The CW's Kung Fu reboot shines not only as an action series, but for its handling of Asian-American representation

  • "Some television shows arrive just when they are needed, and the CW’s reboot of Kung Fu is one of them," says Jessica Mason of the Olivia Liang-led reboot. "The new series reimagines the 70s and 90s David Carradine-starring TV shows in a way that keeps the action and adventure elements but centers the story on an Asian protagonist. It’s a great new series that I really enjoyed, not just for the excellent action, but for the way it puts a loving and vibrant Asian family at the heart of the story....But representation is only part of what makes a series good—there has to be a compelling story and a great cast, and Kung Fu has both in abundance." Mason adds: "This is the right time for a series with a majority Asian cast who are never relegated to side plots or stereotypes. They are front and center as complex and compelling characters. I am really excited for everyone to fall in love with Liang and (Eddie) Liu in particular, not only because I think Liu is going to be many folks’ new internet crush, but because Henry is charming and fun, Nicky is strong and interestingly flawed, and both sparkle in the fight scenes...Kung Fu is both a really fun action show and also a family drama with a lot of heart about a kind of family we haven’t seen nearly enough of in television dramas. This must change, and Kung Fu is a great example of the way forward. The cast is beautiful and brilliant and the story is intriguing, and I’m really excited to see where it all goes."


    • Kung Fu feels like a missed opportunity -- that feels too much like Arrow: "In Arrow-esque fashion, you have a prodigal child coming back to her hometown after an unaccounted-for period of training/absence; discovering that said hometown isn't as she left it; and sticking around to clean things up and repair relations with her family," says Daniel Fienberg. "That's almost the opposite of the migratory, injustice-of-the-week premise of the original Kung Fu. The original show's hook was based on Kwai Chang Caine's wandering exoticism and this Kung Fu is anchored in stay-at-home normalizing (Evan's character could almost be named Token White Guy). Or at least I think it is. After just the pilot, it's strangely hard to tell how the show will actually function. There's a big mythology arc tied to Zhilan, the mythical sword and Nicky's desire to avenge her mentor, and I'm sure it will connect in some way to the unconvincing triad storyline in San Francisco. But man that triad storyline in San Francisco is completely of the 'Let's put a rogue triad as her hometown adversary and we'll swap it out if something better comes along' variety, only nobody swapped it out. The triad stuff is so generic that it almost drains the potency of the ripped-from-the-headlines assault on Nicky's father, the instigating event that makes Nicky want to clean up the streets. I would assume the show's creative team will find a way to work a patina of current events into storylines at some point, and I can imagine why they didn't want the key adversary in the first season to be 'burgeoning xenophobia in America.' But it feels like a slightly missed opportunity to plant a flag with the pilot, the only episode sent to critics."
    • Kung Fu is a sharp, thoughtful look at a Chinese-American family: "In the hands of showrunner Christina M. Kim, Kung Fu reframes the story to be about a young Chinese American woman, and foregrounds a cast of Asian American actors in place of the original series’ white male lead," says Caroline Framke. "The pilot of Kung Fu suggests a sincere interest in the story of a Chinese family in the U.S., with an amount of complexity and sophistication that one might not necessarily expect from a network action series." She adds: "At a moment when hate crimes against the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities are on the rise, the image of an empowered young woman fighting for what is right feels worthy and well-timed. Nicky will have you cheering her on; so too may TV fans root for Kung Fu’s success."
    • Kung Fu is strangely drawn to Asian-American stereotypes: "The pilot — the only episode available for review as of this writing — is a busy, busy thing that packs in a mess of cursory exposition, introductions, family business, romantic groundwork, an operation for a subdural hematoma and a game of ping-pong, at the expense of subtlety and character, while the Asian American setting — a groundbreaking opportunity in its way — feels strangely drawn to stereotypes. (Not unusual for an Arrowverse show, after all.)," says Robert Lloyd. "The episode hints too at the uncanny narrative to come, with attractive explanatory animations; based on the opening hour, and the obvious, almost arbitrary B-movie plotting of its ordinary criminal plotlines, one suspects the series will fare better the more mystical its mysteries become. And there’s the kung fu, of course. The actors called on to marshal martial arts appear, or are made to appear, with edits and camera swoops and slow motion, like they know what they’re doing. As American filmmakers have long since discovered — and often lose sight of in the dust of superheroic musclebound punch-ups — the balletic and gymnastic elements of martial arts lend grace and dignity to fight scenes. It’s almost a relief when they come along."
    • Like The CW's Walker, Kung Fu barely resembles the original show it's based on: "The latest batch of TV reboots haven't had much in common with the source beyond the name, and so it is with Kung Fu, which -- like the recent Walker -- CW-izes a familiar TV property in a mostly unrecognizable way," says Brian Lowry. "In this case, a modern-day female lead learns mad martial-arts skills, in an uninspired series whose action and key narrative device owe at least as much to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as its half-century-old namesake."
    • Kung Fu's pilot has some good and bad, with no hint of which direction it's headed: "The CW’s new take on Kung Fu has a lot to like: Olivia Liang is an enjoyable series lead and gets to flex her talents in a handful of great action sequences, while the show’s emphasis on family and community make it a more positive chaser to the deluge of dark and gritty action series that have popped up over the last few years," says Tyler Hersko. "That said, after the pilot episode it’s still not clear if the new series will lean on its strengths or fall back on clichéd plotting and clunky exposition." He adds: "The CW series makes little effort to subvert viewers’ expectations or otherwise add a wrinkle to traditional martial arts/coming-of-age stories, but there’s still fun to be had in the show’s action sequences and lighthearted and upbeat tone."
    • Kung Fu's timing makes it something more than a pleasant, entertaining action series: "The new Kung Fu takes place in modern day, and the reboot is different in feeling and energy," says Mick LaSalle. "It’s not somber, and though it’s an action drama, it has moments of comedy. It focuses on a Chinese American woman from San Francisco, Nicky (Olivia Liang), who goes to China for a brief visit but decides to stay, mainly to avoid going home to her difficult, domineering mother. Instead, she finds a substitute mother in the form of a kung fu mentor (Vanessa Kai), who teaches her how to become a martial arts master. The series runs 10 episodes, but only the pilot was shown to critics in advance. It’s a pilot that does what all good pilots do — it makes us want to see more."
    • Kung Fu creator showrunner Christina M. Kim wanted to create a show that is a dramatic departure from the original, starting with the protagonist: “I really, really wanted a kick-a**, strong female Asian lead,” she says. She also wanted to highlight the unique dynamics that exist within an intergenerational Chinese-American family. So she needed two key ingredients: a charming, athletic actress who could handle the emotional and physical demands of the lead role, and a revered Asian-American actor to lend credibility and gravity as the patriarch. After auditioning more than 150 actresses, Olivia Liang won the role. But Kim only had one name for the father: Tzi Ma.
    • Kim wanted to carry on thematic elements from the original series, but with an Asian cast: "It was very important to me that whoever we cast was Asian and that this role encompassed not just her, but (also) her family to give a full cast of characters that were Asian American,” she says. “Also, I wanted to flip genders. I thought it was time to have a really strong female Asian lead — a role model.”
    • Kheng Hua Tan wants to dispel the Asian "Tiger Mom" stereotype with her Kung Fu role: “I think that in the pilot, you’re going to see a very, very tiger mom-ish type of mother, which may be very relatable to everybody,” says Tan. “A mother who thinks she knows best for all her children. She does know what is best … for some of them, but not for all of them. And I think that the biggest gap that she has with regards to what she thinks is good for them and what is actually good for them is with Nikki. Throughout the series, and we are nearing the end of filming season one, you will see Nikki and her mother go through pretty amazing hurdles. For two people who start out so far apart from each other, they very quickly realize how similar they are to each other. And, and in my own experience. I’m very similar to my mum too, which is the reason why we’re so close and also the reason why there’s sometimes deep friction, because you can’t fight fire with fire. You certainly get that between Nicky and her mom.”
    • Tzi Ma, Hollywood's go-to Asian dad, wanted his Kung Fu role to be different -- "on the more American side” of Asian-American: "We’ve seen a lot of dads who had a lot baggage, that you’ve seen me play a lot. A lot of struggle,” he says. “So with this dad we really wanted some someone who is supportive. Someone who is understanding, someone who puts their family first. I wanted this kind of dad to be seen, because we have those dads out in our communities, and they don’t really get enough credit. I’d like to hold up the mirror to ourselves and say, Listen, you guys, this is for you. For all the dads out there who took their work as a dad as seriously as anything they’ve ever done in their lives."
    • Olivia Liang feels like a "badass" and "empowered" working on Kung Fu: “This show is my first real experience with martial arts, and I feel so privileged that I get to learn it for my job," she says. "Doing these beautifully choreographed fight sequences, it just really makes me feel strong, and it’s really translating into my personal life of just feeling a lot more powerful and a lot taller and stronger and bigger and just ready to take on the world.”
    • Liang saw herself in Kung Fu's Nicky: "When I first read the script, I was like, 'Okay, I totally see myself in Nicky. I am basically Nicky.' I think Nicky is all of us," Liang explains. "She's a girl who for the majority of her life was controlled by decisions that her mom made or wanted to make for her. She realized she's never made an independent decision, and then she kind of reaches a breaking point, runs away to a Shaolin Monastery to learn Kung Fu -- as one does."

    TOPICS: Kung Fu, The CW, Christina M. Kim, Kheng Hua Tan, Olivia Liang, Tzi Ma, Asian Americans and TV

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