chun, Tai Chi, Shaolin Kung Fu, to name a few. But, the only problem were the slow-motion moments, which do allow the characters to present their skill and the details of the movement, and it isn’t necessary. The series sets Nicky up to be this skilled Kung Fu warrior and should just give the audience the quick-paced martial arts viewers have come to expect from martial arts-based shows.
Because the series centers on Liang’s character to be this Shaolin monk with kung fu skills, the focus is entirely on her. Liang, who does not have a background in martial arts, does a believable job in her form, and it’s quite stunning to watch. There was one instancein the episode when Liang was given a hero moment, which felt extremely empowering. The skills she learned for the role were quite impressive, which says a lot for the westernized Asian acting community, who have often been told they must already know martial arts.
In true CW fashion, the series adds a supernatural element to the story, which comes in the form of ancient Chinese legend surrounding a powerful sword. Although it is a bit tiresome to see Chinese folklore as a basis of a series, it is promising that the stories are written by Asian Americans and presented on the show by Chinese characters, like Henry (Eddie Liu) who is a proud (and handsome) Chinese American studying Ancient Chinese Art History. Unlike 1972’s Kung Fu, developed by white writers and centered white characters, showrunner Christina M. Kim and her writing staff consisting of Asian American writers are reclaiming the story and use of ancient Chinese history. This version of Kung Fu feels much more appropriate and appreciated.
The set dressing to reflect San Francisco’s iconic Chinatown was well done. With a show named Kung Fu, it is much appreciated to display the beauty of Chinatown. Oftentimes, movies and television shows present Chinatown as this dirty and unwelcomed place, but in this show, the viewers see what many Chinese American residents see in their own city — the beauty and personality of Chinatown. From the clothing to the tea to the herbal shops and even the community center, Chinatown is presented as a community that actually cares for each other. This is especially necessary during the current climate towards Asian Americans.
The show’s strongest points are the relationships between Nicky and her family. After three years apart, a lot has changed for each family member. There is so much to unpack between Nicky and her parents (Tzi Ma and Kheng Hua Tan), older sister Althea (Shannon Dang), and younger brother Ryan (Jon Prasida), but it’s interesting to watch because it is so relatable. Many Asian Americans watching the series could relate to the situations and nuances that the characters feel and go through. There is one point where Nicky confronts her mother about meddling in Nicky’s relationship with a white ex-boyfriend because her mother did not approve of their relationship. The mother goes as far to set Nicky up with a matchmaking service to find a nice Chinese boyfriend. It is all too real, which makes it so good.
Executive produced by Christina M. Kim, Martin Gero, Greg Berlanti, Sarah Schechter and Warner Bros. TV, Kung Fu stars Olivia Liang, Tzi Ma, Kheng Hua Tan, Tony Chung, Jon Prasida, Shannon Dang, Eddie Liu and Vanessa Kai. The series premieres Wednesday, April 7 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on The CW.